Competing visions for the waterfront
CHANGE IS COMING The I-195: relocation will make available 20 acres, but whether the land is
privately developed or devoted to the public remains subject to debate.
A fierce philosophical ally for the City of Providence on this front has emerged in the form of historian, lawyer, and developer Patrick T. Conley who envisions his Providence Piers, a former warehouse situated among industrial businesses on Allens Avenue, as part of a $300 million hotel and condominium project.
As the Providence Journal’s Peter Lord recounted in a September 23 story, Conley, who became controversial while buying thousands of Providence tax titles in the ’80s and ’90s, acknowledged that he completed much of the initial phase of an environmental cleanup on his site without seeking the necessary city, state, and federal permits.
Yet Conley couldn’t be slighted for a lack of ambition. In contrast to the businesses that have banded together under the name of the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance (providenceworkingwaterfront.org), Conley, in an op-ed in Monday’s ProJo dubbed the area the “wilting waterfront,” and he laid out his alternate vision.
As part of an array of waterfront uses radiating away from downtown, including a planned museum of Rhode Island’s ethnic and immigration history, Conley suggested incorporating a modern cruise ship terminal; a ferry service to other bay-front communities, Newport, and offshore islands; a river walk to downtown; a light rail line extending through the area, from the central city, to T.F. Green Airport; small public parks; waterfront access for local residents; a festival field for concerts, fairs, exhibitions, and other public gatherings; an extended-stay hotel to serve the hospitals, the colleges, and the cruise ship industry; an artists’ colony with a public gallery; a recreational marina containing a floating restaurant; and a vibrant residential community served by local retail establishments.
Bringing this panoply of uses about would require, at minimum, a costly environmental remediation of the industrial uses that have long taken place in the area. It would also have to overcome opposition from many of the existing businesses along Allens Avenue. Among other uses, the stretch is home a string of adult entertainment venues.
Joel Cohen, the chairman of the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance, and the vice president of Promet Marine Services, characterizes City Hall’s desire to rezone the area for mixed-use as a short-sighted economic move.
As Cohen put it in a September 16 op-ed in the ProJo, which has editorialized in support of preserving the existing businesses, “While condos, hotels, and marinas may increase the city’s property-tax revenues, they would come at the expense of existing successful taxpaying businesses, good blue-collar jobs, and a regional economic resource that would never be rebuilt. The cost to the region could be immense, as thousands of port-related jobs could be lost and heating and other energy costs would increase because of the expense of transporting these resources from other ports.”
The Working Waterfront group says this waterfront is the main source of heating oil for Rhode Island, southeast Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts, and as the point through which moves more than nine million tons of cargo each year, it has millions of dollars in total economic impact. Pointing to the benefit from hundreds of good-paying jobs, and thousands of related jobs, the group says there are no relocation alternatives for Providence’s deepwater port-dependent facilities.
While Deller says the city isn’t asking water-dependent businesses to leave the area, Cohen, not unreasonably, believes that an influx of residents would bring complaints about noise and other issues — much as has happened with downtown’s transition into a residential neighborhood. (In a nod to this concern, Deller says he supports including in the Comprehensive Plan language that would limit the ability of new residents in the envisioned mixed-use area to leverage complaints about noise and other reasonably predictable gripes.)
Having organized and hired a local PR outfit, the Working Waterfront Alliance has attracted some sympathy among the City Council, which this week backed the inclusion in the city’s Comprehensive Plan of some short-term protections for the industrial businesses.
Yet Cohen isn’t relieved. Citing an expectation that the administration at City Hall will pursue its desire to rezone the area, paving the way for mixed uses, he says, “I would say that we’re very, very concerned, still. We’re not confident that they they’re going to move in the right direction.”
I-195 relocation: what now?
Most cities would kill for the opportunity presented by a windfall of 20 developable acres amid a heavily built nearby environment.
This is exactly the chance represented by the relocation of I-195 south of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, yet there remains a sharp philosophical divide between the wait-and-see approach backed by the city, on one hand, and the advocates who favor maximizing public access and use of the emerging waterfront area between downtown and Fox Point.
David P. Riley, co-chairman of the Friends of India Point Park, has been the most outspoken advocate for designating the newly available land at the head of Narragansett Bay for public use. In making his push, he regularly cites reasons that are geographic (“It’s the city’s natural gateway and scenic public gathering place”); economic (“attractive public space increases the area’s tax base and draws people”); and demographic (“Providence is densely populated, growing fast, and ranks low in parks/resident”).
In previous City of Providence proposals, high-rise condos have been envisioned for the most dramatic waterfront promontory in the area. In fighting against this, Riley noted how a 1994 rewrite of the city’s Comprehensive Plan “calls for rezoning Fox’s Point as public space and expanding India Point Park to the Providence River. The Plan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of protecting the natural resource of the waterfront, enhancing its public space, preserving its water views, and keeping waterfront buildings low in scale.”
Deller, the city’s Planning director, says advocates like Riley want the city to designate privately owned land as open space — something, he says, that could potentially put the city on the hook for $7.2 million. He says the city’s current planning process cites the goal of maintaining continuous public access to the water, and that state and other regulations will offer leverage in negotiating for this access with private developers.
While the chance to hawk waterfront views could be attractive to private developers, institutions like Brown University and Johnson & Wales have pursued a growing footprint in the nearby Jewelry District in recent years, so they might conceivably be in the mix.
The state Department of Transportation owns most of the land being freed by the I-195 relocation, Deller says, and it will put the parcels out to bid as that process continues, leading to the scheduled completion of the highway in 2012.
While the debate over the land being made available by the I-195 relocation has generated less attention thus far than the one over the working waterfront, both seem bound to generate a lot more heat in the months and years to come.
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