195 Commission Chair Defends Lack of Progress on Jobs, Construction

Monday, December 12, 2016


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A rendering of a portion of the Wexford proposal, which is still going through the channels with the 195 Commission and the state.

Five years after the creation of the 195 Commission, jobs and construction have been limited to nonprofit Johnson and Wales’ new science building so far, the first and only project completed to date on the former interstate highway land.

Current commission Chair Joe Azrack, however, is defending the speed of development, and future prospects for the more than 26 acres of land in Providence.

“Whether it’s Providence or Boston, or really any metropolitan area when you’re talking about urban redevelopment of large scale - and 27 acres is a large scale redevelopment - it’s complicated," said Azrack. "It takes a long time to do everything from various legislative steps that have to happen at state or city level, to clearing the site to putting utilities and infrastructure in and then getting interest."

“So it’s frustrating I think, on a personal level - not for me, but people who are observing this,” said Azrack. “But the nature of the work that’s being done, and you can look around — the Seaport, which took ten years to get going up in Boston, it took a while.”

Five Years Later

In 2010, Providence Mayoral candidates were offering their plans for the 195 land. Neighbors opposed the creation of a state-appointed 195 Commission in the summer of 2011, and the Rhode Island Senate confirmed the first set of commissioners that fall.

A year and a half later in April 2013, preparation work began when the RI-DOT transferred the land to the Commission. In January 2014, GoLocal asked, “Is Rhode Island Squandering Its Opportunity to Redevelop I-195?” Governor Gina Raimondo appointed new commissioners upon taking office in 2015 and the battle over whether the PawSox were going to move to 195 land dominated the summer of 2015.

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Joe Azrack

Fast forward to 2016 - the Commission has purchase and sales agreements for the proposed Waldorf project on Parcel 30, the Wexford Science and Technology and CV Properties on Parcels 22 and 25, and Richard Baccari’s Royal Oaks. 

“Empty spaces along both sides of the river, waiting for development, make this important area look like the detritus of thoughtless Urban Renewal,” quipped GoLocal architectural critic Will Morgan last month, however. 

“Executing on the projects we’ve talking about clearly is a high priority,” said Azrack. “We want to see bridge completed in next year or so, and have these projects that we talked about being being well underway, and to get the park construction and the like — and I think we’ll see in the course of the next 12-18 months, we’ll see additional proposals that move to the P&S agreement stage on both the east and west side.”

On Monday, the Commission is set to consider presentations by Waldorf and Wexford — as well as an “informational presentation” by Cambridge Innovation Center, which dubs itself as having “more startups than anywhere on the planet.”

New Prospects

Azrack spoke to the proposal by New York Development Jason Fane, which had originally been three towers on the west side of the parcel, which Fane switched last week to just one tower for “phase one."

“I think that from the city’s point of view, and an urban design point of view, I think its important to listen to community groups and what residents and businesses have to say about things,” said Fane. “The commission has its own process. We have our urban design consultants taking a look at the project in terms of what the impact would be — plus or minus — on abutting uses, and over the long term development of the area and what will have the greatest positive impact for the city, and the jewelry district.”

“We’re in the process of doing an economic feasibility analysis. Nobody wants to green light a project that is not economically feasible - cause that doesn’t really get you anywhere,” said Azrack. “I think that [report’s] weeks not months to go through the process. Whether we’ll have completed that by end of year is depending on how quickly our consultants get the work product to us and we digest that. But again, it's weeks not months.” 

“It’s a large scale development, and not just for Providence. If this project were proposed with 1000 units, 300 parking spaces plus retail and commercial in Boston or even in New York - it would still be a large scale project,” said Azrack.  “We have to look at it seriously and we have to look at its impact on the city from an economic and land use and community point of view.”


Related Slideshow: Reactions to Fane’s “One Tower” Proposal on 195 - December 9, 2016

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Joseph Paolino

Former Mayor of Providence 

"If the developer thinks the market is there, and the state doesn't have to subsidize it - if someone wants to come in and spend hundreds of millions of their own money, we should try and make it easier, not more difficult. Yes, they’d be getting a tax stabilization but remember that property isn't paying taxes now -- highways have never paid property taxes.

As for people opposed to it, as my dad used to tell me, that's why Howard Johnson has 28 flavors -- everyone has their opinion on what's attractive or not attractive, what’s an addition to the skyline, or a detraction. But again, if someone wants to spend hundreds of millions and employ people and create housing and add an attractive element to the city, we should be embracing it."

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Travis Escobar

Project Manager, Public Policy at United Way of Rhode Island, founding member of the Millennial Professional Group of Rhode Island

“I’ve heard from young professionals who have left the state, citing our lack of development and opportunity as reasons why. If we want to tackle our brain-drain, young professionals and recent graduates need more opportunities to work and thrive.

While it's encouraging to see out-of-state developers wanting to invest in our state, any proposal should be given thoughtful review to truly understand how it can help our business community."

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Dan Baudouin

Executive Director, The Providence Foundation

"We certainly welcome outside investor and capital interest in downtown and growing the downtown residential community is one of our goals because of the many benefits that it brings.

However, this proposal is quite a departure from the plans that many have been developed for this area and thus requires  analysis, study and discussion. At this point, the Providence Foundation does not have sufficient information nor has had the time to discuss the project."

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Sharon Steele

Jewelry District Association Vice-President

“We need ‘live, work, and play’ -  in scale. We have 95 Chestnut with 60 plus units, Plot 30 with same developer with 90 units, so together that’s 150 units. Then we’ll have the two seven story towers, ‘River House', after South Street landing is completed, next to Davol Square. Then we’ll have 44 Hospital Street.

These are all the right scale, appropriate to the district, all ready to go — what we need is business, lab space, bio tech, start-ups - so that we have people who then need to live there.”


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