Officials remain bullish about future East Providence waterfront district redevelopment
Tangible progress has been made, more will soon be seen
EAST PROVIDENCE — For the first time in a while, the full council was privy to an updated overview of the progress made on and future plans for the city’s shoreline by representatives of the East Providence Waterfront Commission and Planning Department.
Acting Commission Chairman Bill Fazioli and Planning Executive Director Jeanne Boyle led the approximately 45-minute look at the waterfront district, highlighting was has been done since the board was seated back in 2003 and was lay ahead in the near term.
The area, roughly 300 acres in size, has been developed in, at times, fits and starts, due in large part to outside economic forces, Mr. Fazioli explained. The most significant factor in the progress, or lack thereof, was the “Great Recession” of 2008. It has only been in the last 18 to 24 months, that developers and lending institutions have become more aggressive in their approaches to projects befitting of the area.
Mr. Fazioli, who has been the acting chairman since 2009 and who was appointed to Commission originally while serving as the city manager, spoke mostly of the inner workings of the body, which includes eight other active members. Ms. Boyle serves the Commission as the conduit to the Planning Department.
The Commission, created by so-called “Special Enabling Legislation” in the General Assembly, doesn’t get any monies directly from the city, Mr. Fazioli noted.
“Just to point out, the Commission receives no funding from the city. It’s funding is largely from grants, development fees and we do have some rental income,” he explained.
The Commission serves as both an advisory and authoritative role. Its initial aim, Mr. Fazioli said, was to help guide and assist existing land owners redevelop their parcels both directly on the waterfront and at adjacent locations.
“The city had substantial underutilized property that was either industrial or manufacturing,” he continued. “You had the old (oil and gas) tank farms along the (Veterans Memorial) parkway that had mothballed for a number of years.”
Mr. Fazioli continued, “We don’t own any of the property. The city doesn’t own the property. It’s all privately owned. We’re here to provide incentive for people to invest in their property, put a lot of time and effort into their property so they can move it forward. We want to expand our tax base, our job market, and I think we’ve done that.”
To date, Mr. Fazioli, expressing strong confidence in the figures, said waterfront district redevelopment has helped create over 500 permanent jobs and over $200 million has been invested in commercial, industrial and residential spaces. It has generated over $8 million in recurring tax revenues for the city in addition to over $1 million in one-time payments it has received.
Among the completed projects are the Ross Commons residential park, the Tockwotton elder residence, Aspen Aerogels and the Eaton Corporation. Next online is expected to the Kettle Point mixed-use project, including a 90,000 square foot headquarters for University Orthopedics. The new outdoor concert venue at Bold Point Park is also set to open this summer.
As an offshoot of the Commission’s efforts, Mr. Fazioli noted an impressive amount of the infrastructure needed for the area has been paid for privately or through Federal funding. He also said the stressed the permitting process has been “streamlined,” calling the now usual 45-day span “remarkable” in its scope. He termed the brevity of the process, a “big incentive” for developers.
Ms. Boyle previewed what is potentially in the offing for the waterfront district, including likely more mixed-use projects.
Returning to the Bold Point concert venue, Ms. Boyle said it could be the “catalyst” to how developers view the area. She specifically mentioned the Chevron-backed Village on the Waterfront across from Metacomet Country Club off Vets Parkway. Ms. Boyle said the focus of the project, originally planned to be mostly residential in nature, may be altered to be more hospitality driven because of the amphitheater.
East Pointe, Geonova or the old Washburn Wire plant off Roger Williams Avenue could soon see some progress, Ms. Boyle said. Noting “it’s the one property the city does own,” the site was embroiled for many years in court proceedings and is now in the hands of an overseer. Again, the Great Recession also played a role in the property’s problems, though Ms. Boyle said she was “encouraged” development at East Pointe, which was supposed to be the first complete over a decade ago, might finally happen there in the short term.
Though not directly “inside” the waterfront zone, a mixed-development proposal at Ivy Street off Taunton Avenue across from City Hall has received preliminary approvals. The plan is to construct 14 “affordable condominiums and create 2,000 SF of office and retail space with the goal of attracting “millenials” to the city,” said Ms. Boyle, who added construction could begin in 2018.
“It’s sat vacant for 10 years, and we really think this is going to be critical in revitalizing ‘downtown’ East Providence,” Ms. Boyle said.
The former Fram engineering property off Pawtucket Avenue at the city’s border with Pawtucket is another property “languishing for many years” that could soon be rejuvenated, according to Ms. Boyle. The proposed developers of the location, with an eye towards building 100 apartment units, recently reached an agreement to pay back-taxes on the property owed to the city, likely meaning their plans should start moving forward in the coming months.
The building also holds historical significance because it is one of the few remaining examples in the state of the “International” design style most often associated with noted architect Walter Gropius, Ms. Boyle said.
The Odd Fellows Home on Warren Avenue, likewise, remains under strong consideration for redevelopment, especially due to the structure’s historical nature and because it sits at a “critical location” in Watchmoket Square, Ms. Boyle noted. A developer has approached the city about the building with the possibility of converting it into retail and office space. Details of the proposal could be made public soon.
In her closing remarks, Ms. Boyle called the city’s waterfront a “state-wide priority,” reasserting the fact no other municipality in Rhode Island, or in the Northeast for that matter, has the amount of shoreline property available to develop as does East Providence. She urged patience in the process, reminding of the past woes incurred in the financial sector, and asked for the continued support of elected officials and residents.
As shown in the tenor of their remarks, it’s fair to decipher Ms. Boyle and Mr. Fazioli remain bullish on the future of the city’s waterfront district.
“We’re probably talking, at full build, close to $2 billion worth of new development and about 2,000 jobs if we get to full build. So this is something that has an impact on the entire State of Rhode Island, not just East Providence,” Ms. Boyle said.