A redevelopment plan hailed by the city as the future of a 250-acre corridor along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence has run into a buzz saw of opposition from some property owners who see it as a stealth attempt to grab their land - despite assurances from the planning director it is not. This week: Jim Hummel discovers the city’s year-long public outreach program to develop the proposal didn’t quite reach a vocal group of stakeholders.
Click here to see the Woonasquatucket Corridor Redevelopment and Tax Increment Financing Plan.
Click here to see the town ordinance.
One by one they came up to the microphone in the council chambers at Providence City Hall - ready to unload.
The target of their concern - and at times anger: a proposed redevelopment plan across several neighborhoods of the city stretching from the Providence Place Mall to Olneyville, along the Woonasquatucket River.
What caught their attention: the words eminent domain included in the proposed ordinance - and the buzz among many businesses was the city had plans to start taking blighted areas and transform them into something else.
Their message was clear: one person’s blight may be another’s business.
But mostly they were upset that they knew little or nothing about a plan which would affect nearly 250 acres - despite what the city’s planning director called a robust public process over the past year - and would cost taxpayers upward of $55 million over the next several decades.
The proposal grew out of a $200,000 vision plan funded by the federal government in 2017.
Oscar Lemus was one of the 50 people who attended the hearing, giving the council members there an earful.
Lemus: “The concern was that they’re going to pass this thing through and basically pull us out of there and say you’re no longer needed in this area, your taxes are no longer needed…We’ll do what we want in this area.”
Lemus and his twin brother Carlos bought this one-acre parcel on Valley Street in 1996 and worked for four years to turn it into a successful auto repair shop, building a steady clientele over the past two decades. And they pay the city more than $11,000 in taxes annually.
Lemus: “They call it blight but we call it an industrial area. They may call it a ghetto but it’s not the definition of an industrial area. They want to make it mixed use, residential they want to have people walking, bicycling the street. But it wasn’t designed for that, it was designed to conduct business.”
He is particularly proud that he did it on his own, with no financial help from the city - unlike the Rising Sun Mills project adjacent to his business, which has relied on an extended tax stabilization agreement with the city to make it work.
Lemus: “It took us 4 ½ years to take care of this property, our own work. Things that we couldn’t do we had a subcontractor do, the plumbing and electrical - but everything passed code, there is no tax stabilization, no tax breaks, there’s no money pulled out from any place in the city. We don’t owe anybody anything.”
City Planner Bonnie Nickerson assured those at the hearing there were no plans for eminent domain but was clearly on the defensive most of the night about a plan she said hundreds of people, including artists and those in community groups had enthusiastically supported.
Nickerson: “This is one of the most robust public processes that we’ve ever done.”
In a wide-ranging interview last week with The Hummel Report, Nickerson stressed that the plan addresses public investments in public spaces only - especially enhancement along the Woonasquatucket River that begins at the Providence Place Mall and winds its way through multiple neighborhoods before reaching the North Providence line.
Nickerson: “You wouldn’t really think of the river as being an asset. You know it’s there, but you can’t really walk by it. You can’t really sit on a bench and enjoy the river as an amenity that’s there.”
There have already been some improvements. At Donigan Park off Valley Street, there is a bike path and walk way that includes a pedestrian bridge over the river and waterfall just north of Olneyville Square.
But in other places, the river is largely hidden. It’s a foot or two in depth up near the mall, but reduced to a trickle in other areas. Nickerson said one possibility would be to open up more access to the river along Kinsley Avenue and potentially eliminate vehicular traffic.
Nickerson: “We’re not proposing any changes to zoning, we’re not proposing any changes to land use, what we’re trying to do is really grow and enhance what we already have there.”
She sees the Woonasquatucket River corridor as a hub for entrepreneurs, artists, food-based manufacturing and industrial arts.
Hummel: “You get to that meeting a week ago Tuesday, what was going through your head? As person after person after person, did that take you by surprise?”
Nickerson: “A little bit, it did take me a little bit by surprise, but it also just reminds me that we can always do better about getting the word out, always do more about how to communicate what we’re doing.”
There have been pockets of development over the last decade including the American Locomotive Works office park, the U.S. Rubber Lofts and the Waterfire Arts Center all along Valley Street. But there are many vacant and dilapidated mills buildings like these near Eagle Square. Along Harris Avenue it’s hard to tell sometimes which buildings are abandoned and which are still functioning.
Nickerson: “There’s all this private investment happening, but the public realm, the public streets, the public space is really lagging behind. And so how can the city make an investment in this district to kind of bolster up what’s already happening, which is that private energy and private investment.”
Vincent Mesolella and Michael Caparco are two businessmen who had particularly sharp words at the public hearing on July 10th about the plan.
Mesolella, a former state representative and the current chairman of the Narragansett Bay Commission, said he bought the old Traffic Court building on Harris Avenue and has used his own money to demolish it and remediate contamination, with plans to build a storage facility.
Mesolella: “If this plan goes forward it’s going to have many, many unpopular and unintended consequences on the private investment in the city of Providence.”
Caparco, one of the owners of Capco Steel, said part of the plan calls for turning this paper street into a pedestrian crosswalk over the Woonasquatucket River between Harris and Kinsley Avenues. Capco stores tons of steel on flatbed trailers and would have to move them.
Caparco: “You have no idea what goes on in the neighborhood. You have no idea how hard it is to run a business.”
After a council subcommittee delayed voting on the redevelopment plan because of the uprorar, , Caparco agreed to host a followup meeting at Capco this week.
It didn’t got much better, as many said the city could find them when they were sending a tax bill but didn’t bother to send a letter letting them know about a large-scale redevelopment proposal.
During her interview with us Nickerson stressed that the city will not borrow to fund the improvements: rather they will come from increased property taxes expected as the area expands its tax base with new private development.
Nickerson: “Instead of putting these improvements on a credit card, basically, we’ll make the improvements as the (revenue) accumulates enough to make the improvements. We just feel that in a sort of uncertain time we don’t want to bank on the fact that real estate values and assessments are going to continue to grow at a particular rate and be bound to that because you have a bond to pay back.
Hummel: “It’s a pay as you go.”
Nickerson: “It’s a pay as you go.”
Hummel: “So if you don’t have the money coming in, that improvement of whatever those dozen things you have listed, needs to be put off. Or can’t be done right now unless you find some other revenue stream.”
Nickerson: “We need to prioritize that.”
Lemus said the city’s outreach was misdirected.
Lemus: “The intentions are great, they want to see improvements in the community, but they never asked the stakeholders. They always do it with the artists with people - maybe they bus in for a meeting maybe. The least they can do is send them a letter, notify them hey we’re going to do this and this is your neighborhood, it might affect your taxes.”
Hummel: “If you could write the plan, what would you do?”
Lemus: “I will tell them just to control the river, dredge the river if they want to dredge the river, if they want to improve the neighborhood sidewalks, fine. But don’t displace the businesses that are already there.”
Nickerson: “When you have a redevelopment plan and it sounds like a legal document, and I understand why people wanted to know more information: what does this mean for my property, what does this mean for my business? And so really the goal is to be really clear about what our intentions are.”
Nickerson told those gathered at Capco on Tuesday the Planning Department will continue to meet with stakeholders and make necessary changes to the plan. But Councilwoman Sabina Matos, who represents much of the planned redevelopment area - said proposal is going nowhere until those concerns are addressed.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.