Why now, and will it work?
Those were the only real questions Monday night as the City Council considered the Warwick Station Redevelopment Agency and its power of condemnation and gave unanimous first passage to a master plan for the 95-acre intermodal district directed at creating a pedestrian-friendly city center of office, hotel, retail and residential uses.
As for why the city should act now, the results of the past 12 years spoke loudly.
Little has happened since the redevelopment agency was established and Bullfinch Companies of Needham, Mass., was awarded the contract to amass properties and promote development within the strip in front of the airport terminal and bounded by Post Road and Jefferson Boulevard.
Attorney John Revens, who has represented a number of area property owners, said Bullfinch sought to tie up properties with options and offers that made it impossible for businesses to relocate without losing money. Even as plans progressed for the $267 million Interlink and finally after it was up and running, the district as conceived didn’t work. Revens discouraged inclusion of condemnation powers in the ordinance, asking the council if they wanted the responsibility of putting businesses out of business, because that is what it would do.
Rather, explained City Planner William DePasquale, the new Warwick Station Development District seeks to restore market forces and give companies and developers the incentive to build the Warwick of the future.
He called the master plan a commitment to property owners and businesses; a commitment to developers and investors that the city and state have “skin in the game;” a commitment to the regional economy and “most important, a commitment to our residents who deserve a rich and vibrant city center of growth and opportunity.”
The master plan calls for a core intermodal district of 37 acres flanked to the north and south by gateway districts of 34 and 24 acres respectively.
By reducing setback, parking and height restrictions, planners envision creating a core district, with the Interlink skywalk running between it, of 1.5 million square feet of developable mixed use space and increasing the tax base from $1.3 million to $4.6 million while creating 2,000 to 3,000 jobs. Revens said changes in zoning regulations would increase property values, giving existing businesses reason to consider relocation and the means to do so and thus promote redevelopment.
Council President Bruce Place and Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson whole-heartedly endorsed the plan.
Place said the city is on the threshold of “the largest economic development the city has seen.” Vella-Wilkinson said she sees the benefits for residents and businesses of a “high quality mixed use environment” that would prove inviting to those using the skywalk as a place to stay and explore.
But there were reservations and the implication that the council should have greater control.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla questioned if goals were realistic.
“My concern is how do you make a dream a reality,” he said. “You need some agency to take a lead. Who’s going to market the property and put deals together?”
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon questioned the makeup of the mayor-appointed Planning Board, observing that the power of oversight really rests with the administration.
“Why put authority into a board with such power when [it is] appointed by a single person?” Solomon vowed to be the first person to spearhead an amendment to the ordinance if the plan fails to work.
But support of the plan was overwhelming, coming not only from the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and the state Economic Development Corporation but also two property owners who have amassed property in the area and see the potential.
Joseph Piscopio, who bought the former Malleable Iron Works property on Jefferson Boulevard and built the Hilton Gardens Inn and Iron Works Tavern, pointed out he has converted land yielding about $24,000 in tax revenues annually to a site generating $1,000 in tax revenues daily.
Michael D’Ambra, whose construction company and asphalt plant is on the east side of Jefferson Boulevard, has already gained council approval to build a hotel linking to more than 500,000 square feet of office on the 8-acre corridor he owns running south from the Interlink to the Airport Connector.
“The time is ripe to give the ball to the planning department and let them run with it,” said D’Ambra.
In response to questions from the council and Roy Dempsey, who closely follows council proceedings, DePasquale said the D’Ambra and a portion of the Leviton properties are in the master plan and the intent is to amend zoning within the areas after the ordinance gains second passage.
Another regular at council meetings, Michelle Komar, raised caution flags, although she favored the concept.
“Some of these things just don’t make sense to me,” she said of Planning Board powers and what she called a lack of public review and discussion leading up to the council hearing.
“I think this needs more study,” she said, calling on the council to table action.
Picking up on observations made by Richard Langseth, Michael Zarum, who both regularly attend council meetings, said the development would bring new people into the city. Zarum asked about the impact on traffic.
Langseth offered a different perspective, suggesting that the city “open its doors and hearts” to the “new people” such development will attract. He sees the district, with its commuter train service, as offering affordable housing and a haven to people working in the Boston area.
“The plan and ordinance that I bring forth tonight is not one of simple adornment. It’s actionable,” DePasquale said.
He said the master plan developed in concert with Goody Clancy Associates of Boston was critical to securing more than $1 million in Federal Highway Administration grants to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and the city for the development and planning of connectivity improvements within the district.
The council acted on three related ordinances that adopted the master plan, eliminated the prior redevelopment district and agency and made changes in the use and regulatory provisions of the intermodal and gateway districts.