One Square Mile: The Debate Over Providence's Industrial Waterfront

Oct 8, 2014
Originally published on February 24, 2015 5:14 pm

All this week we’re taking a close look at the Narragansett Bay, for a series we call One Square Mile.  Today we look at the heavy industry that relies on the Providence waterfront.  Specifically, where those big piles of coal, scrap metal and salt,  sit along the Providence River.

Tuesday, independent Providence mayoral candidate Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. details his plan to turn the industrial waterfront to mixed use development, with things like hotels and marinas.   As Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender reports, that's been the subject of a decades-long battle.

Piles of rusty metal parts sit in scrap yards towering over Allens Avenue.  There’s also an asphalt company, an energy company, shipping ports, warehouses, and a strip club called Desire. Some see all of this as a missed opportunity.

“It’s ridiculous.  This is prime land in major American city, but no one seems to care about the eyesores. This is visual pollution," according to local developer Pat Conley.  “Anybody that can drive into Providence and see those mountains of scrap and think this a beautiful thing and this is a great city, they better be deluded.”

Conley stands outside his office building on Allens Avenue. It sits right in the middle of this industrial zone. He bought the building and land along the waterfront in 2002 with plans to develop it.  He points towards the water where he built a wharf, and remembers what he envisioned for this spot.

“A cruise ship terminal, I envision medical facilities, hotels, maybe an extended stay hotel.  That should have been over there where the scrap yard is,” said Conley.

Conley maintains that his development plans could have brought in around three thousand jobs.  A proposed change in zoning would have cleared the way for all it.  In 2004 Conley began his fight to replace the industrial facilities with hotels, condos, and marinas.  He wanted to see all industrial business moved farther down the river.  And for a time Conley thought he was on the winning side.  In 2006 then-mayor David Cicilline unveiled his Providence 2020 plan, which called for similar waterfront redevelopment.  But the Working Waterfront Alliance fought back.  And this group of industrial businesses won the battle.  

And Pat Conley, he lost big time. 

“I spent millions taking down a tank farm here, and building out that 776 foot pier, and then the city changed its mind and I got left high and dry,” said Conley.

But it’s a battle that plenty of people want to pick back up; including former Providence mayor and real estate developer Joseph Paolino.  Sitting in his office in downtown Providence, he picks up an aerial photo of the city, and points to the industrial waterfront area. 

“Why can’t we put some hotels, apartment developments along there, and create some beautiful marinas, and maybe even have ships come there,” said Paolino.

Paolino said, in addition, that type of development might make hospitals like Women and Infants, and Rhode Island Hospital, and institutions like Brown University – all of which have foot prints in the nearby area – more likely to expand.

“That’s the economy of Rhode Island, that’s the economy of Providence. So between the hospitals and universities those kind of jobs, those are real jobs, good paying jobs,” said Paolino.

But that could be a big risk to take on an area that already provides the city with jobs.  The Working Waterfront Alliance said there are more than 500 people working in this area.  This does include a diner, and several businesses outside the area.  And of course the Working Waterfront Alliance is a proponent of keeping this place industrial.  It’s where Chris Waterson, and his employees make a living.

“I think you have to be real careful when you’re talking about that kind of development along the port,” said Watterson.

Waterson Terminal Services is the family business. Chris Waterson is the general manager.  The operation supervises one of the state’s major ports, the Port of Providence. (Which is not a member of the Working Waterfront Alliance.)

“You know there’s only so many places you can put them, and you can’t build new ones.  So it’s here it exists, it works. So you don’t want to jeopardize that.”

Waterson’s facility is actually just outside the disputed area, but the developers who imagine hotels and condos say industrial business should move farther down the river and closer to the port.  But Waterson said you might not want to live in those condos.

“We work around the clock, so it can be noisy at night, and we know that, but there’s nothing we can do about it. When you’re loading a scrap ship and you’re dropping 20 tons of steel into a steel ship, it’s gonna make noise,” said Waterson.

And when residents or hotel guest can’t sleep, or take strange smells, they complain.  And that’s when there’s an issue.  And it will always be an issue.  That’s because Prov Port, and all the Allens Avenue industrial businesses deal in the smelly, dirty things that make our modern lives livable.

“You know you turn on the lights and you don’t think of the power plant and where they’re getting their fuel.  You get in your car and the car probably started here as scrap.  There’s a lot of backend services that are being supported and it’s really what kind of makes the economy go,” said Waterson.

He said the company needs to be on the water to take advantage of the deep-water channel going up the Providence River.  The channel is dredged forty feet deep, which allows large cargo and freight ships to get safely to the Providence Waterfront.

But what does all this mean for the bay itself?  Whether hotels or scrap yards, is any development good for the health of the bay?

“One of the great success stories of Narragansett Bay is actually that it has a very healthy, diverse set of uses.  So you have everything from the pristine to the industrial,” said Topher Hamblett, the director of advocacy and policy at Save the Bay.

He said he sees signs of improvement.  Trekking through the brush behind the Save the Bay headquarters, just south of all the industrial development at the Save the Bay headquarters, we see people fishing.  He said the bay has really been cleaned up in the last several decades.  I ask, in an ideal world, would be anything sitting on this land at all, but Hamblett’s too pragmatic for that.

“You know as an organization, we are not of the mind that all these heavy industrial activities should go away.  They are here.  They serve a purpose.  Now the question is how can they operate in the best most responsible way,” said Hamblett.

And as long as the industrial business leaders are responsible, they have the city on their side at least for now. Mayor Angel Taveras recently signed an ordinance that locked in industrial zoning for the area.

“My vision for that waterfront, and that port is to really see more industrial growth there.  To start seeing more come in through the port, more products come in through the waterfront, and more products shipped out of the waterfront,” said Taveras.

But now Taveras is leaving office there is a question as to what could happen next.  Battle lines are already starting to form. Independent candidate for mayor Buddy Cianci was one of the first proponents of redeveloping the waterfront during his second term in office in the 1990’s. He has the support of the developers Pat Conley and Joe Paolino.  His opponent, Democrat Jorge Elorza, has a vision that keeps the area industrial.  So for now, the battle over Allens Avenue is playing out on the campaign trail.

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