The decade of work that’s gone into cleaning up East Providence’s industrial waterfront hasn’t gone unnoticed by those working to redevelop underutilized land elsewhere in Rhode Island.
In Providence, the Interstate-195 Redevelopment District Commission has studied the streamlined permitting process employed in East Providence as a model as it sets up its own regulatory framework to govern the former highway land.
“At this point we are particularly concerned with the permitting process – how much public notice has to be given, when to convene subcommittees – we definitely learned from them on that,” said I-195 commission Executive Director Jan Brodie.
As the I-195 commission moves into the marketing phase of its work this year, Brodie and I-195 commission Chairman Colin Kane said they expect East Providence’s experience attracting developers to brownfield sites will also be useful.
“One thing that has worked is the expedited review process – that is real,” said Kane. “Having a one-stop shop has been effective and having a robust, expedited review framework is a goal for us.”
While streamlined permitting has received the most attention, Scott Wolf, executive director of GrowSmart Rhode Island, said for many smaller communities East Providence’s help financing waterfront projects was also crucial and should be encouraged elsewhere.
In developments including the planned Village on the Waterfront and Kettle Point, the Waterfront Commission has employed tax-increment-financing, a tool employed routinely in many Massachusetts towns, but still relatively rare in Rhode Island.
“It is not used widely in Rhode Island because it is complicated and daunting for smaller communities to have to hire all these attorneys to put deals together,” Wolf said. “In East Providence, tax-increment financing has made some of these ambitious projects feasible, especially some of the infrastructure.”
It’s unclear whether TIFs will play a major role in the I-195 redevelopment, where much of the expensive infrastructure often paid for in that way is being done by the state.
But already Providence has proposed using one to pay for the creation of a city streetcar line that would run through the former highway lands.
Wolf said the East Providence waterfront has also demonstrated the importance of cleaning up former brownfields.
At least now when the city tries to market the properties, it can offer a clear path to development on land freed from the most serious environmental liabilities, he said. •
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