A little more than a year since the Interstate 195 Redevelopment District Commission first met, few changes are visible on the 41 acres of urban scrubland freed by the removal of the highway overpass. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is being done in the effort to take advantage of one of Rhode Island’s best real estate and economic-development opportunities in decades. Through environmental work and pre-permitting, the commission has already made the 21 buildable acres much more attractive to potential buyers. The next steps facing the commission include taking ownership of the land from the R.I. Department of Transportation and then figuring out how to pay for maintenance of the parcels, sidewalks and 14 acres of parks.
I-195 commission Chairman Colin Kane discusses the financial side of the redevelopment project.
PBN: Some people are probably still confused about how the commission is taking ownership of the properties and why a quasi-state agency is floating bonds for a state commission to buy land from a state agency in connection with a highway relocation project mostly funded by the federal government. Can you walk us through the process?
KANE: From the beginning, when the relocation of I-195 was conceived, the sale of land was identified as a source of revenue to fund projects such as the reconnection of roads and infrastructure and creation of open space. But because federal highway money was used during the original construction of the highway in the 1950s, the R.I. Department of Transportation is compelled by statute to sell the property at fair-market value as determined by a third-party appraisal approved by the federal highway administration. DOT became the owner when properties were condemned and there was a fair-market value paid for them through eminent domain. In a sense, it is the reverse of that process, a reverse of the taking. So if they hadn’t created an I-195 commission, the alternative would have been a piecemeal disposition of the parcels by DOT. That is a cumbersome process and DOT is not a redevelopment agency; it is not their skill set. Having to go through this process every time a parcel was sold would not reflect market norms. As an example, the [parcels purchased by Johnson & Wales University] were carved out in legislation 16 months ago and are just about to close now. So really it was quite ingenious for the commission to be established to create a funding mechanism to detach the property from that cumbersome process and at the same time fulfill the obligations to complete the roadways and follow the statute.