Since the Providence Piers property on Allens Avenue first appeared at the center of a dramatic mixed-use redevelopment plan for the city’s working waterfront nearly a decade ago, priorities have changed.
Condominium towers have lost much of their allure and the demand for office and retail space has softened. But the property remains important in the eyes of city planners and officials who now see it as part of a marine industrial rebirth along the Providence River centered on exports and short-sea shipping.
“A distribution center, shipping, light manufacturing, an expansion of the Promet site,” said Providence Economic Development Director Jim Bennett, ticking off hypothetical, future uses for Providence Piers. “Up to the hurricane barrier, we have to have a working waterfront. It all leads to development of that port.”
After languishing for eight years in development limbo before waterfront-rezoning plans were finally killed last year, the effort to find a productive use for Providence Piers has entered a new stage with the properties’ sale to energy utility National Grid in February.
National Grid didn’t buy Providence Piers with plans to use it, but has assumed responsibility for cleaning up pollution there dating back to the days it hosted a manufactured-gas plant.
The sale will help speed the cleanup and the utility will look to sell the property once the remediation work is done, said company spokesman David Graves.
In the last few years, scrap-metal exports have surged in Providence, including next door to Providence Piers where Sims Metal Management bought the former Promet Marine Services property and built an export terminal.
When the Promet sale went through, Providence Piers’ former owner Patrick Conley, who still owns the Allens Avenue building near the pier, said he had been contacted by multiple parties in the scrap-metal trade interested in the land.
Ultimately, Conley sold Providence Piers to National Grid for $4 million, half what he said he paid for it before his development plans, and those of then-Mayor David Cicilline, were stymied.
Asked after the sale where he thought the heaviest demand for Providence Piers lies, Conley declined to speculate.
“I cannot predict what interest there will be in marine-industrial land in this post-industrial era,” Conley said in an email. “I can state that the 62 acres east of Allens Avenue might have generated [millions of dollars in tax revenue] if developed, as opposed to the $800,000 the city receives from this land now. Scrap is not taxable like a 15-story waterfront building or several of them.”
Bennett, who was involved in the discussions leading up to the sale of the Promet property, suggested expansion of the Sims/Promet site, which includes a towering mountain of scrap metal next door to Providence Piers, is just one possibility.
With the Port of Providence moving ahead on a $19.4 million investment in new harbor cargo cranes, including $10.5 million in federal grants at Field’s Point, cranes that theoretically could be moved down the waterfront to Allens Avenue if needed, there should be more options than just scrap.
“The Promet sale set the market for the waterfront at more than $3 million an acre, which is pretty good” Bennett said, referring to the $16.8 million Sims paid for the five-acre Promet property.
The relative lack of congestion compared with Boston and New York, plus rail access, could make Providence an attractive, lower-cost option for cargo shipping, Bennett said.
“We are now sending things to China via the scrap trade, now maybe they will send things back,” Bennett said.
Little progress in finding a future buyer for Providence Piers is expected until the pollution cleanup there is finished.
The National Grid’s remediation project is expected to begin soon after plans are approved by the Department of Environmental Management and should last “many months at least,” Graves said.
While the cleanup is going on, the pier and the land immediately around it, mostly parking lots, will be essentially off limits.
Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines is still hoping to use the pier as the departure point for 18 New England cruises it has scheduled for this year and Graves said National Grid hopes to allow that as long as it doesn’t conflict with the cleanup.
Bennett said the level of contamination at the site and throughout the working waterfront is just one more reason the area was more suited to industrial use than residential.
“We are focusing on high-paying, blue-collar jobs,” Bennett said. •
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