Mayor David Cicilline’s “New uses for Providence’s waterfront will benefit all” commentary in the December 12, 2007 Providence Journal Metro Section continues to demonstrate an unfortunate bias against existing working waterfront businesses and a myopic vision of economic development via condos which ignores the incredible growth opportunities provided by the Port of Providence’s 40ft federal deep water channel. The following is a detailed response to the Mayor’s comments.

Cicilline comments:

Our fortunes in Providence have always depended on our relationship with the water. The better we have aligned our economy with the natural advantages provided by our waterfront, the more prosperous our city has been.

In a pre-industrial economy, it gave us fishing and a global mercantile trade. In an industrial economy, it gave us the means to export our mass-produced goods. Now, in our post-industrial information economy, we are defining a new relationship.

Working Waterfront response:
The Mayor is quite right that the use of Providence’s waterfront has always defined the city. Our historic working waterfront made Providence one of the wealthiest cities in the nation at the turn of the 19th century, and today it continues to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in total economic impact for the city, state, and region.

While we may now be a “post-industrial information economy,” that economy needs water-based shipping resources more than ever. According to Transportation Institute projections, by 2020 U.S. foreign trade in goods, the vast majority of which is shipped by water, may grow to four times today’s value and almost double the current tonnage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers similarly points to estimates that over the next 20 years there will be a 65 percent increase in ship transported cargo and that containerized trade is the fastest growing segment of the economy, doubling every 10 years. These projections point to a steady increase in shipping traffic which in turn will mean more jobs and a stronger economy for cities and states that invest in and protect their marine industrial resources.

With our recently dredged 40ft federal deep water channel (a $65 million investment of state and federal money), the Port of Providence, including all of Providence’s waterfront along Allens Ave. (more below), is perfectly positioned to benefit from this explosion in international shipping. So if Providence truly wants to define a new relationship and align its economy “with the natural benefits provided by our waterfront,” the city must look beyond closing off its valuable industrial waterfront with glitzy condos, hotels, and marinas.

Cicilline comments:

For many years, the array of businesses on Allens Avenue, north of Thurbers and the Port of Providence, existed while hardly being noticed. Most residents and visitors sped by above on Route 95, barely registering an anonymous, industrial blur separating them from the sea. This landscape was, after all, just like every other stretch of urban waterfront in the Northeast.

Working Waterfront response:
The Mayor refers to working waterfront businesses as an “anonymous, industrial blur.” While the Mayor might prefer to treat us as anonymous, the businesses along Providence’s working waterfront have a long and proud history. Both Sprague Energy and Narragansett Improvement have been successfully operating in their locations for over 100 years. Promet Marine has operated at its Allens Ave. location for more than 30 years. Far from an “anonymous, industrial blur,” these and several other area businesses are responsible for hundreds of direct and thousands of indirect jobs, and provide the energy, raw materials, and repair services essential to our region’s economy.

Also, Providence’s working waterfront is not “just like every other stretch of urban waterfront in the Northeast.” Due to our 40ft deep water channel and easy access to highway and rail, the Port of Providence is a unique economic resource that many other port cities and states would love to have. Due to these advantages, the Port of Providence is one of the top 50 ports in the United States.

Cicilline comments:

. . . And at a more fundamental level we understand the inherent value of cleaning what was polluted, opening what was closed, and fulfilling a need to reconnect to the water.

Furthermore, we recognize that the vast majority of businesses now have the capacity, through environmental advancements and new attitudes about urban living to co-exist with properties used for a wide variety of purposes. We don’t always need the same kind of closed-market zoning segregation we did in the past. The transformation we want to encourage can happen while still retaining the best of the character and the economic contributions on our waterfront today.

Working Waterfront response:
These comments seem to imply that existing working waterfront businesses are polluted. This is inaccurate. The area is perfectly well suited for its current industrial uses. Indeed, expensive environmental remediation would only be needed if the city were to allow for residential development.

While we believe that certain non-residential mixed uses, such as commercial office buildings, could be compatible with existing industrial businesses, we disagree with the Mayor that “urban living” can co-exist next to industrial facilities. Future condo residents and hotel guests are sure to complain about the noises, lights, vibrations, and odors that are a normal part of many working waterfront businesses operations. Resident complaints will result in political pressure for operating restrictions that would eventually force many working waterfront companies out of business. This very situation is currently playing out in downtown Providence, where condo residents are complaining about the loud noise and food odors at Murphy’s Deli and bar.

For this very reason, Providence needs to preserve areas zoned exclusively for industrial uses.

Cicilline comments:

Experience shows that these uses can co-exist with true waterfront-dependent business and industry. Most recently, the Canadian cities of Toronto and Vancouver have earned particular praise for their successful mixing of residential, recreation, office and industrial uses. But several American cities, such as Portland, Ore., Seattle and Baltimore have done it successfully for several years.

Working Waterfront response:
Nearby waterfronts in Portland, Maine and Boston also provide relevant examples of how cities can protect and encourage, rather than displace their marine industrial resources. In Portland, city residents realized that condo developments were incompatible with their working waterfront and passed a multi-million dollar bond to purchase and preserve port area land for water-dependent uses.

In the 1970s and 80s Boston purchased former military bases located on the outskirts of Boston Harbor in South Boston. Resisting condo and hotel developers, the city chose to invest in and protect its deep water marine resources. That investment is now paying off. In September of this year, the city approved a $130 million Boston Cargo Terminal project that will provide multi-modal ocean, rail, truck, and air transportation for bulk cargo, seafood processing, and warehouse businesses.

The city is also promoting its Boston Marine Industrial Park which has recently received several proposals from developers looking to build international bulk cargo and other large-scale maritime and industrial projects.

Combined, Boston’s marine industrial facilities house 180 businesses which employ 3,000 workers.

We could have the same success here if the city protected and promoted our working waterfront businesses and the 40ft deep water channel in the Port of Providence.

Cicilline comments:

It is important to clearly understand exactly what change is — and is not — being encouraged along our waterfront.

The Comprehensive Plan does not call for new regulations affecting the area that makes up the Port of Providence, a vital hub of economic activity that we aim to help make busier and more valuable. Existing zoning regulations work effectively there and separation makes good sense. It is the area north of the port area, from Thurbers Avenue to the relocated [Route] 195, where we hope to grow our economy by encouraging increased mixed-use development.

Working Waterfront response:
Throughout the Mayor’s commentary, he conflates ProvPort, waterfront property owned and leased by the city, and located south of Thurbers Ave., with the Port of Providence. Unfortunately for the Mayor, the Port of Providence (also referred to as the Providence River and Providence Harbor) encompasses not just the city owned and favored ProvPort, but the entire waterfront along Allens Ave. north to the hurricane barrier as well as much of East Providence’s waterfront. The entire port area is an economically interconnected water-based resource that can not be subdivided for purposes of political expediency. That is why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently dredged the federal deep water channel well past ProvPort for the benefit of water-dependent business all along Allens Ave. and on the East Providence side of the port.

Cicilline comments:

A careful look at the current uses for this land around and between many existing businesses argues strongly for change. Most reasonable observers would agree that the unused, the half-used and the ill-used need to make way for development that will make better use of the currently unrealized value of much of this land.

Working Waterfront response:
Underutilized waterfront parcels do exist along the Allens Ave. corridor, but this is due in large part to uncertainty over the city’s intentions for the area. Over the past decade, several industrial users have expressed interest in locating here but have been scared away by administrations who have favored condo and hotel proposals to new water-dependent businesses. Take for example Seaboats Inc., a family-run marine transportation business which builds and operates tugboats. The company was planning to locate along Allens Ave. but scrapped its plans due to former Mayor Cianci’s “Three Cities” plan in the late 90s calling for condos, hotels, and marinas along the waterfront. Today, Seaboats Inc. is located in Fall River and has grown to over 100 employees with $4 million in payroll.

This perspective on waterfront development continues, as Mayor Cicilline’s only vision for “valuable” development of this land is parks, retail, offices, entertainment, and residences. This myopic vision fails to account for the potential growth that could occur if the city were to maintain the existing industrial only zoning for the area. Why is the Mayor completely closed to encouraging further industrial uses of this area that would take advantage of the port’s unique advantages like the 40-ft deep water channel and easy access to railways and highways? Given huge projected increases in sea based shipping volumes, attracting more marine industrial uses could well be the “highest and best use” for the entire Port of Providence. In the absence of any real economic analysis studies comparing possible future land uses, as was conducted during the 1990 Comprehensive Plan process, it is shortsighted to simply assume that “Mixed Use/Residential” is the “highest and best use” for the working waterfront.

In summary, the Mayor’s commentary:

  • Fails to portray the value of existing working waterfront businesses.
  • Glosses over the inevitable conflicts that will arise from locating mixed use developments next to industrial businesses.
  • Artificially segregates the geographic and economically interconnected Port of Providence into ProvPort, which he would protect, and the rest of the Allens Ave. waterfront which he would rezone for mixed use development.
  • Fails to recognize the incredible potential of the Port of Providence’s 40ft federal deep water channel and easy access to highway and rail to attract new marine industrial uses.

We look forward to discussing all of these points in greater detail at the upcoming Providence Waterfront charrette on February 25th. We hope that through continued engagement with city officials and other stakeholders, that Providence will realize the current value and future potential of our working waterfront.

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