Turning A Working Port Into A Mixed-Use Area Doesn’t Work

Statement of Captain Paul Costabile, Executive Director, Northeast Marine Pilots, Inc.

On the Waterfront Plan and the Allens Avenue & Port Redevelopment Plan

November 30, 2009

As a Rhode Islander and former Sea Captain it is discouraging to see that the city of Providence is attempting to redevelop industrial working waterfront areas into mixed-use areas through rezoning and the potential use of condemnation and eminent domain procedures. This amounts to trying to wedge hotels, marinas and condos in amongst working port industries and pretending they are somehow compatible. This is kind of like planning to build an apartment complex next to an airport and disregarding the minor detail of jets landing and taking off. As a Sea Captain for eighteen years and marine pilot for four years I’ve seen these mixed-use attempts in other ports and they don’t work.

In my travels as Captain I remember heading up the Hudson River with a pilot on board and asking him about a new condo development on the New Jersey side facing Manhattan. There was a scrap yard a little to the South of the condo development. He said the scrap yard fought the development saying it was not compatible with the established businesses in the area. The developers insisted that there would be no problem, and there wasn’t until the tenants moved in. They immediately began complaining about the dust from the scrap yard covering their patios.

I also remember when New York began developing South Street Seaport basing it at the old Fulton Fish Market, a working waterfront area with rough charm and a sense of history. Fishing boats had brought their catch to the market for more than a century and a half. Visitors would be able to see this historic and genuine working waterfront area in action. Well, as soon as the condos, shops and restaurants were in place they started complaining about the fish smell and the market had to be moved to the Bronx.

The advantage the New York- New Jersey Port Authority has over Rhode Island is that they have places in their port to relocate waterfront businesses to in order to maintain the jobs and port infrastructure. Rhode Island has no place to move Providence’s working waterfront business to.

Ports need room and industrially zoned areas to survive. It is a nice thought that you could have an eight hundred foot loaded tanker routinely docking alongside a marina and residential complex and the two businesses would live in harmony but it doesn’t work that way. Ships must move day and night. There is noise and bright lights associated with these moves. When a huge cargo ship is being docked it can be noisy as a five thousand horse power tug strains to get the behemoth into its berth. There can be associated whistle signals from the ship and tugs as they communicate while trying to accomplish a maneuver with these giant ships within very close tolerances. It’s not the time to be trying not to wake the neighbors. As these giant ships swing in the channel using their twenty-five foot diameter props turned by twenty thousand horse power engines, the resulting wash from the prop can be significant, to put it mildly. That’s not to mention the wash from the three tug boats. If there is a marina in the vicinity, any small boats at their berths will experience the force of the wash to their detriment. This is not what the prospective waterfront residential tenants have in mind when they look at the glossy brochure advertising the upscale marina and residence. All this is ignored when talking about mixing marinas and port industries. The mixing is the initial stage. The final stage is watching all the industrial businesses close and leave.

Rhode Island has opportunities in the marine industries which we are not taking advantage of. The United States is the world’s largest trading nation. Lower trade barriers, improved transportation and information technology are fueling growth in world trade. In 2008 the U.S. Department of transportation predicted that between 2010 and 2020 the value of freight carried by water will increase by 43 percent domestically and 67 percent internationally. In this time of growth Rhode Island is lucky to have a 40ft deep water navigation channel all the way to Providence. This is a major infrastructure asset for all the people of Rhode Island. Just like the state’s airport or major highway system or rail system, this maritime highway should not be governed by any one town or city.

There are plenty of other places to build condos and hotels in Providence without supplanting this critically important industrial port area. We should be revitalizing the port by working toward capturing some of the predicted growth in the marine transportation industries. Mixed use will not accomplish this. It will only lead to the displacement of industrial working waterfront businesses and the good paying port jobs they provide.

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