What’s the rush?

October 16th, 2007

Last night the Providence City Council’s Ordinance Committee held a meeting on the city’s push to update the Comprehensive Plan before consulting with affected neighborhoods, like the working waterfront along Allens Avenue, through the community charette process. According to an article in today’s Providence Journal, the committee is wisely considering revising the draft Comprehensive Plan to include specific language that no zoning changes can be made until the neighborhood planning process is complete.

Further, the article notes that City Council members and the state’s planning director see no need to rush through a Comprehensive Plan without proper consultation:

Some council members have argued that the city doesn’t need to submit the plan in stages at all, and can wait for the neighborhood planning process to conclude. Councilman John J. Lombardi said last night that the city does not need to rush things, as the current plan should still function legally and govern local development even though it has expired.

“To go forward as we are, it may just be unwarranted and inappropriate,” Lombardi said.

Kevin Flynn, the state’s top planning authority, said in an interview yesterday that the laws are very vague when it comes to the consequences of allowing the Comprehensive Plan to expire.

“The statute doesn’t give a prescriptive list of what happens when your five years is up. It doesn’t say.”

But realistically, there are no immediate negative repercussions if Providence runs past the plan’s expiration date.

“It’s not like they’re going to lose aid to education or anything like that, no,” he said.

The existing plan will continue to govern local development even after it has expired, Flynn said.

“It still guides your local action,” he said. “There are several communities that have gone well past that five years.”

This week’s edition of the Providence Business News has an op-ed from Julie Gill of the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, which is also a member of the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance. Julie’s op-ed points out that Rhode Island’s heating oil storage capacity has decreased over the last 20 years and that inclement weather could disrupt supply. This could lead to higher costs and a dangerously low supply of fuel for Rhode Island’s more than 450,000 oil heat customers.

In the early 1980s, storage capacity for petroleum-based products in Rhode Island was 350 million gallons. During the ’80s and right into the late ’90s, tank yard after tank yard was closed and dismantled. At the moment, the state’s storage capacity is 110 million gallons. These tanks hold heating oil, diesel, jet fuel, gasoline, kerosene, liquid asphalt and other chemicals.

The Oil Heat Institute Inc. of Rhode Island is alarmed by the fact that our storage capacity is now less than one-third of what it was just 20 years ago, while the state population has increased by more than 10 percent during that same time period. Rhode Island is now in a situation in which an unexpected weather or other event could cause a disruption of the supply for any of the above-mentioned products that are so necessary to the economic well-being of our state and the health and safety of its citizens.

And according to an AP article out this morning, heating oil costs are expected to jump 22% this winter:

Almost all Americans will pay a lot more to heat their homes this winter, even though temperatures are expected to be warmer than average. That’s the sobering message from an Energy Department report Tuesday that estimates heating oil costs are likely to jump 22 percent and natural gas bills, on average, will rise 10 percent between October and March.

If key heating oil supply and storage facilities along Providence’s working waterfront are forced out to condo developments, Rhode Islander’s can expect even higher prices.

Editorial cartoon

October 9th, 2007

Editorial cartoon in the October 8th Providence Journal:


Baltimore’s experience

October 9th, 2007

The October 4th New York Times has an article about how Baltimore is weathering the recent slump in home and condo sales. Even with the downturn, the city’s working waterfront is helping to sustain its economy:

Despite the drag from the housing downturn, there are several countervailing forces sustaining Baltimore’s economy. The port operation, with 18,000 workers, thrives. Among other traffic, all of the vehicles that Toyota imports for sale east of the Mississippi come through here. And the Baltimore-Washington International Airport is a magnet for light industry and commerce.

And an editorial in today’s Providence Journal picks up on this article in criticizing Patrick Conley’s plan to condo-ize Providence’s working waterfront:

Of course, Baltimore also has its Old Harbor District, and that’s what the likes of Patrick Conley are talking about as they try to turn much of Providence’s working waterfront into some kind of condo and tourist heaven (despite the drag of the New England winter). But Providence has its Riverfront Park, which serves nicely. And we need the well-paid blue-collar jobs real ports have far more than the low-wage hotel, restaurant and condo jobs that would be created by the Conley approach to waterfront development.

Maintaining a vibrant working waterfront in the Port of Providence will mean good paying jobs and continued shipping commerce that will help Rhode Island’s economy weather current and future economic downturns.

The Brown Daily Herald has an article about the October 1st City Ordinance Committee hearing and the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance’s opposition to proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan:

The city’s comprehensive plan does not mandate specific guidelines, but once approved by the City Council, it will influence changes made to zoning codes. Employees of the oil and shipping industries fear that the recommendations for mixed-use development along the waterfront could lend support to zoning codes that encourage residential and commercial development at the expense of their heavy-duty oil and shipping businesses.

Last night, members of the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance testified before the City Ordinance Committee, and urged City Council members to oppose changes to the Comprehensive Plan that would be incompatible with a vibrant working waterfront.

Today’s Providence Journal has an article about the hearing:

Representatives of companies that reside along the waterfront say that the city’s industrial area and its deep-water port are a jewel in a modern city, and the highways cordon them off and create a natural industrial area for Providence. Let the rest of the city have condos and residential development, they say; if the industry is pushed out, there is no where else for it to go, and it will never return, they say.

Below are highlights from Alliance members written testimony:

Since 1985, I have been living just off Allens Avenue near the Providence River. I see the importance of the industries that have been here for decades. We don’t need residential development. We need jobs.
— Jose Cabral, Promet employee (full statement)

The State of Rhode Island and the federal government has just spent $65 million dredging the Providence Harbor and Federal channel to 40 ft. in order to encourage and improve the economy of water dependent industry. Why would the city not encourage the economic growth of this extremely valuable investment paid for by its citizens? We hope you understand the economic engine that is so important to all of us and oppose the changes to the Comprehensive Plan that would destroy the Working Waterfront.
— David Cohen, President, Promet Marine (full statement)

The rezoning of the Allens Avenue industrial corridor as a mixed use zone will have the long term effect of further choking off industrial development. Tractor trailers and cargo ships will not want to compete with shoppers, condo dwellers and pleasure crafts.
— Elizabeth Hernberg, Sprague Energy Corp. (full statement)

This is the only place left qualified to perform heavy marine maintenance and repairs in deep water in this area. PLEASE DON’T DESTROY OUR LIVELIHOOD OUR FAMILES DEPEND ON IT.
— Jack Goodison, J. Goodison Co., Inc. (full statement)

The Port of Providence is not just valuable waterfront property, nor is it just an economic engine. The Port of Providence is the lifeblood of the entire state, inclusive of the City of Providence and its citizens. If you destroy the Providence Working Waterfront, you will send the entire state into a deadly spiral, severely damaging its economy and far more importantly, the health and safety of its citizens
— Julie Gill, Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island (full statement)

The port is your link to the global economy, a rapidly expanding economy in which ninety percent of all goods move by sea in the daily, worldwide flow of ocean commerce. Your 40 foot deep shipping channel is a rare and valuable maritime asset but, unfortunately, it’s invisible to ordinary citizens. Yet steamship agencies and agents worldwide know about it and take it into account in their logistical planning.
— Thomas Valleau, Executive Director, North Atlantic Ports Association (full statement)

Ian Donnis’s Not For Nothing blog has a post about the City Ordinance Committee’s hearing on the Comprehensive Plan and its proposed changes to the working waterfront:

The ProJo has editorialized in favor of maintaining the working waterfront, and I tend to agree. Thanks to public access, Boston does a far better job than Providence in making use of the waterfront along the Charles River and parts of Boston Harbor than we do with comparable areas. While some envision more economically productive uses for the Providence waterfront, it shouldn’t come at the cost of public access, and longstanding businesses could be an important part of this mix.

As does Matt Jerzyk Rhode Island’s Future blog.

Today’s Providence Journal features an editorial touting the tremendous output created by our nation’s ports and working waterfronts. According to an economic impact study conducted by Martin Associates for the American Association of Port Authorities, U.S. port-sector activities are responsible for 8.4 million American jobs and nearly $2 trillion in economic output. With ports serving as a huge and growing economic engine, the Journal notes the danger of losing Providence’s working waterfront to condos and other uses, that while pretty, don’t generate good paying jobs and sustained economic growth:

What the state needs on the economic-development front is forceful leadership. Right now, even Providence’s waterfront on Allens Avenue is in danger of being gobbled up for high-priced condos, bars and restaurants — development that would do little to create good long-term jobs and economic growth. A few rich people and a lot of people on minimum wage.


Seaports Magazine, a publication of the American Association of Port Authorities, has several articles in their Fall 2007 edition about the economic impact of and need to protect working waterfronts.

America’s ports are our gateways to the world and a critical
component in the nation’s economic health and national defense. When ports are impacted, there is a quick and sizable ripple effect throughout the economy.
— Gary LaGrange, Port of New Orleans, page 25

Turning a working wharf into residential or commercial use can
signal the death knell for a port. Once waterfront property is
taken out of maritime use, it is almost impossible to return it to
cargo-handling activity. Residents who willingly sign a disclosure
statement acknowledging that their new condominium overlooks
a working wharf may eventually tire of the noise and diesel
emissions and could sue to stop expansion of port facilities.
— Bill Mongelluzzo, A developing situation, page 35

A new study commissioned by the American Association of Port Authorities details the jobs and economic impact generated by our nation’s ports.  One key finding:

Port-sector workers today earn, on average, about $50,000 a year, which is $13,000 more per year than the National Average Wage Index, as computed by the Social Security Administration.

Read Providence Working Waterfront Alliance chairman Joel Cohen’s op-ed in today’s Providence Journal.

This gentrification of Providence’s working waterfront would be extremely shortsighted. While condos, hotels, and marinas may increase the city’s property-tax revenues, they would come at the expense of existing successful taxpaying businesses, good blue-collar jobs, and a regional economic resource that would never be rebuilt.