Cianci, Elorza differ on Providence waterfront plans

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The future of Providence’s waterfront has re-emerged as a campaign talking point in the city’s mayoral race, with independent Buddy Cianci calling for mixed-use development along part of Allens Avenue near the Providence River and Democrat Jorge Elorza maintaining the area should be used strictly for industrial purposes.

The candidates’ conflicting views on the land – which stretches from the Sprague Energy complex near the Providence River Bridge down to Fields Point, and hugs a large chunk of the Port of Providence – is likely to reignite a years-long battle over how best to utilize the waterfront, a flashpoint during Cianci’s previous tenure as mayor in the 1990s.

“Everything south of Thurbers Avenue could be a working waterfront, but right now what we have there is strip clubs and we have scrap metal yards,” Cianci said during the WPRI 12/Providence Journal debate Tuesday night. Cianci said he wants to see commercial development and cruise ships to increase tourism.

Elorza made the case that “we need to be out ahead and allow for heavy industrial use in our waterfront,” touting his plan to double exports from port of Providence within five years. Elorza added that the current waterfront is “underutilized.”

Cianci, Elorza and Republican Daniel Harrop are vying to succeed outgoing Mayor Angel Taveras, who is leaving office after losing the Democratic primary for governor. For his part, Harrop pledged to simplify zoning and permitting and “let the free market really take over the port.”

One of only two deepwater ports in New England, the Port of Providence has long been targeted by city officials as a potential source for larger tax revenues.

In 1994, Cianci sold the Municipal Wharf property located off of Allens Avenue to ProvPort, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, for $16.4 million to close a projected budget deficit. The organization brought in more than $7.8 million in 2012, according to its annual IRS Form 990, and reported more than $43 million in total assets and $29.6 million in liabilities. ProvPort CEO William Brody was paid $172,000 in 2012, the document says.

In 2000, Cianci unveiled his “three cities” plan, which included a proposal to “reinvent the industrial harborfront as a place for offices, homes and leisure-time marine uses,” according to a Providence Journal report at the time.

Cianci was forced to resign two years later following a federal corruption conviction, but his successor David Cicilline also expressed support for a mixed-use waterfront. In 2004, the state sold about five acres of land along Allens Avenue to the Providence Redevelopment Agency, but the state Supreme Court blocked the sale after determining that the PRA’s purchase “exceeded its statutory authority.” The decision effectively killed the city’s plan to develop the area.

Under Taveras, the city took a different approach to the waterfront by committing to maintaining industrial zoning there. In July, Taveras signed into law what his office described as a “landmark” amendment to the city zoning ordinance designed to “protect industrial and working waterfront uses” of the area.

“Hundreds of direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs are based right here in the industrial waterfront of Providence,” Taveras said at the time. “This amendment paves the way for the creation of more high-paying blue-collar jobs … and sends a clear signal to companies worldwide that Providence is dedicated to supporting its industrial and working waterfront businesses.”

The zoning amendment was strongly supported by the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of businesses based there who oppose mixed-use development along the Allens Avenue corridor.

“This strong industrial zoning gives us the certainty we need to grow our businesses so that we can continue to serve as an economic engine for the city, state, and wider region,” Chris Hunter, a spokesman for the group, told WPRI.com.

“The Providence Working Waterfront Alliance believes that mixed use residential and hotel uses are fundamentally incompatible with the industrial character of our neighborhood,” he said.

According to Hunter, industrial and commercial businesses along the Allens Avenue corridor are responsible for 514 direct jobs and 1,017 indirect jobs; Cianci has argued the businesses he would target with a redevelopment plan employ relatively few workers.

Councilman Luis Aponte, whose ward includes much of Allens Avenue, said he thinks mixed-use development gives Providence the best opportunity to expand its tax base. Aponte is considered the favorite to succeed outgoing City Council President Michael Solomon in January. Solomon supported the industrial zoning ordinance enacted in July.

During Tuesday’s debate, Cianci said he believes the businesses along the waterfront should generate between $10 million and $12 million in annual tax revenue for the city, but claimed they are currently bringing in under $1 million each year. He said he plans to lay out a detailed proposal for the area in the coming weeks.

Under Elorza’s plan, the city would first conduct a comprehensive study of its current export environment to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. Elorza said he would also seek to launch trade missions, create training programs and establish a state-level advisory board to develop an expansion strategy.

“The City can further enhance and market the area by designating it a marine industrial park and work … to ensure that any vacant and underutilized parcels are development ready,” Elorza told the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce in a questionnaire. “As an added tool, specially-designed tax stabilization agreements focused on manufacturing for export can be created to incentivize commercial development in this new marine industrial park.”

A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released last week showed Cianci leading the race at 38%, with Elorza close behind at 32%, and Harrop in third with 6%. One in five voters – 21% – said they were still undecided.

The election is Nov. 4.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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