The 195 Plan: Commission slowly working to transform old highway land

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – These days it’s known simply as “the 195 land,” a curving 26-acre scar of grass and empty lots where the old highway used to cut through the heart of Providence.

The old Interstate 195 came down years ago, amid promises of redevelopment that would reshape the city’s skyline and economy. The commission responsible for the land has been around since 2011, and the vacant parcels were officially transferred to its control in 2013. But so far, only a few projects have broken ground.

“Real estate just moves at a glacial pace,” Peter McNally, executive director of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, says in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News. “Even in a market like New York City and Boston, to do a large scale urban project … they’re multiyear processes.”

McNally says the commission’s leaders have a very specific vision for the area: one that leaves big-box stores behind in favor of what he calls “high-value industries,” those that hire young, highly educated professionals who will in turn attract more employers to the area. Those developments, he says, will drive demand for things like apartment buildings and grocery stores. It’s a snowball effect on a city-sized scale.

“Our goal in the 195 Commission is really to create jobs,” says McNally, a Fall River native who came to Providence by way of New York City.

Despite the slow start, McNally is confident the 195 land will be completely transformed in the coming years. He points to key projects that are currently underway, including green space and a pedestrian bridge connecting the Jewelry District and South Water Street.

“Those are public amenities,” says McNally. “It’s really hard to overstate how important they are.”

There are preliminary plans to fill another parcel with apartments, and another area with a controversial 46-story residential tower. Ground was broken in September on the Wexford Innovation Center, a $158-million mixed-use campus that Gov. Gina Raimondo has made a centerpiece of her vision for the 195 land.

“If this is successful, all of a sudden you get hot,” says McNally. “Land prices come together, employers want to be here. They want to access the talent and it starts to really move. So that’s what we’re planning for.”

McNally expects the Wexford project to be done sometime in 2019. By that time, he thinks developers will be clamoring for a piece of the land where the highway once stood.

“The single most important thing that we could do was get that Wexford project done,” McNally says. “I really believe that could have a catalyst effect on other development.”

The importance of Wexford seems to be one of the few things that the 195 Commission and Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio agree on. The state Senate led the push to create the 195 Commission in 2011, and Ruggerio has been outspoken about his desire to see a faster pace of development in the area.

“I get questions every day from constituents,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, tells Eyewitness News. “”What’s happening down in the 195 district in the city of Providence?’ Every time I run into someone, if I run into five people, I’m sure one of those individuals will ask me what’s happening down there. And it’s tough because I really don’t have an answer for them. I don’t know what to tell them – I don’t know why development is going so slowly.”

Ruggerio says he’s concerned about rising interest rates and construction costs, but agrees that Wexford could be the key to fast-tracking development on the Providence land.

“I think that will trigger a number of situations – the parking garage at the Garrahy complex, and I’m sure it will trigger some other interest from developers once that happens,” he says.

For now, the 195 Commission is just getting started.

In addition to job creation, the commission’s core goals are to market, oversee and sell the land. So far, McNally says Wexford has been the only buyer – and that company didn’t pay cash. Instead, the 195 Commission and R.I. Commerce Corporation authorized more than $30 million in subsidies to offset part of the project’s cost, hoping the development will generate about $100 million in revenue over the next 20 years.

Budget documents show the commission owes towards paying off the roughly $38 million in taxpayer-backed bonds floated to obtain the land will jump to nearly $4.4 million starting next fiscal year.

McNally says he’s unsure if they’ll have that money by that time, but brushes off concerns about the lack of cash the commission has received so far for the 19 acres of land available for development.

“Next year? I’m not sure about next year,” McNally said, when asked if they’ll be able to make a payment with profits from land sales. “But over the long term, absolutely.”

McNally pegs that “long term” at five to ten years, when he hopes the 195 land will be completely transformed. Meanwhile, the commission is also shaking up its senior leadership – earlier this month its chairman, Joseph Azrack, stepped down and was replaced by Robert Davis, its No. 2.