Greater City Providence

195 Redevelopment District Commission Meeting – January 30, 2012

A meeting of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission will be held at the offices of Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, 315 Iron Horse Way, Suite 101, Providence, Rhode Island, on MONDAY, January 30, 2012, beginning at 2:00 p.m., for the following purposes:

Public Session

  1. For presentation and discussion regarding the national and regional real estate market.
  2. For presentation and discussion regarding activities and/or plans of Johnson & Wales University, Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown University in and around the Knowledge District, downtown activity and local market conditions.
  3. For presentation and discussion of best practices and examples from other markets

Greater City Providence

Promoting the smart urban growth of the Greater Providence region.


  • There was a story in the Projo this morning about the meeting, but it was vague on the particulars. Supposedly, Kain can’t post the presentation materials because he doesn’t have anybody working for him. However, it wouldn’t be hard to post a few documents online, would it? I think the public has a right to know, and the more people are in the know, the better.

    Was anybody present who can relate more about the presentations?

  • Kane may be right. The I-195 commissioners are all volunteers. They have no staff and haven’t yet been appropriated funding from the General Assembly. The Capital Center Commission had more when it started. They have to set up an entire organization, which most certainly will take time. Do they even have an office or a website? Whether it’s shoveling snow or re-aligning lot lines, despite their bluster, they don’t own the land, RIDOT still does. Everything isn’t instant or an underhanded back room deal. Give them some time to get started.

  • Supposedly they have an agreement with EDC that EDC staff will work for them in the interim as needed.

    You know, we could have just made this be an EDC/Providence Planning partnership, they already have staff and “professionals” to do this work and don’t have to learn about the whole development history of this land from scratch.

    Of course that wouldn’t solve the snow shoveling issue as neither the City nor the State are known for clearing their sidewalks.

  • I agree with Jef. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel here. And this commission isn’t really coming across to the public (to me anyway) as being somehow above reproach of all the other agencies and commissions and departments that already exist.

  • I attended this meeting a few weeks ago. I should have commented earlier. I will do this from memory with a some of my iPhone notes:

    Presentations regarding the national and regional real estate market were interesting. Some of these presenters came down from Boston to give the presentation – one of them was from CBRE, and framed it around comparing the Boston and Providence real estate markets against each other, especially comparing the I-195 lands to East Cambridge / MIT. It just so happens that I recently moved here from East Cambridge in early January, so I am very familiar with the comparison.

    They discussed both the commercial and residential markets, how during the recession, commercial rents have not been high enough to justify new construction in the Boston area except in East Cambridge/MIT, meaning that if successful, these knowledge districts can drive a city’s economy. For new residential construction, the East Cambridge/MIT area is getting rents of $3.5 to $4 per sq ft, while Providence is around $2, but the presenter claimed the construction costs are the same or very similar between the two cities, so constructing residential in Providence is financially tricky. The presenter noted that during the recession the commercial real estate focus of the Boston area, and to some extent the residential side too, moved from areas of 128 to the core urban area of Boston-Cambridge. He failed to turn that finding into a strong connection for the audience between the overall shift in value from suburban auto-centric to urban, walkable, transit rich areas across the nation.

    The presenter noted that apartments are all the rage now, and there is a national unmet demand for apartments rather than condos. Hotels are just coming back into fashion. Retail focused on basic necessities such as grocery stores is doing well. Condos are still “out”, and not going to come back for a while. The presenter suggested that politicians need to be far more active in RI. He said that mayors and governors from the sun belt are actively poaching companies from cities and states with politicians that do not spend enough time showing that they care about each and every business and institution. Boston has a monthly breakfast for politicians to intermingle with people in real estate development and businesses or institutions.

    Another real estate presenter from Boston started his presentation by saying the formula for real estate success in Boston and around the country right now is jobs and transit. However (clearly he doesn’t know about the Providence Streetcar) in the next breath he said that because Providence doesn’t have the strong transit component, it needs jobs and lots of parking instead. (!) He discussed the power of adjacency in these knowledge districts, and again used the example of East Cambridge/MIT. Real estate investments happen within the sphere of influence of these core institutions that are working together, spinning off new institutions together, and they want to be right next to each other. All of these institutions are coordinating together, (creating TMAs for example), not competing against each other.

    Next, representatives from JWU, Lifespan (RI Hospital), Brown presented. JWU presented the long-term plan for their campus. I won’t go into great detail, but I was happy to find that while they do intend to have retail on the first floor of many new buildings, in some new buildings they also would like to activate the streetscape similar to the new Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts Cooking Studios at George Brown College in Toronto which are on street level. I have seen this building in person, and if executed well, it is wonderful. Adequate parking was again a hot topic in the presentation and questions from the Commission members.

    Lifespan talked about it’s expansion of offices into the Jewelry District. They briefly mentioned the problem of adequate, more direct, comfortable (and safe) pedestrian connectivity between the RI Hospital Campus and the Jewelry District. This was implied to be a major problem for them going forward since the Jewelry District represents their largest expansion opportunity, but did not offer further suggestions on solving the problem, and did not result in a robust discussion. I believe they said they are running shuttles right now, and have made sure that there is enough parking in the Jewelry District for their employees. Questions from the Commission members again were focused on parking issues rather than fixing the pedestrian connectivity problem. I overheard someone saying that the I-195 relocation just moved the Great Wall of China from one side of Providence to in front of RI Hospital.

    Brown’s presentation began by discussing how they have grown about 1 million sq ft per year, and now operate out of about 7 million sq ft, and anticipate adding another million in the next 10 years. The planners from Brown discussed how clustering is important in the beginning of these districts in order to overcome the feeling of emptiness that comes from disperate buildings. Brown emphasized that placemaking and quality of life are important. It was mentioned that a lot of the placemaking and residential components of the East Cambridge/MIT neighborhood were left until the end, but Brown would rather see that come first. Brown sees Ship Street Square as the pedestrian heart of the area, and will be programing lots of events there. Brown emphasized how important it is to add life to the area, and showed renderings of the area with the Streetcar – the only presenter to bring up the Streetcar. It was briefly implied that the people these knowledge districts are attracting want a more urban lifestyle, walkability, etc. A commission member asked a question from Brown about their commitment (and for that matter JWU and Lifespan’s) to using high quality iconic architecture such as the Brown Creative Arts Center designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (designers of the High Line Park in NYC) to bring further prominence to the redevelopment area. The answer was non-committal. There may have been another presentation after that, but I left after the Brown presentation.

    Overall there was this consistent line of thought throughout the presentations, (except Brown) and questions from commission members that seemed to focus on worrying about parking, with not enough overall focus on creating a model livable neighborhood for Providence based on less parking, active transportation, mixed uses, the Streetcar, etc.

    The major discussion that seemed to be missing from the real estate market discussion was, rather than comparing Providence to Cambridge/Boston, it would have been interesting to talk about how Providence can leverage it’s lower cost of living and other advantages to compete against Cambridge/Boston and draw people, companies, institutions, investments away from the area inside 128 and what Providence needs to invest in or focus on in order to do that.

  • Thank you, Jason, for your detailed notes. It’s unfortunate that there was so little talk–or even awareness–of the proposed streetcar. It seems to me like that project alone could serve as a catalyst for the type of development the panel envisions. If Lifespan is so worried about the walkability between the hospitals and the Knowledge district, that should be a sign. More parking isn’t the answer. If the EDC can give out a 75 million dollar loan to 38 Studios, why can’t we devote some funds to the streetcar? It seems like that alone would make the area more attractive to developers, providing the type of economic development that is supposedly going to come of this, and it will solve the recurrent problem of parking that was mentioned, again and again.

    Also, I was curious about your mention JWU’s intention to create something like the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts Cooking studio, so I did a like Googling. You’re right–it is a really cool idea. For those who are curious, here is a link to some pics of the building.

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