Providence, R.I., Is Building on a Highway’s Footprint

A grassy thoroughfare in Providence, R.I., shows where Interstate 195 once ran. The highway was moved after a new bridge was built, making 19 acres available for new development.CreditCity of Providence, Department of Planning and Development


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A real estate initiative involving 19 acres of vacant land made available after the relocation of Interstate 195 is attracting interest from developers after a sluggish start.

Most of the new parcels became ready for development last year, after considerable infrastructure work was completed in the newly formed I-195 Redevelopment District. Among other things, the state laid new underground power lines and realigned streets to attract developers.

Now three projects are going forward on the area called LINK land, named for the way that its development will reunite sections of the city formerly cut off by the old highway. And other projects have been proposed, among them a multimillion-dollar life sciences complex on five acres and a riverfront stadium for the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox baseball team.

The first project, at least in terms of a groundbreaking, was for Johnson & Wales University, which four months ago began building a three-story, 71,000-square-foot engineering and academic center on one of two parcels the college bought from the state for $3.9 million. The $40 million project, on the west side of the Providence River, is scheduled to be completed in 2016 and will house the university’s new biology program and its School for Engineering and Design.

A rendering of the Providence River pedestrian bridge that will connect the east side of the city to the west. CreditinForm Studio

The university, which has 10,000 undergraduates enrolled at its location here, bought 1.7 acres as soon as the former highway land became available, John J. Bowen, the university’s chancellor, said. Its plans for the second parcel will depend on what happens with the rest of the I-195 land, he said.

In the same vicinity as that project, Dallas builders are planning to develop suite-style housing for students and faculty on a 1.25-acre parcel that the companies agreed to buy last year for $2.7 million. Preliminary plans by the Lincoln Property Company and its sister entity, Phoenix Property Company, call for a six-story building that can house 400 to 500 residents, with 18,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor.

Then, across the Providence River, on the east side of the city, a local development company is planning a $20 million mixed-use project with 4,500 square feet of retail space, rental housing and office space. Royal Oaks Realty, headed by Richard P. Baccari II, agreed to buy the site for $750,000 in January. It is about one-third of an acre and is strategically situated at the base of the Fox Point neighborhood.

The land freed up by the relocation of I-195 is creating a “whole new neighborhood” at the base of Fox Point, which is close to India Point Park on the waterfront, Mr. Baccari said. He called being able to develop a high-density project in such a highly visible location a “phenomenal opportunity.”

Joseph Azrack, chairman of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, an authority created by Rhode Island to market the former highway land and to oversee its development in a way that generates economic activity for the state, said he wouldn’t be surprised if “we didn’t have commitments for all of our land within the next five years.”

Compared with Boston to its north and New York City to its south, Providence is a great buy for developers, Mr. Azrack said, citing the city’s considerably lower cost per buildable square foot. In addition, interest rates are low, and the state and city, which have new elected leadership, have come together to create a package of development incentives that has stimulated more interest in the land, he said.

A rendering of Johnson & Wales University’s plans for a 71,000-square-foot engineering and academic center. The $40 million project is scheduled to be completed in 2016.CreditJohnson & Wales University

When she ran for office, Gov. Gina Raimondo pledged she would aggressively market the I-195 land as an innovation hub that would feed off the state’s many universities and hospitals and help to create a new high-wage economy for the state. After taking office in January, she replaced all but one of the volunteers who served on the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. She also pushed through a budget that included a $25 million I-195 fund, which can be used to provide gap financing for worthy projects, and a Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credit, among other incentives.

“I’m on a mission to create more high-wage jobs in Rhode Island,” the governor said.

To do this, Rhode Island has to tap into its strengths, and those includeBrown University, Johnson & Wales, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Rhode Island Hospital, among other first-rate educational and medical institutions, she said.

Additionally, the state worked closely with the city’s newly elected mayor, Jorge O. Elorza, to create a tax stabilization agreement for developers interested in the I-195 land. The lack of a standard agreement, which provides predictability and stability to developers, was discouraging developers submitting proposals from coming to the fore, Mr. Azrack and others said. But now, with the agreement in place, and word getting out to developers about the new incentives, more proposals for the land are coming in, he said.

For example, a plan was presented to the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission two months ago by Wexford Science & Technology of Baltimore and CV Properties of Boston to create a life sciences complex on five acres. Hailed by Ms. Raimondo as just the sort of innovative, job-creating proposal she wanted to see, the complex would include research laboratories, a hotel, housing and retail space.

A subsidiary of BioMed Realty Trust, Wexford specializes in creating research parks near universities. CV Properties is converting an old power station here into a nursing education center for the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. Brown University will also open administrative offices in the building. That project, the South Street Power Station project, is being financed by Wexford, which has developed research parks that include Philadelphia’s University City Science Center and the University of Maryland BioPark.

A rendering shows plans by Wexford Science & Technology of Baltimore and CV Properties of Boston to create a life sciences complex on five acres. CreditWexford Science +Technology

The proposed complex here would cost $400 million to $500 million to develop, according to Richard Galvin, CV Properties’ president and founder. If all goes as planned — the proposal still has to be approved by the I-195 commission — there could be a groundbreaking next year, he said.

Jim Cullinan, a spokesman for Wexford, said the company was eager to proceed if the commission believed the project was good for Providence.

He and Mr. Galvin said the city and state’s new political leadership had energized the development atmosphere, creating excitement about the potential for the I-195 land.

One of the most-talked-about and contentious proposals is the pitch by new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to build a stadium on the west side of the city, near where the life sciences complex has been proposed. It is drawing criticism because it would mean the elimination of McCoy Stadium in nearby Pawtucket, a funky ballpark that has been the team’s longtime home, and would require a degree of public financing, which many Rhode Islanders oppose.

An initial financing plan proposed by the owners, a group that includes Larry Lucchino, Red Sox chief executive, asked too much of the state’s taxpayers; lawmakers rejected it this year. But the owners are reworking their numbers and still want to build a new home for the Pawtucket team in the I-195 District, saying they believe that investing in a new stadium would be more cost-efficient than refurbishing McCoy, said Charles Steinberg, a Red Sox executive vice president.

Mr. Steinberg has been visiting senior centers, libraries and other forums throughout the state this summer to listen to taxpayers and to explain the stadium plan.

“There have been and continue to be discussions on this subject,” said Stefan Pryor, the state’s new commerce secretary.

“We believe this land could be one of the drivers of Rhode Island’s future economy,” he said, adding, “We should not underestimate its potential.”