Rhode Island keeps on failing to develop the land freed up by the Route 195 relocation. That points to some serious problems with economic development in the state.
In sharp contrast to other states, Rhode Island is often hostile, rather than welcoming, to development. Its red tape is thick and ubiquitous. Veto powers are given to local politicians who often bring personal ambitions and financial interests to the table. The BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) are awarded extensive opportunities to slow down, drag out and then halt development.
Last week, Providence City Council President David Salvatore, a lobbyist for local realtors, lent his depressing voice to those opposing a new skyscraper in Providence. Some on the East Side dislike changing the skyline — the sort of thing that dynamic cities do all the time — and Mr. Salvatore has signaled he will listen to them rather than promote the welfare of most of the city and the rest of the state.
The Hope Point Tower, proposed by New York developer Jason Fane, would bring new energy and new residents to the downtown. The city’s most distinguished architect, Friedrich St. Florian, who designed the nation’s stunning World War II Memorial, in Washington, has been a vocal champion of the $250 million to $350 million Fane project — and, indeed, of Providence’s continued renaissance.
The missing piece of further progress, Mr. St. Florian argues, is a greater population of downtown residents. A new stream of well-to-do inhabitants would mean desperately needed tax revenue for the city and customers for restaurants, shops, grocery stores and other businesses. As nearby Boston demonstrates, development often spurs more development.
Unfortunately, Mr. Salvatore seems prone to the Eeyore-style negativity that is so strongly associated with Rhode Island, in adopting the views of those who don't want a tower on 195 land while expressing the fear that a new skyscraper might not be successful. The marketplace will be arguing otherwise, of course, if a developer and his investors want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project.
Indeed, Mr. St. Florian, like others who study national economic trends, argues that Providence is ideally suited for such development. Growing numbers of empty-nesters and professionals, tired of giant metropolises, are "seeking attractive mid-sized cities that offer a superior quality of life." Such cities “are often college towns that offer cultural amenities, excellent restaurants, teaching hospitals and easy access to desirable recreational environments.”
It is tragic that Providence leaders lack the vision to recognize this.
Instead of bringing jobs, economic vitality and tax revenues to Providence — which was originally the idea for the 195 land — Mr. Salvatore and his friends would leave an expanse of dirt, along with the rest of the undeveloped plots. More troubling, the pummeling of Mr. Fane sends a message to investors far and wide to steer clear of Rhode Island rather than run the gauntlet of its costly, time-consuming and often opaque political process.
This approach isn’t working. If the state is serious about developing its 195 land, it will have to change course. A far more streamlined process seems necessary. The legislature may have to change the rules for this land, perhaps treating it like other state property.
That’s if Rhode Island wants actual economic development here, rather than the mere theory of it.
More from the Editorial Board: The Insiders