From 2003 to 2007 me and my husband Patrick, spent over $7 million dollars renovating the old Providence Gas Company purifier plant at 200 Allens Avenue for …
From 2003 to 2007 me and my husband Patrick, spent over $7 million dollars renovating the old Providence Gas Company purifier plant at 200 Allens Avenue for placement on the National Register of Historic Buildings. We renamed this barred-roofed landmark Conley’s Wharf because it was adjacent to State Pier No. 1, Rhode Island’s Ellis Island, where 84,000 Southern European immigrants landed from 1913 to 1934.
We used the restored structure, which we intended to be the matrix for the development of the waterfront, for such purposes as artists’ studios, an art gallery, a function center, which I managed, and the home of the Fabre Line Club, a cultural organization that held numerous heritage-oriented events, book signings, lectures, and ethnic food festivals, as well as Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame historical inductions and Constitution Day lectures by leading national scholars.
That building was intended to be the focal point for the clean-up and revival of the surrounding sixty-seven-acre area called the Allens Avenue Waterfront. Bounded on the east by the Providence River and on the west by I-95, this still toxic strip extended from the foot of Thurbers Avenue northward to the Hurricane Barrier.
Zoning was the barrier to its redevelopment, so we, along with the city's Department of Planning and the Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA), urged that the current marine industrial zone, allowing scrap yards, and salt piles, be changed to mixed use banning scrap and salt and allowing hotels, long-term care facilities, residential condos, stores, restaurants, and recreational sites. After expanding our nearby dock to attract the Newport Ferry, historic ships, and American Cruise Lines we even envisioned a marine terminal for ocean-going luxury ships to visit Providence and thereby boost the city's economy.
All our plans for a clean, vibrant waterfront, like those in nearly all East Coast port cities, were dashed when the City Council ignored us and the PRA by refusing to rezone for mixed use. This obstinacy, we believe, was the result of bribery and corruption.
Consider this all-to-typical Rhode Island political scenario. The state DEM which was leasing State Pier No. 1 adjacent to our building to Promet Marine, suddenly declared it surplus and offered it for sale subject to an existing 20-year lease. That condition discouraged bidders, so only the occupant/lessee, Promet, made a bid. The state accepted that lone $1.1 million dollar offer. When the city council killed rezoning, Promet sold the land to an Australian scrap company, waiting in the wings, for $12.8 million. In effect, Promet (a/k/a Tidewater) made over $11.5 million in profit on former state land by blocking the rezoning. All this was accomplished in the middle of the Great Recession when the price of land had dropped considerably.
Today's toxic waterfront and the fowl air it generates is the result of this uninvestigated scandal. When we sued Sims Metal Company, the purchaser of historic State Pier No. 1 (Rhode Island's Ellis Island), for damaging our National Register Building, we also analyzed the source of additional damage to us from the toxic particulate matter rising into the air from the scrap heap such as cadmium, lead, chromium, zinc, and other metals. We made the valid claim that these harmful toxins were traveling by the prevailing winds to nearby Hasbro Children's Hospital and the Rhode Island Hospital Complex.
Later, when we lost our dock and its surrounding land, great salt piles were placed thereon by the lessee of the new owner, National Grid. Runoff from this salt (and from scrap) pollute the Providence River.
I could go on indefinitely but the message is clear: Providence created its air pollution and toxicity. The Allens Avenue waterfront, a major source of this airborne blight, can still be saved, but it would take vision, common sense, and leadership -- qualities as scarce in Providence as fresh air.
The writer is a real estate developer, philanthropist and a 2023 inductee into the Rhode
Island Heritage Hall of Fame.