Riverfront revival in Pawtucket?

ECONOMIC ENGINE: From left, Pawtucket Foundation Executive Director Aaron Hertzberg, Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien and city Planning Director Barney Heath at a 7.4-acre Division Street lot targeted for redevelopment. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
ECONOMIC ENGINE: From left, Pawtucket Foundation Executive Director Aaron Hertzberg, Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien and city Planning Director Barney Heath at a 7.4-acre Division Street lot targeted for redevelopment. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series looking at efforts to preserve and revitalize the state’s downtown areas.

Swapping rusted, green steel for the colorful lights and Art Deco-shapes of Pawtucket’s new Interstate 95 Bridge has given city leaders a boost of confidence that other neglected parts of their riverfront can be improved.
A central focus of Pawtucket and neighboring Central Falls for more than a decade, riverfront redevelopment slowed during the recession, giving local officials the chance to study, plan and prioritize for the recovery.
Now that the economy appears headed in the right direction, some of those plans are being put into motion, starting with the area directly within the glow of the bridge’s new $300,000 light system.
“I don’t think anyone realized how beautiful the [bridge] undercarriage with the lighting scheme would be,” said Aaron Hertzberg, executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation, which has helped finance and organize riverfront economic-development efforts. “It is pretty impressive, and now we are regrouping to see how to take advantage of that.”
The Seekonk and Blackstone rivers wind through downtown Pawtucket and have formed the traditional backbone of both cities’ industrial and commercial bases. By revitalizing the waterfront corridor, city leaders hope to bring activity to their central business districts and jobs to nearby residential areas.
Just south of the new I-95 bridge, Division Street has become a center of redevelopment activity.
At a former tire shop at 21 Division St. on the banks of the river, Womens Care, a group of doctors affiliated with Women & Infants Hospital, has started work to create a new medical office.
Next door, Pawtucket is taking another stab at redeveloping 45 Division St., a 7.4-acre vacant lot that used to host a General Motors dealership and was donated to the city.
An earlier city effort to redevelop the property focused exclusively on building a hotel there, but the winning bid from Carpionato Group stalled when the market collapsed and the city took back control of the land.
A hotel is no longer required and the city is open to a mixed-use project with apartments above first-floor shops. Three developers – Apex Development Co., Tai-O Group and Peregrine Group – responded to a request for qualifications at the end of January, Heath said.
The Valley Breeze reported that Tai-O is looking at a mixed-use project centered around a hotel that could include a restaurant and condominiums.
The city plans to issue a request for detailed proposals by the end of the month.
Abutting 45 Division St. are two other municipally owned parcels with a combined additional 3 acres to the south, and the request for qualifications includes them.
Heath said the city would like to see developers include public access and recreation in those other parcels, which back up to the state pier, where a $1.5 million federal brownfield cleanup is set to take place in the spring.
Across the Seekonk River, Heath said Pawtucket is working with National Grid in the early stages of planning for future redevelopment of the 11-acre Tidewater site on Taft Street.
“[National Grid] has expressed a desire to lease the property, but is open to ideas to see how it should be used,” Heath said. “We are putting together a community process and neighborhood perspective for that site.”
Perhaps the most conspicuous area where redevelopment does not appear to be moving forward is the Apex shopping center on the north side of the I-95 bridge.
Heath said Apex, which has been looking for a supermarket or other retail tenant for several years, is still actively marketing the property.
Upstream around City Hall and Slater Mill, the city is working on repairing part of the river retaining wall damaged in the 2010 floods and trying to find a less expensive way to build a fish ladder.
And on Fountain Street, Scott Davis, owner of the Rhode Island Antique Mall, is working on redeveloping the former Geo H. Fuller & Son Co. mill, likely into apartments or live-work spaces.
Across the city line in Central Falls, that city late last year approved zoning relief for Tai-O Corp. to build new loft apartments in the complex of former mills it owns on Roosevelt Avenue. The latest project, which needed relief from off-street parking minimums, is slated to create 90 new lofts at 521 Roosevelt Ave., said Central Falls Planning Director Stephen C. Larrick. Tai-O already has 80 apartments in two separate former mill buildings nearby on Roosevelt.
Further from the river, the city has allowed Lenmar-Blossom Joint Venture Realty Trust to tear down a former retail building at 361 Dexter St. and build a new larger shopping plaza for up to eight stores, Larrick said.
Perhaps the most closely watched property in the city, the prominent Central Falls Landing on Broad Street at the Cumberland line, could also be nearing a redevelopment bid.
The city took over the former American Supply Co. mill last year after the state bought it from a developer – who failed in a bid to tear it down for a fast-food drive-through – for $300,000.
Larrick said state officials were expected to finish an environmental review of the property this winter, before launching a request for proposals to find a developer.
Larrick said the city will consider a range of uses as long as they preserve the building, with apartments above shops or restaurants a possibility.
In October, the Pawtucket Foundation released a market analysis of development potential in the river corridor for the next five years.
“The projection was for continued demand for residential space and small demand for commercial space,” Hertzberg said. “But it said we could create more demand for both if infrastructure improvements were made.”
Examples of those improvements include extending the Blackstone Bikeway, making more one-way streets two-way, and improving signs on the city’s gateway streets.
“Anytime you work on planning projects it takes time to strategize and start to align funding, resources, energy and initiatives to construct them,” Hertzberg said. “We are in this for the long game. When you see medical development on Division and Tai-O on Roosevelt, that is the private-sector seeing opportunity and making investments. The public sector can play a role in stimulating that by enhancing infrastructure and improving zoning practices.” •

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