What next for APEX?
Pawtucket City Council votes to label riverfront retail site a ‘blighted and substandard’ property
PAWTUCKET – The City Council on Wednesday night unanimously approved an amendment to the city’s Redevelopment Plan, which declares the Apex parcel blighted and substandard, while making clear that the city is open to having the current owners lease and/ or redevelop the property, acting as an “igniter” for the redevelopment of downtown.
However, an attorney representing Apex cautioned the council that an affirmative vote unfairly forced the property’s owners to try to find a tenant after the council had already declared the property blighted.
The council’s unanimous vote followed a nearly-three-hour-long public hearing, during which local business owners, former and current city officials, and attorneys representing the city and Apex debated the merits of the amendment.
The intent of the amendment, according to the language presented to the council, was to rehabilitate deteriorated properties, visually enhance the redevelopment area, provide needed infrastructure to support redevelopment, create employment opportunities, and encourage excellence in design and construction techniques in a manner that conforms with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“The centerpiece of the amendment will be the financing, construction, and development of a recreational facility on the land where the Apex building currently stands,” the amendment reads.
In addition to the Apex building at 100 Main St., the amendment focuses on the Berry Building at 101 Main
“The centerpiece of the amendment will be the financing, construction, and development of a recreational facility on the land where the Apex building currently stands.”
St., Apex Tire Center at 1 School St., the Apex overflow parking lot at 10 School St., and the former St. George’s Church site at 46 Main St.
Representing the city on Wednesday night was attorney Theodore Orson of Providence’s Orson & Brusini. The amendment, Orson said, presents the city’s vision to redevelop downtown and
the riverfront, establishes the Apex property as the centerpiece of the city’s redevelopment, and makes clear that the city would support the current owner in redeveloping the property – provided the plan is consistent with the city’s vision for downtown.
What the council was not voting on Wednesday, Orson explained, was to authorize the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency or any other division of the city to acquire the property through eminent domain. At some point, though, the city may seek to acquire the properties either through consensual sale or eminent domain, he said, as the amendment establishes that the Apex building lot and the four adjacent lots owned by the group are “blighted and substandard.”
However, attorney Joseph Whelan, who represented Apex at Wednesday’s council meeting, decried the process, arguing that the city has no plans and is essentially forcing the Apex owners to find a tenant and bring it back to the city for approval after the council has already declared the property blighted.
“Does that make sense to you? That we’re being asked to find a tenant, find a lease, and in the very same vote declaring the property blighted? That doesn’t work,” Whelan said.
Whelan also said that “there is nobody in this room and nobody in this city that wants to see this property redeveloped more than the owners of the property. We want to move forward.” He was critical of the land being
used as a “political football” over the past two-plus years, as the lot was identified as the potential home of a new Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark.
“It was made clear very early in those conversations that this was the site and very early in those conversations, the word ‘eminent domain’ was used in public by the administration,” Whelan said. “We did not want to get into an adversarial relationship with the city, we did not want to stop that program, so we said nothing about that.”
Whelan further said that the debates over the potential ballpark hindered development at Apex, saying developers would decline to invest time, money, and resources into a property that was going to be used as the future home of a ballpark.
In the years prior to the debate over the PawSox, Whelan said Apex officials were working with an unnamed “major national retailer,” but right before signing the lease, the retailer pulled out due to a corporate policy based on the size and makeup of the stores. Whelan further said that Apex currently has “very active interest” from a tenant who the city would be “very welcoming” toward.
Orson rejected the notion of eminent domain having been used as a threat, saying: “no one wants to do eminent domain. Eminent domain’s the worst way to buy a property. When you buy by eminent domain, the PRA is buying a property without knowing the purchase price. Who in their right mind would do that?”
However, he said, if eminent domain is the only option and if it’s necessary to develop downtown, then the city may be in that position.
When asked what would be the next move if the council affirmed the amendment, Whelan said the owners did not want to get involved in litigation with the city, and that the perception would be that the council is taking another step toward taking the property by eminent domain.
“There is no sense in moving forward with this vote tonight,” Whelan said, arguing that the council’s vote would leave the owners in stasis – with the city threatening to take the property and at the same time thwarting downtown development.
Whelan’s talking points ultimately did not score points with the council, as the panel voted unanimously to support the amendment.
District 4 Councilor John J. Barry III cited the future development of Narragansett Park Plaza on Newport Avenue as “very exciting plans” that have moved forward rapidly, saying “if there is a vision and a desire, you can make it happen.”
“This body has been more than fair to Apex. They have not been fair to the city of Pawtucket, so I strongly support this,” Barry said.
District 1 Councilor and Council President David P. Moran said he’s been “extremely frustrated personally” with the years of inactivity at the Apex land.
“We need to do something, something has to be done there sooner than later. I still think both parties
should be able to work together,” Moran said, adding he was not convinced that the amendment would put a stranglehold on Apex from trying to market the property.
In a two-page letter to the council, Andrew Gates – the president of Apex Companies – opposed the amendment, saying he is “unequivocally committed to redeveloping the Apex properties in a way that will promote economic development in the city.”
He said the loss of the PawSox, while disappointing, offered a clean slate to remove the shadow of eminent domain that lingered over the property for nearly three years. But, he said, “we immediately entered a new chapter of clamoring for an eminent domain process while we are in significant and substantive discussions with potential tenant users.”
“Passing amendments to an ordinance mandating that we produce leases while attaching an improper designation of blight to our property puts undue pressures on our ability to redevelop the property,” he wrote.
Deputy Director of Administration Dylan M. Zelazo said highly-visible and strategically important properties stand vacant and underutilized downtown and that each day that passes without progress toward returning the city’s downtown to a thriving center is a loss for the city and state.
“There can be no doubt that these parcels are indeed, and have been for some time, blighted,” Zelazo said. “Downtown and the river-
front cannot continue to have impediments to their revitalization on their doorstep.”
Jeanne Boyle, the city’s Commerce Director and the executive director of the PRA, said the fundamental purpose of the amendment is to create a “vibrant and economically-diverse entrance way to the city’s downtown.”
Downtown continues to struggle, she said, as unemployment and poverty rates in the area are above city and state averages, while population decline is occurring at a swift rate. As recently as last September, Boyle said, there was more than 500,000 square feet of vacant buildings and 25 acres of vacant land downtown.
“What the amendment does is identify the Apex properties as uniquely located at the entrance way to downtown and also the riverfront...” Boyle said, as the Apex building right now defines Pawtucket from the view of passing motorists along Interstate 95.
Former Planning Director Michael Cassidy echoed the sentiment, calling Apex “the most prominent property in Pawtucket … It says a lot about what Pawtucket is, and sitting vacant and underutilized all these years says there’s nothing going on in Pawtucket. It’s a hard sell for the city to convince people there is things going on in the city, but nobody sees that, they see this vacant icon sitting dead in the water and this is an effort by the city to change that.”
The Apex site, located just off Interstate 95 in downtown Pawtucket, on Thursday afternoon.