What next for APEX?

Pawtucket City Coun­cil votes to la­bel river­front re­tail site a ‘blighted and sub­stan­dard’ prop­erty

Pawtucket Times - - FRONT PAGE - By JONATHAN BIS­SON­NETTE jbis­son­nette@paw­tuck­et­times.com

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.”

Ernest A. Brown photo

The Apex site, lo­cated just off In­ter­state 95 in down­town Pawtucket, on Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

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