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Making the Waterfront Work: A Case for True Mixed-Use Redevelopment of Providence Harbor
By Austin Becker

Go down to India Point Park on a weekday afternoon and you can witness the gears of Rhode Island's marine economy churning along. A tanker offloads home heating oil at Wilkesbarre Pier, the signature- green tugboat Roger Williams gets under way from Providence Steamboat and escorts a bulk carrier full of road salt into Sprague, and across the river, fishing boats, ferries, and barges haul out for repairs at Promet Marine Services. Even at night, the sounds of ships' whistles echo throughout the surrounding neighborhoods as vessels from around the world maneuver through Providence Harbor. Though isolated from much of the city by gates and fences, northern Narragansett Bay's working waterfront is alive and thriving. But this waterfront is poised for change. Planning efforts and development are already under way in Providence and East Providence that promise millions of dollars of tax revenue and a whole new look for the waterfront. These plans call for the phase-out of maritime industry to the north of Field's Point in favor of mixed-use residential, office, and retail developments. In considering the future of this harbor, however, it is critical to recognize that it is a multifaceted resource. Rivers and seaways offer not just great views, but also serve as transportation routes that alleviate roadway congestion and move products cheaply and efficiently.

Postcard of Port of Providence

Postcard “The Steamboat Wharves, Providence, R.I.” published by The Rotograph Company.

Deep-water ports like the Port of Providence are gateways to the global economy, linking inland markets to supply and demand centers around the world. Indeed, almost all of the energy needs of Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut and Massachusetts are supplied via marine transportation through the Port of Providence. Over 2,000 ships per year offload asphalt, salt, cement, and petroleum products and load up with scrap metal bound for international markets—over 9 million tons of cargo move through the port each year. Working waterfronts serve a vital function in both the nation's economy and in the local tapestry of the urban seaport. They provide jobs, energy, and critical supplies to the region and connect the city directly with the global economy. In the United States, over 2.2 billion tons of domestic and international cargo is moved by water every year. Twenty-four percent of domestic cargo is carried by water, and over 124,000 Americans are employed on U.S. vessels. These numbers are expected to increase—by 2010, 1.3 billion tons of domestic cargo alone will be moved by water each year.

Despite the projections for an expanding ocean economy, other new uses such as tourism, recreation, and land conversion for housing are quickly displacing the more traditional uses of urban waterfront in port cities around the country. Water-dependent uses, such as fishing, cargo, and energy facilities, that provide jobs for skilled workers and economic growth for a city have long vied for space at the water's edge. But now, water views and rising property values are creating additional demand for waterfront land, putting traditional uses at risk of being shut out by condominiums and office spaces. The potential loss affects not only owners and employees of maritime businesses, but also society as a whole as the costs of energy and its delivery rise, road congestion from trucks worsens, and elements of our maritime-cultural heritage are eroded and displaced.

The state of Rhode Island, in studies such as the Marine Resources Development Plan; The Marine Cluster: An Investment Agenda for Rhode Island's Marine Related Economy; The Rhode Island Economic Development Policy and Plan; and other plans and policies, seeks to strengthen its marine economy. Providence Harbor is one of only a very few locations on the East Coast that meets all of the critical requirements for a commercial port: It has a 40-foot deep water channel, industrial zoning, a protected harbor, easy access to railways and highways, and a hub location that serves a broad market. Recently dredged at a cost to taxpayers of $45 million, Providence Harbor is now being eyed for a number of new uses and the expansion of some existing uses. Many of the harbor's marine facilities have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements in anticipation of the new businesses resulting from the dredging.

Providence Harbor, however, is one of only a very few locations available for new waterfront development that could result in significant positive change for the city: more tax revenue, more public space along the water, and whole new neighborhoods on the riverfront. With forethought and planning, these diverse uses can coexist and ultimately benefit each other. Many people enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of an active waterfront. In cities like Duluth, Minn., for example, tourists pack the banks of the shipping channel to watch the massive bulk carriers pass under the highway bridge. In Seattle, many of the public parks feature viewing areas of the container port that allow visitors to witness the region's economic engine in action. Cities like Portsmouth, N.H., and Baltimore have also found ways to weave together the working waterfront with public space, creating new mixed-use areas where cranes, tugboats, and huge supertankers can be seen from public parks and walkways. By showcasing the working waterfront, instead of eliminating it, urban dwellers, tourists, and recreational users can witness the workings of the port while the state retains skilled jobs and a vibrant and diverse economy.

Forethought, good planning, and innovation can foster a symbiotic relationship between public space, environmental stewardship, and maritime industry. People appreciate the maritime industrial aesthetic and it can be used in design as an asset, rather than a detraction. It is possible to create special waterfront places where people can appreciate the working waterfront and enjoy expansive views of the Bay while allowing the maritime economy to continue to grow and benefit the entire region. Indeed, it is time to reconsider the waterfronts of Providence and East Providence. However, reclaiming the waterfront should integrate, rather than expel, current and future maritime uses.

—Austin Becker is a Coastal Manager for Rhode Island Sea Grant/URI Coastal Resources Center and a 2006 URI Master in Marine Affairs graduate. This editorial was adapted from his major paper.

Rhode Island Sea Grant
University of Rhode Island
Graduate School of Oceanography
Narragansett, RI 02882

Coastal Institute
University of Rhode Island
Graduate School of Oceanography
Room 124
Narragansett, RI 02882

 

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