Opinion

It’s Time R.I. Rises to Challenge: Go Vertical with Development of I-195 Land

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A vertical farm on this parcel of I-195 land in Providence would draw crowds and help make Rhode Island more food secure. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Two decades ago the installation of an award-winning art sculpture sparked WaterFire. This now-hugely popular event is a tourist attraction, destination event for locals and a vital piece of the city’s economy. The idea ignited the revival of the city’s riverfront and gave Waterplace Park its mojo.

A vertical farm could do the same for the I-195 land the city and state are so desperate to develop, at least according to Lisa Raiola, founder and visionary behind the Warren-based culinary incubator Hope & Main.

“It would be model for all of New England,” she told ecoRI News earlier this year. “It would be an urban living space with agriculture. It would attract funding and tourism … a living-learning experiment that could be the future of local food.”

Such a multistory facility, complete with a family-attracting fish farm, would instantly become a curiosity to highway motorists — a billboard, sans an oversized head of a personal-injury lawyer.

Besides drawing more people into the city, such a development would grow local food, help local farmers and food producers, educate consumers, and would be a small step toward making Rhode Island more food secure.

The farm would generate tax dollars, create jobs and spur innovation. In fact, it would be much more than a farm and far more interesting than, say, privatized student housing. Such a complex could include unique urban office and living space, a brewery with space to grow hops, and local shops and restaurants. Chains need not apply. Visitors would come to tour the hanging gardens and stay to shop and dine. Build it with public transportation in mind, and make it pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Growing the local economy requires 21st-century thinking, not stale ideas regurgitated from the past. Baseball stadium? Rhode Island already has a good one, packed with plenty of history. Student housing? Enough already.

Why are we spending so much time and effort trying to entice out-of-state companies to relocate here by offering them tax breaks? There are plenty of hard-working local businesses that could use a helping hand, and likely won’t pack up and move when another city or state inevitably offers a bigger and better tax deal.

We should be building our local economy by working with existing businesses, preferably ones who weren’t lured here by the promise of not having to pay their fair share of taxes.

Rather than wait for a Dallas-based developer to propose building more student housing, or consider handing over taxpayer money to build a private baseball stadium, why can’t state and local officials be proactive and sincerely work with those who have a true passion for local investment?

The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and Gov. Gina Raimondo should be working with people like Raiola, Nat Harris and Leo Pollock at The Compost Plant, and David Dadekian, founder of EatDrinkRI. Dadekian wants to create something similar to New York City’s Chelsea Market or San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace here in Providence.

The commission and city and state officials should be collaborating with Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership to develop the economic opportunities afforded by the relocation of Route 195.

A vertical farm would be the perfect centerpiece to promote local food. We should be putting more time and energy into making Providence the epicenter of New England food tourism, rather than having the city used as a storage center for liquified natural gas.

Job creation and employment opportunities are without a doubt vital, but do we need to continue to rely on the expansion of fossil fuels and the building of a misleadingly named Clear River Energy Center to put people to work? The 10-mile river that had its name stolen isn’t going to benefit from another power plant built near its banks. These fossilized remains of the past aren’t clean, despite all the greenwashing.

The new Burrillville energy center, to be owned and operated by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, promises to help “solve New England’s energy needs by creating a 900+-megawatt clean energy center in Rhode Island.” This facility will largely be powered by natural gas. Natural gas isn’t clean. Cleaner than coal perhaps, but hardly worth bragging about.

Put local builders to work constructing a food campus/tourism hub that incorporates a vertical farm and a marketplace for New England products and artisans. Power the facility with renewable energy — an array of rooftop solar panels would be eye-catching from the interstate — and infuse the area around this hub with 21st-century ideas and technology. Then boast about job creation. Building more pipeline miles shouldn’t be applauded.

While we have plenty of self-proclaimed “thought leaders,” what we’re really missing are ideas — like WaterFire. In 2005, the Providence Business News reported that WaterFire attracted more than 1.1 million visitors to Providence in 2004 and had a direct economic impact of $33.2 million that year, including some $2.5 million in sales tax from WaterFire events. It’s popularity and economic punch haven’t waned.

Vertical farming, like the local food movement in general, is a growing industry that needs to be better embraced by our local leaders. Vertical farming also addresses the issues of finite arable land and human population growth, by enabling more food to be produced with less resources used. A vertical farm in Japan, for example, with rows of thin soil bases controlled to the tiniest variable for temperature, humidity and light, allows the facility to harvest 10,000 heads of lettuce in a single day while using 40 percent less power and 99 percent less water than traditional farms, according to Foundation Earth.

Sky Greens, a Singapore vertical farming company, employs a growing system that allows plants to be rotated on recycled water-powered aluminum frames and exposed to water every eight hours. For densely populated places such Singapore, vertical farming addresses the issues of limited real estate and the high cost of this said real estate. For the record, Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state.

In fact, vertical farming is so efficient that there is growing belief that this type of urban farming could move beyond a niche market and become a solution for food insecurity. Some even believe vertical farming could be the future of agriculture.

The Association for Vertical Farming claims crops require an average of 98 percent less water and 70 percent less fertilizer. There are, however, challenges. Maintenance costs for vertical farming are high. Hydroponic systems require nutrient replenishment, not all plants can be grown in such a system and pollination must be done by hand.

Just an idea. But it would be a refreshing — and needed — change to see Rhode Island’s power brokers address job creation and economic development by investing their time and our money into ideas that address food security, climate change, the environment and the prosperity of future generations.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.

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  1. I think this would be cooler than a stadium, but people should be really cautious about fighting housing. Housing shortages are what causes displacement from gentrification (and it’s really important to spread the word about that fact, because a lot of well-meaning people seem to think the opposite, that they can somehow stop gentrification by stopping housing development, and that’s just wrong). If students need affordable housing, they’ll spread out into whatever housing they can find, and that will raise the cost of housing elsewhere (that itself is a mixed good/bad, because it could revitalize a neighborhood up a certain point, but over a certain threshold would make housing less affordable). A lot of times people feel like students are a privileged class (which many are, especially at Brown/RISD) and fight housing proposals associated with them, but that’s ultimately what hurts everyone else down the line.

    One thing that would be good would be to have the housing be just general housing, and not "student" housing, because then people who wanted to live there could apply, including students, and you wouldn’t have as much of an emptiness in the summer. We should really be looking at purposes that multi-use.

    I kind of wonder to myself whether putting a vertical farm in the midst of our downtown is a good use, too, because if we don’t put housing in downtown we’re likely to displace that onto actual farmland further out. The downtown is the place that makes the most sense for dense development because it can be put alongside frequent, usable transit and will be near enough to other locations to be bikeable. Even if you built the same exact dense development on a green field in Warwick, it would be at a transit disadvantage because of its location. Will we get more food and green space by maximizing our development in the center and leaving the periphery less developed? I think probably yes. Let’s put our farms out there.

  2. James, the piece has nothing to do with "fighting" student housing. Brown University just built a mixed-use development on Thayer Street and it’s a good addition to the city. Also, the idea of a vertical farm goes well beyond a farm, as the column explains. The "farm" would, in fact, be mixed use. I’m not saying don’t build any housing, but let’s think creatively about how the space is used — in the case I lay out, using the land to create a local food campus/tourism hub that could also accommodate ongoing needs like housing. Frank Carini, ecoRI News editor

    • Maybe I misunderstood what you meant, but it seemed implied in several parts of the article that student housing was less imaginative than farm space. For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of the stadium, and I’d rather see this farm idea ten-to-one over a new ballpark. But I think housing and office space should take precedent over just about everything in downtown. I’m very concerned to make sure our land use reflects a shift away from cars, and without deepening our development in our cores, like Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and so on, we won’t ever be able to achieve that goal. The article mentions that we’re dense, and it’s true that we’re second densest as a state, but in some ways that’s a reflection of sample size error from the state being so small (we’re often first and last on a lot of lists, but that should be no surprise because of our size). The only city we have that makes it to the densest communities in the US list is Central Falls–none of our other cities make it–and it’s down towards the bottom towards places like Darby, Clifton Heights and Upper Darby which were just ordinary suburbs of Philly when I was growing up. A lot of Rhode Island is human-ed over, but by sprawl, which is why I think we have to be really honest about the urgency of focusing on infill. But I’m glad the proposal would include some housing.

      One idea that I think has its time coming is tearing up streets and making them gardens, perhaps just with narrow paths for walking or biking down the centers. And filling in wide streets with apartments and houses, so we end up with colonial lanes between them instead of full-on streets. That could be a cool way to implement something like this.

      I’m open-minded to hearing more about using solar cells to power indoor farms, but part of me wonders if we can spare solar capacity on farms, which we currently run on sun directly, if that means diverting that capacity away from solar cells being used to displace electrical use that already exists, which we currently get from coal or gas. I feel like there could be a steap opportunity cost to that. As it is, we do so poorly at providing renewables that we can’t count on there being an ample supply unless something changes, so that’s a trade-off to think about. On the other hand, this sounds like it means eliminating a lot of tractors, so maybe the energy needs wouldn’t be that great.

      As always, Frank, great article. You got me thinking.

  3. Growing more food in Rhode Island, and especially in our cities is the only thing that is going to help Rhode Island become more sustainable and prosperous. RI should follow the advice of the International Monetary Fund and stop giving tax breaks for the building of buildings. Tax breaks for millionaires actually HARM economies. As the economy shrinks we need to be much more self reliant. No more fossil fuel infrastructure that locks us into much worse global warming. No more medical industrial complex that guarantees we shall go broke trying to provide health care (you can not have more profits in health care and have affordable health care for all) . We need to grow food and the I-195 lands are the place to do it.

  4. Vertical gardening offers an incredible opportunity for small space growing. The yields can be tremendous. We are currently working on a vertical garden prototype for urban schools with limited space and resources. Through the generous and forward thinking grants from Whole Foods Whole Kids project and individuals, we will be dreaming, planning nd installing a vertical small scale garden in Rhode Island at our children’s school. Hope it will be the first of many innovative urban agriculture projects in the communities of our state. We have such a supportive state agricultural community but so little land to farm. This concept could be a draw for tourism, local food, scientific research and education. – Candace

  5. Why would you think this is a good idea. Not that I’ve heard any good ones besides a park. Food security comes from teaching people how to grow there own in their communities. Gainesville Fl Gift Gardens are a good example. What you propose is a factory farm, trading giant combines with pumps and assorted mechanisms. Also when people throw around terms like it will be powered by renewables, do you have any idea how much energy would be required and what would be needed to produce it especially in the dead of winter. RI has ample farmland and there is a growing movement to increase the growing season with high tunnels. Our household has been growing organic food under glass for the past 37 yrs both in cold frames and greenhouse without supplemental heat. I guess I would support this idea if we were going to launch Providence into deep space, for now let’s just try and live sustainably on the land that we have

  6. Jim, you make excellent points. The farm wouldn’t have to be huge and it would incorporate other uses, as I mentioned. I agree we need to teach people how to grow their own food, and it would be my hope that an urban vertical farm would help energize people to do just that. The sun would grow the food, like in a greenhouse or high tunnel. Renewable energy would help power the other operations I mention. I’m not a farmer, engineer or builder — some would argue I’m barely a journalist — but vertical farms and hydroponic operations are being done in other areas of the country, so why not here. The vertical farm would just be one component of the food campus/tourism hub vision. Leaving the space open and using it to create parks and an urban, edible forest would be great, but that’s not going to happen. My hope is that we develop something that reaches forward and addresses 21st-century challenges. Frank Carini, ecoRI News editor

  7. Coming from a tourism and farming background, I give this brilliant piece both thumbs up. Scope, vision, terrific appeal. There’s genius in this.

  8. The concept for vertical farming for RI urban areas should be explored. It would seem that we may have a good deal of empty factory space that could be turned to this use, using energy-efficient LED lighting where access to sunlight is limited. I would, however, argue against placing such a facility in downtown waterfront location that had already been designated for a public park. The amenities provided by a public space on the water in our downtown can bring tremendous benefit to existing local businesses and an attraction for new businesses. Once this land is built on, the opportunity for a public space in the most advantageous location will be lost. It may be possible to build a vertical farm structure on other land vacated by Rte. 195 – perhaps on the eastern shore of the river. It would still be a visible "billboard" to those traveling through Providence but would leave the other parcel to provide the public (and economic) benefit of a public space. Downtown open spaces soften and humanize the urban landscape; we can learn much from other cities both in the US and abroad in this regard. Not to mention that the public has paid for this land and its uses many times over – when the highway was built, when it was maintained, and when it was taken down. There should be an explicit public benefit no matter how the land is eventually developed.

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