Land Use

Development Plans for South Quay Waterfront Conflict

East Providence wants to develop neglected land the Narragansett Bay Commission wants to take by eminent domain

RI Waterfront Enterprises LLC bought the South Quay property, outlined in yellow, last June and has a plan to turn the site into a mixed-used entertainment venue and port. (Live Nation)

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The 30-plus acre gravel-covered parcel that juts into the Providence River like the tooth of a jack-o-lantern continues to serve as a symbol of poor coastal management and questionable business development.

The South Quay (pronounced key) was created some 40 years ago, when the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) allowed the Providence & Worcester Railroad to infill acres of the harbor to create a ship-to-rail terminal. The foundation for the artificial landmass was constructed, but the port was never built. The lot has sat mostly idle ever since, with brush and other signs of nature taking root. But the approval to forfeit a portion of upper Narragansett Bay is considered one of CRMC’s worst decisions.

Save The Bay hoped that after decades of neglect, the land would be restored to its natural state. But instead it has been included in the city’s 300-acre Waterfront Special Development District and was listed for sale to developers.

In recent months, South Quay has served as a temporary dumping ground for dewatering of the dredging slurry taken from the Providence River.

RI Waterfront Enterprises LLC bought the property last June for $4.5 million and, with the entertainment company Live Nation, offered a plan to turn the site into a mixed-used entertainment venue and port. Plans for the amphitheater have yet to materialize, but RI Waterfront Enterprises is pushing forward with a staging area for offshore wind construction. Nearby Bold Point Park (outlined in blue in the above image) already hosts outdoor events and concerts.

That South Quay concept was taking shape until the property appeared on the Jan. 21 agenda of the State Properties Committee meeting as a site to be condemned and taken by eminent domain. As a quasi-public state agency, the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) has the authority to invoke the land-taking. The Providence-based wastewater treatment facility is considering using the site to permanently landfill 600,000 cubic tons of rock and debris, called tunnel muck, from construction of the third phase of the NBC’s combined sewer overflow project. This 2-mile-long wastewater holding tunnel will be built 200 feet beneath Central Falls and Pawtucket along the Seekonk River.

Work on the NBC’s latest pollution-control project is expected to last about 12 months, beginning with tunnel boring in late 2022 or early 2023.

East Providence is fighting the land-taking at the Statehouse through two bills (H7946 and S2346). The legislation prohibits NBC from claiming any land within the city’s Waterfront Special Development District unless approved by the mayor and the Waterfront Commission.

At a March 10 Statehouse hearing for the House bill, Mayor Bob DaSilva called the offshore wind staging project “a once-in-a-lifetime investment by private capital … to build a lay-down area for the wind industry” and “a lynch pin that will help drive further development of the waterfront.”

DaSilva said he felt blindsided by the fact that the NBC didn’t inform the city of its intentions to claim the land.

NBC chairman Vincent Mesolella said if the South Quay isn’t available, wastewater ratepayers or the state will have to pay $35 million to have the tunnel muck sent to a landfill. He also promised to sell the property back to the owner after the the debris dumping is completed.

“One way or the other they are going to get their property back,” Mesolella said. “But the only condition is they are going to get it back in much better condition than they gave it to us.”

Michael Donegan, an attorney for RI Waterfront Enterprises, noted that the offshore wind terminal can’t wait for the the tunnel work to end. He also noted that the muck contains naturally occurring arsenic that will runoff into Narragansett Bay.

“If you let this happen, it kills that project,” Donegan said.

Members of the House and Senate judiciary committees sympathized with East Providence for the lack of public notice about the land-taking, but they noted the complicated legal precedent created by giving municipal entities veto power over the state’s long-held authority to exercise eminent domain.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation recently awarded $100,000 to RI Waterfront Enterprises as an economic-stimulus grant to study the South Quay as a port facility. The Site Readiness award was one of 15 totaling $800,000 to bolster 300 acres in the state for potential development.

Both the House and Senate version of the bill were held for further study.

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