PBN News: Developer sought for Shooters site

From the July 4, 2011 edition

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE: Last year, voters approved a $3.2 million bond for the DEM to buy the former Shooters property from DOT.

Calling all developers looking for a waterfront property in the capital city: The R.I. Department of Environmental Management wants to hear from you.

As DEM advances plans to convert the former Shooters nightclub property at India Point to a public park, the cash-strapped agency is turning to the private sector. This month the agency plans to publish a request for information, looking for a developer to construct a revenue-generating facility that can profit a developer and the state.

“Right now that’s the only way I see it working out,” DEM Director Janet Coit said. “If it were a purely public venture, I don’t know how we’d get the resources.”

Coit said she is open to reviewing virtually any proposal that complements a park and keeps public access to the water. Possible concepts include a restaurant, a fish market, a community center, a marina, a ferry service or some combination of all those. The property could even host a ferry servicing parks on Narragansett Bay islands.

Coit wants proposals returned in the fall. She then wants to set up a series of public workshops to take comments on the proposals, with the aim of rendering a decision by the end of the year. A project could start construction as soon as 2013.

“I really want to have an open-minded opportunity for people to weigh in with ideas,” Coit said. “I know there’s a lot of interest and a ton of potential.”

DEM will formally receive control of the property after the R.I. Department of Transportation completes demolition of most of the former nightclub last known as Bootleggers. Demolition is expected to start this month, a spokesman said.

The department purchased the club and its marina in 2000 as a staging area for the Interstate 195 relocation project. When DOT said that it planned to place the property on the market and use the sales proceeds to help pay for the Iway project, a coalition of neighbors intervened.

They feared that a developer would construct a towering residential complex they said would be out of place for the sliver of land wedged between the highway and Narragansett Bay. Better, they argued, to build a community facility to complement India Point Park and the Community Boating Center.

Last year, the neighbors scored a victory when voters approved a $3.2 million bond for the DEM to buy the property from DOT. The bond, however, included no money for readying the site as a park or community facility.

Under the DEM vision, a private developer would put up the capital to clean up the site and construct a facility. A developer would then pay for a lease or share profits, which DEM could plow back into upkeep.

A community group, Head of the Bay Gateway, has been advocating for the construction of a community center with event space, a restaurant, offices and a marina. A December 2010 study by the group said such a facility would cost $3.3 million. Adding a marina would cost an additional $4.5 million. (But any marina owner would find a perk, because while DOT plans to remove the decking of the existing docks, it will keep the piers.)

A mixed-use facility could generate a $385,000 annual profit, Head of the Bay says. A marina could deliver a $203,195 annual profit.

Head of the Bay Gateway Co-Chair David Riley said his group would not try to tackle the project itself. Instead, it’s been acting as a sort of unofficial matchmaker and been successful in sparking interest from a Texas developer and local developer Peter Gill Case.

Case developed the Harris Avenue office complex in Providence constructed of shipping containers. Last week, he said he planned to review DEM’s formal request when the agency releases it.

“I have an interest in developing and pursuing and being part of the regrowth of the vacant lands left behind by 195,” he said.

A project, however, would not be easy, Case cautioned. The property remains cut off from the rest of the city by the highway. Foot traffic is low and it will take time to create the property as a destination itself.

So Case wants the state to take a slightly different approach. He said he would like to see the state coordinate the development of the Shooters property with land available near Wickenden Street after the removal of the highway.

Case said that the state could offer the Shooters and Wickenden Street land as a parcel. That would provide a developer a chance to edge the Wickenden Street neighborhood closer to Shooters. And revenue from the Wickenden Street land could help sustain the Shooters project until it matures.

“I admit it’s a longshot because of the possibility of not having coordination,” he said. “But who knows, there’s a lot going on with the parcels.”

Thomas E. Deller, director of the Providence Department of Planning and Development, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

There are others paying attention, too. One neighbor already salivating is the boating center. The nonprofit is short on space but itching to create keelboat and kayaking programs, Executive Director John O’Flaherty said. Any conversion project would likely prove too costly for the organization to tackle single-handedly, but it could come onboard as part of a team, O’Flaherty said.

“We think because we’re here, we kind of have a unique opportunity to jump in right away with feet hitting the ground and help ensure the public has a say in what happens there,” he said.

At the end of the day, DEM could find itself with an arrangement similar to one it had maintained at Waterplace Park. When the state turned over the park to DEM, it solicited a private developer to build and operate a restaurant in return for payments. Eventually, DEM decided to lease the entire park to the city for $1 a year. The city now maintains the park and keeps the restaurant payments.

By Chris Barrett
PBN Staff Writer
Twitter: @Cbarrettri