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Commissioners appointed to allot I-195 land

Providence and Rhode Island government officials have chosen seven members to serve on a powerful commission designated to oversee the development of land made available by the relocation of Interstate 195. The commission will determine who will acquire and develop the land.

Governor Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 signed the bill establishing the commission in July after the Rhode Island General Assembly passed it June 30, at the tail end of its regular legislative session.

The House and Senate amended a previous draft of the bill to include provisions giving Mayor Angel Taveras more power in the appointment process. The legislation allows Taveras to recommend a list of at least six people for Chafee to narrow down to three potential commissioners. In line with the legislation, Chafee selected Women and Infants Hospital nurse Barbara Hunger, Meeting Street School President John Kelly and lawyer Mark Ryan from Taveras' picks, who were announced in an Aug. 23 press release.

The legislation also provides Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence, with the opportunity to contribute three names for consideration, from which Chafee selected one person — Kelly, who also made Fox's list — as a nominee.

Chafee chose the remaining four commissioners, two of whom have affiliations with the University — Adjunct Assistant Professor of Physiology Barrett Bready '99 MD'03, who is also the president of Jewelry District biotech company NABsys, and Diana Johnson MA'71, an art consultant and past director of the David Winton Bell Gallery. Chafee's other nominees include Michael Van Leesten, the CEO of the Rhode Island branch of non-profit organization Opportunities Industrialization Center, and Colin Kane, a real-estate development principal and Chafee's pick for the commission's chair.

The nominees are now subject to the Senate's approval. The vote should come before the fall special session commences in October, said Senate Press Secretary Greg Pare. Though no date has been set for the nominees' confirmations, Senate Corporations Committee will review the nominees and conduct public hearings during the month of September before making a recommendation to the full Senate, Pare said.    

The amendment changing the distribution of nominations was one of many to make the bill more palatable to those who feared the commission would grant too much power to the state, said John Marion, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause Rhode Island.

"Everybody's goal is for this land to be developed for the city and state to maximize their potential," Marion said. But the city and state have slightly different primary objectives. Given the city's dire budget situation, its officials are concerned about generating additional revenue from property taxes, while the state is chiefly focused on job creation, Marion added.

"This needs to be a partnership," he said, "not a tyranny from the state."

The law also mandates that if tax-exempt institutions like Brown purchase any of the land, they must either enter into an agreement with the city to make payments in lieu of taxes or pay the full value of property taxes. The University has expressed interest in developing the I-195 land, which neighbors the Jewelry District and its recently-opened Warren Alpert Medical School.

University administrators hope the "knowledge economy" anchored by the Med School and affiliated hospitals will continue to thrive, said Marisa Quinn, Brown's vice president of public affairs and University relations.

But University Hall has not been approached to play a role on the commission, Quinn said.

The bill further grants two parcels of land to Johnson and Wales University. It states the school is potentially the sole party interested in the land due to the parcels' small sizes and their close proximity to other property owned by Johnson and Wales.

Community members expressed concerns about the potential negative impact of allowing tax-exempt institutions to purchase the I-195 land at a June 29 House Finance Committee hearing. But Richard Licht, the state's director of administration, testified during the hearing that institutions like Brown could further transform the area into a science and technology cluster, spurring economic development.

There was additional concern that the bill's authors worded the text so that it would benefit potential land developers before Providence residents, Marion said. An initial draft of the bill included a clause allowing individuals affiliated with potential buyers of the land to serve on the commission. Quinn said University officials had no hand in drafting the bill, adding that University representatives might have attended public hearings on the commission in an unofficial capacity — and without offering any testimony.

Common Cause initially got involved because the group felt that bill's original draft violated the state's constitutional separation of powers. Once this was fixed in subsequent drafts, Common Cause turned its attention to the "unbridled power of the commission," Marion said.

Daisy Schnepel, the president of the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, said the original Senate version of the bill did not make Providence and the state equal partners in managing the land. Though the property belongs to the state, its location within the city affects Providence residents directly, Schnepel said.

"It stands to reason that people in other parts of the state wouldn't be as concerned," she added.

The association sought to change the bill by urging members to send Fox a personal message alongside an official statement outlining the legislation's perceived flaws, Schnepel said. Other neighborhood groups like the Jewelry District Association and the College Hill Neighborhood Association also expressed opposition to earlier versions of the bill, she said.

But after the bill was amended and passed by the General Assembly, the Fox Point Neighborhood Association issued a statement to its membership via email stating that the final draft included "substantial improvements." In addition to the equal division of appointees granted to the city and the state, the bill now requires that the commission abide by Providence's zoning ordinances, which Marion said was another improvement.

The bill also prohibits the construction of a casino on the I-195 land. Chafee's administration had already promised that a casino would not be built, Marion said, but the clause ensures that it will not happen.

Still, Marion added, the need for a commission is debatable. He questioned why a "quasi-public" mechanism for developing
the land is needed, saying that a commission not directly accountable to citizens "really gets away from the democratic ideal."

Residents will at least have the power to press for good nominees to the commission, he said. "The best thing people can do is be watchdogs."

— With additional reporting by Sahil Luthra and Amy Rasmussen


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