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Fuerbacher '14: R.I.'s status quo: Kill business, long live decay

Literally translated, the "status quo" means "the state in which." It is a phrase we encounter in our everyday activities as we listen to the news, discuss politics and bemoan the economy. Simply put, the status quo is a snapshot of how life is at this very moment. Right now, I would like to invite you to peer into the camera lens of Rhode Island and observe what exists. For a state that boasts gorgeous coastlines, proximity to major metropolitan areas and a thriving intellectual hub, Rhode Island should have images of vitality and growth. Sadly, our eyes are met with images of sluggishness, stagnation and a very tangible commitment to preserving the status quo. Does a state that prides itself on independence and innovation really want to foster complacency and degeneration?

Construction is a visible indicator of growth. Of course, in this dire economy, we would not expect to see construction sites adorning the suburbs of Providence. Nonetheless, a demand for development remains, and one need not look further than our neighbor, Massachusetts. Simply cross the state line into Massachusetts and all along Route 6 are new shopping centers with stores such as Home Depot, Costco, Target, Lowe's and Staples. While these may not house glamorous department stores or chic restaurants, these retail spaces are frequented by residents of varying economic strata. More importantly, they provide jobs, increase tax revenues and bolster a locale's appeal. Attracting this type of development would, in turn, draw more residents to the state and spur residential housing demand, as well.

There is plenty of open space throughout Rhode Island ­- from Pawtucket to Portsmouth - that could accommodate such expansion. However, the refusal to permit new projects has created a structural problem that prohibits growth. Even builders remark that permit processes take longer than actual construction. Much of this reticence is cloaked under the umbrella of "preservation."

Googling "Rhode Island construction permits" yields articles that describe Rhode Island as the state with the lowest number of building permit issuances. 24/7 Wall Street examined relevant data: The ratio of Rhode Island's new housing permits to the total number of housing units ranked last in the country. Also, our state suffered a 70.81 percent decline in housing permit issuances between 2005 and 2011. To exacerbate the bleakness of these statistics, the Ocean State has been featured in articles entitled "States where no one wants to buy a new home." 

A cursory analysis might suggest there is just no demand for new construction. Granted, the large inventory of homes and waning household wealth have contributed to the deceleration in development. Rhode Island's business climate is not one that magnetizes job growth. As a New Jersey native, I am familiar with burdensome taxes and regulation. But I find Rhode Island's policies to be nothing short of astonishing. 

A prime example of this reticence lies at the artery of our campus: the proposed 257 Thayer Street housing project. Some criticize it as intrusive and disparaging to the character of Thayer Street. But what is the condition of the buildings that these new apartments would replace? The properties in question are largely outdated at best, even dilapidated. Why would we not want fresher, newer buildings to swathe a very celebrated part of Providence? Do we really want to preserve decaying buildings? The proposed development would not only enhance the aesthetics of College Hill; it would also induce graduate students and visiting scholars to live close to campus, thereby increasing Providence's tax base.

Portsmouth, 30 minutes southeast of Brown, also hesitates to embrace modernity. This year the town council unanimously rejected a proposed zoning change that would have allowed for 130,000 square feet of new retail space. Why? Bureaucrats felt commercial zoning would disturb Portsmouth's integrity and nearby residences. Perhaps that argument would be more salient were it not for the development's site on a main highway. Even town council members acknowledged the need for more commercial development and this center's potential to attract visitors from Route 24. So again, what do these leaders and their sympathizers want to preserve? Undeveloped, abandoned land that neither enjoys its highest and best use nor generates tax revenues?

Preservation is admirable so long as a logical, productive intent supports it. Yet many development proposals in Rhode Island - from residential projects to shopping centers to casinos - have been spurned in the name of preservation. Often these objects of preservation are neither historically significant buildings nor reputably undisturbed locales. The only thing we can unambiguously determine is that this attitude perpetuates the status quo. And does Rhode Island really want to prolong this self-inflicted misery?

 

 

Elizabeth Fuerbacher '14 will take her money across the border and buy 

property there. She can be reached at 

elizabeth_fuerbacher@brown.edu.


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