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Valley Breeze: Some call for affordable housing mandate near train station

03/26/19

By ETHAN SHOREY, Valley Breeze Managing Editor

PAWTUCKET – Some in the city are advocating for a requirement that any development within the new 150-acre Conant Thread District surrounding a coming commuter rail station include at least 10 percent of the project as affordable housing.

A majority of members on the City Council seem to oppose making this a mandate for residential developers within this Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zone, saying such a move could set up an instant roadblock to what the city is hoping for around the train station, which is transformative redevelopment of vacant and abandoned properties.

City Councilor Terry Mercer, head of the council’s ordinance subcommittee, said he agreed last week to forward the proposal to a future full public hearing of the council, but remains opposed to it.

Leaders have gotten some pushback from developers and potential developers, including Aurora Leigh and her Bond Street LLC, with this developer of two planned housing redevelopments near the future train station requesting to be grandfathered in if changes are made. Mercer said he would expect to get many similar requests in the future if leaders approve such a stipulation.


Councilor Tim Rudd wasn’t at that March 20 meeting, said Mercer, but he said it’s clear that both Rudd and a third member of the subcommittee, Meghan Kallman, see this 10 percent requirement as an important issue, so it was going to come out of committee.

Director of Planning Sue Mara said Monday that affordable housing has to be deed-restricted for 30 years, prohibiting changes. Residents have to be at 80 percent of the area median income to qualify to live in it, she said.

Officials are planning a public hearing on the TOD zoning ordinance for April 10.

Train station coming soon; council backs efforts

Construction of the Pawtucket Central Falls Train Station in the middle of the Conant Thread District is being headed by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. City officials anticipate that the project will begin in early summer of this year, with the initial phases already beginning.

“The contractors for the train station have been out doing soil borings on the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency-owned lot which is intended to be the ‘kiss-and-ride’ lot, as well as other parcels,” said Wilder Arboleda, spokesman for Mayor Donald Grebien.

The commuter rail station is planned for completion in 2021.

The City Council last week passed a trio of resolutions related to city economic development efforts, one supporting creation of a local TOD tax credit, one on a new state credit for opportunity zones, and one backing a plan to retool House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s “Super TIF” downtown tax incremental financing plan used as part of a failed bid to build the Pawtucket Red Sox a new downtown stadium. All three of the proposals are tax credits and programs pertaining to state-level taxes.

Conflicting views on mandate

Kallman said she thinks it’s critical that the city be forward-thinking about housing, especially in the context of all the new development that’s projected to take place and is already happening in the Conant Thread district.

“The housing crisis is massive, across the country. Pawtucket isn’t the only city facing these challenges. Other communities in the area, including East Providence and Lincoln, already have inclusionary zoning at 10 percent, and there are many ways for developers to meet that 10 percent mandate of affordability, if that’s the route we decide to go,” she said.

Citing what she believes is a 20 percent mandate in Boston, she said Pawtucket has “a very low target,” and it’s appropriate for the city’s needs.

“There are other strategies to support housing equity, too, including expanding work with community development corporations, among others,” she said. “My concern here is that we don’t displace longtime and working class residents as we embrace much-needed development.”

The other aspect to consider is that, with a commuter rail station, Pawtucket may become part of the Boston metro area, she added, and will then face its housing market/pricing as a result.

Mercer said the goal of the new ordinance for the TOD is to make it as uniform as possible for appropriate types of uses.

Mercer said the council was happy to pass a resolution last year encouraging incorporation of affordable housing, but said creating a mandate “would put a financial hurdle in the way of economic development,” even as officials are taking other steps to make way for development efforts.

Gentrification, or the forcing out of lower-income residents due to redevelopment, has been high on the radar for both Kallman and Rudd, he said. He “didn’t want to put the kibosh” on their proposal entirely, but said if the 10 percent mandate comes to the floor as is, and not separated out from the rest of the zoning standards for the district, “there will very likely be an amendment made on the floor to strip that out.”

Rudd also emphasized that the 10 percent threshold is conservative compared to other cities, and is “a fair compromise.”

“The percentage is important to the current residents of the community to not only keep intact the cultural significance that exists, but will also ensure residents will not be priced out and displaced, causing the gentrification of that neighborhood,” he said. “Developers still stand to make an astronomical amount of money even with a 10 percent affordable minimum. This has taken place elsewhere and has not deterred development.”

Rudd said he feels there is a misconception on what affordable housing is.

“We are not talking subsidized or free housing. We are speaking working class otherwise known as housing affordable for the middle class,” he said. “These people work and contribute to the tax base. I think it’s important to define what affordable housing truly is because many do not know or deliberately define it incorrectly to scare residents.”

Kallman noted that a new report from the Economic Progress Institute found that half of Rhode Island renters pay more than one-third of their income on housing, “which is financially completely unsustainable. Particularly in a place like Pawtucket where there are so many tenements.”

She said she has a friend who put in something like nine offers on a house before she could find one in the city meeting her budget and to her specifications.

From 2000 to 2016, real median home prices increased by 29 percent, said Kallman, but young adult per capita real incomes increased only 1 percent.

“So the problem is obviously much larger than Pawtucket, but we’re going to have to figure out how to address it here, because it’s affecting us,” she said.

A new study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition identifies more than 1,000 neighborhoods in 935 cities and towns where gentrification occurred between 2000 and 2013, noted Kallman. In 230 of those neighborhoods, rapidly rising rents, property values and taxes forced more than 135,000 residents to move away.

What is the Conant Thread District?

The Conant Thread District is located between Providence and Boston, connecting both by I-95 and soon a new train station and bus hub, according to its website.

“A mixed-use urban village, Conant Thread is attracting trendy restaurants, start-ups, art innovators, makers and creators,” it reads. “It offers residents a complete urban experience with a diverse and exciting mix of cuisine, culture, economic opportunity and public amenities.

“Located in the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls, the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution, Conant Thread is the once-in-a-lifetime, 21st-century development opportunity that will form a second urban center for the state of Rhode Island and a robust exurban economic opportunity for greater Boston,” it adds.

There is about two million square feet of vacant or underutilized historic mill space and another two million square feet of development opportunity for new construction within this downtown zone.

Get a sneak preview of new Conant Thread signs

PAWTUCKET – New street signs designed to reflect Pawtucket and Central Falls as “the next great destination for businesses and individuals,” according to Director of Commerce Jeanne Boyle, are in the process of arriving.

“With the coming of the new transit hub, and the streamlined process that is being made to make development possible in this district, we are ready for new development, open for business, and committed to making this walkable district a bustling center of civic activity,” she said.

The transit hub, a centerpiece of the Conant Thread district, “will link our city neighborhoods by train, bus, pedestrian, cycling routes and other multi-modal opportunities,” she said. “It will provide easy access to desirable real estate with affordable development and rental costs. This is one of many opportunities to continue to revitalize Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley.”

The signs that the city is working on will contain the logo and will brand the district, said Boyle. Installation will happen at nearly every intersection in the TOD District. More than 100 signs will be replaced as part of regular maintenance with more than 110 new street signs.

Courtesy of The Valley Breeze 



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