Cotuit

PAWTUCKET STATION THREATENED

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Opponents urge council to derail train station proposal

A developer wants to tear down the Beaux Arts station and build three stores on the site.

By JOHN CASTELLUCCI Journal Staff Writer | January 20, 2005

PAWTUCKET -- The developer planning to buy the Pawtucket Central Falls train station and turn it into a strip mall went before the City Council last night seeking a change in the zoning on part of the property from residential to commercial.

Mayor James E. Doyle and members of the city's burgeoning downtown arts community turned out in force to oppose him.

Doyle and other speakers warned that, by approving the change of zoning, the council would in effect be giving the developer the go-ahead to demolish the historical Beaux Arts train station and build a three-store retail development with no guarantee that train service would ever be restored.

The developer, Oscar W. Seelbinder of Memphis, Tenn., said he envisioned a three-phase project, with retail coming first, and commuter rail later.

But Doyle said a competing proposal by the influential Pawtucket Foundation would not only preserve the 90-year-old train station, it would have a greater potential of revitalizing the neighborhood by restoring the rail link, which has been dormant for 45 years.

Doyle urged council members to table the matter. "I think you need a lot more information. What's the rush tonight?" he said.

The request to table the zoning change seemed to gain traction with several City Council members, in particular, John J. Barry III and Thomas E. Hodge.

But others seemed to have a problem with the request, insofar as it involved denying the developer a form of relief that the Planning Commission said last month comported with the city's Comprehensive Plan.

At the heart of the dispute are two competing plans to redevelop the train station, a derelict property owned by a company controlled by Jean Vitali, mother of Albert J. Vitali Jr., the newly elected District 3 city councilor.

Vitali recused himself from the discussion last night.

Seelbinder, who has an agreement to buy the train station for $1.4 million, said he would tear it down, deck over the tracks and put three stores on the site -- a pharmacy, auto parts store and clothing store.

Seelbinder would then explore the possibility of restoring the rail link.

The competing proposal by the Pawtucket Foundation would restore the rail link first, preserving the train station as the centerpiece of a combined transit, residential and retail development.

The foundation has already gotten the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to seek the power to obtain the train station by condemnation. The City Council's Ordinance Committee is scheduled to review the request on Feb. 2.

The public hearing on the requested zoning change dragged on for 2 1/2 hours. No vote had been taken as of the newspaper's press deadline.

But several City Council members seemed to be leaning toward approving the zoning change. David Clemente said the city seemed to be acting as if it owned the property. Robert E. Carr said that the Pawtucket Foundation plan would get a full public hearing on Feb. 2.

From The Providence Journal

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Doyle blasts council for rezoning train station

The mayor says the city is being shortchanged because a strip mall, rather than a transportation center, will be built on the site.

By JOHN CASTELLUCCI Journal Staff Writer | January 21, 2005

PAWTUCKET -- Mayor James E. Doyle denounced as shortsighted and rash a City Council vote in favor of a zoning change that he said will enable an out-of-state developer to tear down the Pawtucket-Central Falls train station, build a deck over the tracks and construct a small shopping plaza on the property.

Doyle accused the five City Council members who voted in favor of the zoning change of closing their minds to a competing proposal by the Pawtucket Foundation.

He said they had shortchanged the city by guaranteeing that a strip mall instead of a transportation center will be built on the site.

"They can form all the committees they want," Doyle said, taking a swipe at council President Donald R. Grebien, who announed a plan to form a council committee to guide economic development in the city.

"They don't know what economic development is," Doyle said yesterday. "They gave this city a black eye last night."

The City Council vote that set Doyle off took place Wednesday, following a three-hour public hearing packed with members of the city's burgeoning downtown arts community, who uniformly supported a plan to restore the train station, rather than tear it down.

The vote to rezone the property from residential to commercial removed an obstacle to plans by Oscar W. Seelbinder, a developer based in Memphis, Tenn., to buy the train station for $1.4 million and demolish a building that has blighted the neighborhood for years.

More than a dozen speakers urged the City Council to table the requested zoning change until it had an opportunity to consider the Pawtucket Foundation's competing proposal.

That proposal, supported by the City of Central Falls and Pawtucket Planning Director Michael D. Cassidy, calls upon the city to acquire the train station by eminent domain and solicit bids to restore it as a commuter rail stop.

Robert E. Carr, one of the council members who voted for the zoning change, was openly skeptical.

"First of all, the Pawtucket Foundation doesn't have a proposal. All they have is an idea, which is to get the city into the real-estate business, put the property out to bid and hope that a developer comes along," Carr said in a telephone interview yesterday.

That plan would put taxpayers at risk, Carr said, by sticking them with a potentially worthless $1.4-million property. "If we go the mayor's way," Carr said, "there's a chance we could take this property and no developer could ever come along."

Asked to respond to Carr's comments, Richard C. Davis, executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation, didn't deny that there would be risk involved in acquiring the train station by eminent domain.

But Davis said that risk is outweighed by the risk of losing control of the property and thus forfeiting millions of dollars in state and federal transportation aid that will become available if the city can show it has control of the site.

The 5-3 council vote was controversial because it will benefit newly elected City Councilor Albert J. Vitali Jr., who recused himself from the deliberations, went into an adjoining room and watched them on cable TV.

The train station on Broad Street was acquired by Vitali's late father in the 1970s. It is owned by a company controlled by Vitali's mother, 76-year-old Jean Vitali, who entered into an agreement to sell the property to Seelbinder last spring.

No trains have stopped at the station since 1959, when the Penn Central Railroad went bankrupt. During the hearing, Seelbinder testifed that during the second phase of the project, he will explore the possibility of restoring rail service.

City officials acknowledged that they had never approached Mrs. Vitali to discuss buying the train station, although she has been trying to sell it for years.

John J. Barry III, who voted with City Councilors Thomas E. Hodge and Mary E. Bray to table the matter Wednesday, said he supports the Pawtucket Foundation proposal because he feels that city government is in a better position to restore the station as a commuter rail stop.

Nevertheless, Barry said, he understands why council members Grebien, Carr, David Clemente, David P. Moran and Paul J. Wildenhain broke with the administration and voted to approve the zoning change.

"I think part of the concern was that all of a sudden, when the owner of the train station had a buyer, then the Planning Department and the Pawtucket Foundation said, 'No, no, no, we have a better plan."'

"I think there was a real concern about fairness," Barry said.

From The Providence Journal

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This has the opportunity to be a most tragic loss...

The Pawtucket train Station is one of, if not THE, most beautiful buildings, abandoned or not, I have seen in Rhode Island. The thought of it being lost to a strip mall makes my stomach turn.

If there is anything to be done, it must be done to save this building!

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Save Pawtucket Station

February 10, 2005

In 1997, Pawtucket lost its ornate Leroy Theater for a Walgreens. Now it may lose its elegant old train station for a CVS.

Trains haven't stopped at the Pawtucket-Central Falls Station since the Penn Central Railroad went under, in the early '70s. Yet the 19th Century brick station still stands (partly occupied by a small church), and restoration of the train service seems tantalizingly imminent.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority already serves Providence, and plans are proceeding to extend the service to Warwick (with an intermodal link to T.F. Green Airport), Wickford and Kingston. The Pawtucket stop would fill the gap in northern Rhode Island. Ultimately, it could also serve Amtrak.

The Rhode Island General Assembly and the state Department of Transportation have been working toward putting the station back into commission, and the state's congressional delegation has been effective in getting federal funds earmarked for the project. In Pawtucket, the move has been energetically championed by the Pawtucket Foundation and the growing arts community in Pawtucket and Central Falls.

The two cities have become exciting places. Young professionals are filling the ancient Blackstone River mills with architecture offices and other design enterprises. Artists increasingly seek out the loft spaces, and at least one former hulk is now spiffy condos -- aimed at refugees from the overpriced Boston market.

Commuter-rail service is clearly a lifeline that Pawtucket should grab -- and the station is where the line should be thrown.

But, naturally, the site's potential for parking appeals to a developer, who envisions a three-store mall (including the above-mentioned CVS). Last month, he appeared alarmingly close to acquiring the site, after the Pawtucket City Council approved a zoning change. (The site belongs to the mother of a council member, but he recused himself from the voting.)

Council President Donald Grebien said that he would table the motion pending a hearing on the Pawtucket Foundation's proposal to restore rail service to the station.

In fact, smart economic development would call for refurbishing existing retail space in this compact urban center, letting commuter rail further boost the neighborhood's consumer base. Travelers can, of course, be captive consumers.

Meanwhile, Pawtucket and Central Falls have residential riverbank neighborhoods that cry out for the kind of transformation that has happened in Providence's Fox Point and other urban areas hereabouts.

The two old Blackstone cities still feature architectural gems, such as the station, that evoke their long-ago prosperity -- even though many others (such as the Leroy Theater) have met the wrecker's ball. All the more reason to treasure the survivors from this rich heritage.

In short, the Pawtucket City Council should seize this opportunity to bring back train service to Pawtucket and Central Falls -- and all of northern Rhode Island.

From The Providence Journal

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If you (Cotuit) or anybody who reads has any information on future meetings or anything of the sort, please let me know. I agree with eltron and I'm pretty sure that I speak for a good number of us when I say that this is an issue that needs to be acted on. This could be a devastating setback in Pawtucket's growth. If I come across anything I will do likewise.

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Developer seeks talks with city on train station

But Mayor James E. Doyle says a public hearing on the eminent domain proposal should take place before he meets with Warwick RICS over its plans to purchase the station.

By JOHN CASTELLUCCI Journal Staff Writer | February 23, 2005

PAWTUCKET -- A lawyer for the developer at loggerheads with the city over how to redevelop the Pawtucket-Central Falls train station is holding out an olive branch, saying that a lot could be accomplished by a cooperative approach that leaves the property in private hands.

The lawyer, John J. Garrahy, is seeking a meeting with city officials to determine whether the two sides can map out common ground.

"We believe that many of the goals and aims of the City of Pawtucket and the Pawtucket Foundation can be accomplished through private development of this site by our client," Garrahy said in a Feb. 8 letter to Michael D. Cassidy, director of the city's Department of Planning and Redevelopment.

"Warwick RICS is most interested, like the Pawtucket Foundation, in establishing a "T" (commuter rail) stop at this location and has had various meetings with RIDOT (Rhode Island Department of Transportation) in this regard."

Warwick RICS is the limited liability company, established by Memphis, Tenn., developer Oscar W. Seelbinder, negotiating the purchase of the train station from A&B Corp., a company controlled by Jean Vitali, the mother of newly elected Pawtucket City Councilor Albert J. Vitali Jr.

The Pawtucket Foundation is the influential private group that has been lobbying the City Council to allow the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to acquire the train station by eminent domain.

No trains have stopped at the station since the 1970s. The Pawtucket Foundation and the private developer both agree on the importance of restoring commuter rail service to the 3.4-acre property. They part company over whether to preserve the 90-year-old station building and whether to restore rail service before doing anything else.

Seelbinder would tear down the train station, build a deck over the tracks and construct a shopping plaza on the property, then explore the possibility of restoring rail service.

The Pawtucket Foundation would preserve the station, restore rail service and solicit bids for redeveloping the property after the city acquires it by eminent domain.

Mayor James E. Doyle, who supports the Pawtucket Foundation proposal, said in an interview yesterday that any meeting with Seelbinder would have to wait until the City Council conducts a public hearing on the eminent domain proposal. The public hearing is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Monday in Pawtucket City Hall.

"Am I opposed to sitting down? No," Doyle said. "[but] I don't think meeting any time before the public hearing would be productive."

The City Council is split between taking the train station by eminent domain and leaving it in the hands of the private developer.

Vitali, who was elected to the council from District 3, has recused himself from voting on the issue and excused himself whenever it has been discussed.

A majority of Council members are skeptical of the Pawtucket Foundation proposal, because it would entail shifting the risk of redeveloping the train station onto the city and raise the possibility that Pawtucket taxpayers would wind up owning the station without any prospect of restoring commuter rail service or attracting private development bids.

Doyle said yesterday he is willing to meet with Seelbinder whether or not the Council votes to grant eminent domain authority.

But he said he wants the public hearing to take place before any such meeting because it will provide the Pawtucket Foundation with a forum to outline its proposal, give people in the neighborhood the opportunity to say they support it, and address the objections that City Council members have raised.

"Most every question that they've had, we know, will be answered," Doyle said. "Whether they'll be answered successfully or not, as far as the council's concerned, that's not for me to say."

From The Providence Journal

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I would hate to see the Pawtucket train station become a strip mall. Is there nowhere else in Pawtucket that the strip mall could go? The station should be rebuilt and restored as a stop for MBTA commuter rail, or possibly some sort of Providence-oriented commuter rail service.

Edited by Mike D

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Is there nowhere else in Pawtucket that the strip mall could go?

I wish there wasn't. Who looks at a potential development and thinks "Hmmmm. A plaza filled with stores that you can find anywhere else would look really good right there. Especially if the design was really bland and cheap looking. As a matter of fact, this whole area would look great if it resembled every other suburban neighborhood in the United States. How about we tear down this crappy old train station! Nobody's gonna use it anyway, right?", I really don't understand the sort of person that decides to make an easy buck instead of actually caring about the quality of life that his properties could bring into a community that he likely doesn't have to live in. Actually, I suppose if my priorities were to get a HUGE house in Jamestown (so I could be safe from the poor), nice car and huge pile of assets so I could land myself a trophy wife, I'd do the same thing. I mean, that's what life's all about. Isn't it? This is the "Great White Flight" to the suburbs just further perpetuating itself. It's a bunch of scared, rich, white guys whose only urban experiences were probably during college when they lived with their frat brothers who were also from the 'burbs. This shareholder/investor brown-nosing is based on no understanding or regard of/for the urban community. Sorry if I sound millitant about this but we all know it's true. I know it's not some conspiracy or anything, but as a culture our priorities are so warped that it's necesarry for the people getting screwed to have to band together to lessen the damage. It's disgusting and I wish it didn't have to happen.

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Hey GandS-

This has gotten lost in all the hoopla over the luxury towers going up in the Capitol City, but you really hit the nail on the head with your last post. Right on!

I know there is alot of exciting stuff going on around here, but lets not forget there is a LONG way to go in RI.

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The developers in Pawtucket should think real hard about all that was announced in Providence today. We're talking about nearly a billion dollars worth of projects being announced here in one day. Reopen the station in Pawtucket and they can get in on that action.

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Council rejects plan to save train station

Council members pepper the presenters with adversarial questions.

By JOHN CASTELLUCCI Journal Staff Writer | March 1, 2005

PAWTUCKET -- Last month, the City Council gave preliminary approval to a measure that would20pave the way for a developer to tear down the Pawtucket-Central Falls train station and build a small shopping plaza in its place.

Last night, the council gave equal time to a competing proposal, put forward by the Pawtucket Foundation and supported by Mayor James E. Doyle, that would preserve the train station and explore the possibility of restoring it as a commuter rail stop.

The measure, which involved acquiring the train station by eminent domain, failed on a 4-to-4 vote.

Supporters of the Pawtucket Foundation proposal crowded the council chamber. The list of speakers included such heavyweights as Arnold B. "Buff" Chace, the Providence developer busy turning empty commercial buildings into upscale apartment houses, and Friedrich St. Florian, the architect who designed the Providence Place mall and the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

But the majority of council members were nevertheless skeptical of the Pawtucket Foundation plan, which involves acquiring the property by eminent domain while the developer, Oscar W. Seelbinder of Memphis, Tenn., is offering Jean Vitali, the mother of newly elected City Councilor Albert J. Vitali Jr., $1.4 million for the property.

Vitali recused himself from the public hearing. Other council members, among them Robert E. Carr, David P. Moran, David Clemente and Paul J. Wildenhain, made no secret of their skepticism, peppering speakers with adversarial and sometimes argumentative questions.

For example, when Arthur Hansen, the Central Falls director of planning, said that Mayor Charles Moreau and the Central Falls City Council supports the Pawtucket Foundation plan, Carr asked, "I was just wondering if Central Falls will be paying half of the cost of eminent domain."

When Peter F. Kilmartin, a state representative well liked by council members, said he had gotten the General Assembly to appropriate $400,000 for a study to explore the feasibility of the Pawtucket Foundation proposal, City Councilor Paul J. Wildenhain demanded to know why no one from the Doyle administration has sat down with the developer to work out a compromise.

"This is an abuse of public power. This is the power of the few trying to influence something for their own benefit," Seelbinder's lawyer, Thomas V. Moses, told a reporter during the hearing.

"It's very frustrating, trying to meet with public officials and being rejected. 'We're proposing the exact same project," Moses declared.

Moses didn't elaborate, but, in prior statements, he and Seelbinder have said that the developer's plan calls for restoring commuter rail service to the station, just as the Pawtucket Foundation proposal does.

In an interview, Mayor Doyle disputed that, pointing out that the developer himself said he plans to tear down the train station and redevelop the 3.4-acre property as a shopping plaza before looking into the restoration of commuter rail.

The Pawtucket Foundation plan, by contrast, would solicit proposals from developers who promise to preserve the 90-year-old Beaux Arts train station and restore commuter rail service before developing stores and businesses on the site.

Doyle also took exception to Moses' charge that such influential downtown property owners as Morris Nathanson and Ranne P. Warner are pushing the Pawtucket Foundation proposal because it would increase the value of their properties.

Nathanson, an internationally known restaurant designer, turned a mill building on Exchange Street into offices and artist studios. Warner, a Boston developer, is busy turning a neighboring building into condominiums and lofts.

"These are people who've taken the time to come and make a significant investment in the city," Doyle said. "These people, are not, believe me, driving this process in any way, shape or form."

Nathanson didn't deny that the Pawtucket Foundation plan would increase the value of his property. But he said that restoring commuter rail service would have a broad economic impact benefiting people on both sides of the tracks.

"The thing about the train station is it's great for the poor people. It's great for the people in Pawtucket and Central Falls who really need it," Nathanson said.

"Just think of this: You'll have all these elderly people here who'll have a way to get to Boston, a way to get to Green Airport. Just think of what it means for people here who cannot afford to have their kids live in high [-priced] housing in Boston, but who want to go to school there. They can commute."

From The Providence Journal

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Wow.

Local politics at their darkest and absolute worst.

Despicable.

Edited by eltron

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Wow. Stunning article. You're quite right. Politics at their worst.

- Garris

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They wonder why their city is such crap.

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They wonder why their city is such crap.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

No joke...

Its not too far of a stretch to compare this to the destruction of the original Penn Station, the case that gave rise to the entire historic preservation movement.

Its freakin' 2005! What is wrong with these people? For a crappy stripmall?

And the regional economic impact is immense!!!

I am astounded. wow.

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The mayor deserves credit, their city council is a joke though.

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For example, when Arthur Hansen, the Central Falls director of planning, said that Mayor Charles Moreau and the Central Falls City Council supports the Pawtucket Foundation plan, Carr asked, "I was just wondering if Central Falls will be paying half of the cost of eminent domain."

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

This is a valid point, but instead of being such an ass about it, how about giving Central Falls a call and setting up a meeting. Central Falls has as much to gain as Pawtucket.

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Does anyone know what is the latest news on the train station?

Is it going to be saved or is its fate still undecided?

Pawtucket/Central Falls seems big enough that it could even support having Amtrak trains stop.

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This is what Herb Weiss had to say recently about the Pawtucket station.

The old train station is very important to the city.  We believe that it is a key economic development project for that area of the our community and will have a major impact in that neighborhood.  Currently, the City Council defeated the Administrations attempt to take the train station property by eminent domain.  The City Council  voted to give the developer a zoning change to allow commercial development on the Pawtucket portion of the site.  The developer's purchase and sale agreement called for the rezoning.  'A second vote by the City council resulted in giving thumbs down to the zoning change.  So, at this time nothing  is happennig.  Both sides are assessing the impact.

However, the City of Pawtucket is moving forward to push for a commuter rail stop to be placed at this station.  Federal and state grants are allowing data to be  compiled to determine the feasibility.  Mayor James E. Doyle is doing everything he can to keep the developer from tearing down the train station.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I believe the Pawtucket Foundation would like to see Amtrak at the station, it is important to the arts community there to be connected to both Boston and New York.

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Good news for the Pawtucket train station (and transit in rhode island in general):

Funding for Pawtucket Train Station

" PAWTUCKET -- U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., announced that he had secured $149,917 to study the viability of developing a commuter rail stop at the former train depot on Broad Street straddling the Pawtucket-Central Falls border.

Reed said the U.S. Department of Transportation is sending the R.I. Department of Transportation the funding, which the senator secured in the fiscal 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

RIDOT is working with the Pawtucket Foundation and the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls to develop commuter rail at the depot site, which at one time handled up to 79 trains a day...."

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Well, Jack, you've got my vote :thumbsup:

Actually, there are a couple things we need to talk about.

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Good news for the Pawtucket train station (and transit in rhode island in general):

Funding for Pawtucket Train Station

" PAWTUCKET -- U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., announced that he had secured $149,917 to study the viability of developing a commuter rail stop at the former train depot on Broad Street straddling the Pawtucket-Central Falls border.                                                         

Reed said the U.S. Department of Transportation is sending the R.I. Department of Transportation the funding, which the senator secured in the fiscal 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

   

RIDOT is working with the Pawtucket Foundation and the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls to develop commuter rail at the depot site, which at one time handled up to 79 trains a day...."

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Yup! There goes Pawtucket's low housing costs.

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