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IN-PROGRESS: J&W's Harborside Campus expansion

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J&W dorm project is approved by council

BY DANIEL BARBARISI Journal Staff Writer | February 1, 2005

CRANSTON -- The City Council last night approved a revenue agreement that will allow Johnson & Wales University to proceed with the construction of 13 dormitories on its Harborside Campus.

The council unanimously ratified a "memorandum of understanding" that guarantees the city at least $95,000 a year, either in property taxes or in in-lieu payments.

The prospective construction site straddles the Providence city line. While Providence gave its needed approvals long ago, the $20-million project was stalled in Cranston over the question of revenue to the city.

Normally, private colleges and universities are exempt from property taxes, and host communities receive compensatory funds from the state instead.

But Johnson & Wales is considering an unconventional arrangement. Rather than build and operate the dormitories itself, the university might have them built and operated by a nonprofit agency that would lease the buildings to the school.

City officials worried that this could leave Cranston dealing with a new owner who would not necessarily have to pay taxes -- nonprofit organizations are often exempt, and the state would have no obligation to pay Cranston compensation.

The 20-year agreement with the city that the council approved last night provides a number of assurances.

If the school simply builds and owns the complex, the the city will receive money from the state -- estimated at about $95,000 a year.

But if it opts, at any time, to have a tax-exempt nonprofit agency take over the property, the agency will have to negotiate a payment agreement with the city before taking title. These payments can be no less than the $95,000 baseline the city has been using.

The agreement also outlines some avenues for the city to examine the tax status of the new owner and establishes a procedure under which any disagreements on taxes would be decided in Superior Court.

Johnson & Wales officials said last night that the dormitory project is now on track and it would have to go before the council again only if the ownership of the property is transferred.

The university will now take its plans before the city's Planning Department for master plan approval.

University representatives said that site-preparation work is proceeding well.

Johnson & Wales hopes to break ground for the dorms, to house 576 students, by May and complete the project by the fall of 2006.

From The Providence Journal

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Turning a wasteland into a college campus: How EPA program may save Fields Point

Johnson & Wales University is applying brownfields designation, which would pave the way for its cleanup and revitalization.

BY SCOTT M. LOWE JR. Journal Environment Writer | February 7, 2005

How the times change. Years ago, Fields Point was a public dump and a contaminated scourge of Providence, kept at arm's length by its residents. Now, it could be the linchpin of future waterfront economic and residential redevelopment.

Fields Point borders the Harborside Campus of Johnson & Wales University, which is proposing an ambitious project to reclaim the land for student housing and athletic fields. The school is applying for the federal government to award the site a brownfields designation.

Established in 1995, and championed by the late Republican U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee, the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields Program is used to assess, clean up and reinvest in contaminated properties. The EPA also helps by funding grants and tax breaks for local or state governments for these projects. And though most brownfields sites are used for industrial or nonresidential uses, such as the current headquarters of Save the Bay, they are increasingly being sought for recreation and living spaces.

On the 100-acre Fields Point site, the university plans to develop student housing, athletic fields, walking trails and a parking lot. The housing is to be constructed by a private company.

The soil, which has been contaminated in some places with materials including petroleum, arsenic, lead and metals dating back to the point's industrial urban-fill days, is to be capped in several places and covered with clean fill to prevent exposure. Much of the actual development, from the building foundations to the playing fields, would serve as the cap.

Fields Point, which straddles the border of Providence and Cranston, has had a diverse history. Since World War II, the site has been an industrial shipyard, a drive-in theater, a dump and a hazardous-waste site, eventually considered to be one of the most contaminated patches of land in Rhode Island.

The Johnson & Wales plans are still in their infancy, and the university must seek EPA approval for funding.

Tim Mooney, spokesman for Sen. Lincoln Chafee, said the university was ineligible for one portion of project funding in 2003, and its application was turned down in 2004. Mooney said not all applications are accepted immediately, however, and the EPA is working with the university to help improve its application. This year's grant recipients will be announced in June.

Mooney said this is a project that Chafee wants to go forward.

"In his mind, this is what the Brownfields bill was all about -- taking a property that had sat vacant for decades and revitalizing it, and opening it back up for public use," Mooney said.

This is not the first unconventional brownfields project in the state.

In 1999, the City of Providence built the Anthony Carnevale Elementary School and Governor Christopher Del Sesto Middle School on top of a former municipal dump, at Hartford Avenue and Springfield Street. In March 2003, a judge ruled that the city had violated state Department of Environmental Management regulations by having contractors remove contaminated soil from the site without prior approval from the state, and without proper notification of nearby residents. A judicial review of the case is still pending.

Kevin Flynn, director of planning for the City of Cranston, has been working on the Fields Point project since last summer. He said capping the site serves another purpose, as it is currently not high enough above sea level, and thus is susceptible to floodplain issues.

"We're looking forward to the school adding some residential dormitory space on their property," Flynn said. "It's good to see them addressing student-housing concerns."

Having more living space for students will ease some of the renting burden in the community, and some of the costs, he said. So far, the city has had three public hearings, and Flynn said no major opposition had been voiced.

Joe Martella, senior engineer for the DEM's Office of Waste Management, is reviewing the complex project from the DEM side. He is currently working on 80 different contaminated properties, a few of which are proposed for residential uses.

"We have not had a lot of situations like this," Martella said, of building on a former dump site. "It's complicated, and requires more design concerns to get it right -- and [that is] why it's more of a performance-based design."

In that "performance-based" design, Martella said, the cap would be continually monitored and would have to meet regular testing levels. The site would also be subject to environmental land-use restrictions, along with a soil-management plan, to ensure future compliance.

The cap must be maintained and inspected annually, and if it is ever disturbed because of underground or utility work, the contaminated soil must be separated and safely disposed of.

Martella said the university is in the process of digging out and removing the petroleum that leaked from underground tanks, years ago, at the prospective student-housing site. There are also concentrations of petroleum at the playing field sites that must be removed, he said.

"It's not the biggest brownfields project [in the state], but it is very significant," Martella said, noting how much area property values have increased due to the project plan.

More of Martella's brownfields projects are being slated for residential development, and he said he expects that percentage to rise in the future.

"A lot of developments are condos built at old mills or industrial sites," he said. "Mills are popular because the property is inexpensive and close to the waterfront."

So far, the university has not formally submitted a Remedial Action Work Plan to the DEM, in which it will outline how to best control the contamination. Martella said there is no deadline for it to do so.

Once the plan has been submitted, the university will be required to put out a public notice, so any affected parties can comment.

The future student-housing sites and proposed playing fields are not free of any legal liability, but two yet-to-be-determined parcels will be. Martella said that so far, the plan for the site is still in flux, but the student housing will certainly happen.

Christopher O. Placco, vice president of facilities management for Johnson & Wales University, is overseeing the project. If approved, a $200,000 federal grant from the EPA would help the university implement its master plan for the Harborside Campus, he said.

"This will provide a number of amenities to the community," Placco said, "amenities that our students need, like playing fields, practice fields and access to Narragansett Bay."

When finished, the site will probably include fields for soccer, lacrosse and baseball, along with courts for tennis and basketball. Placco said the project has the potential to turn an eyesore into a community asset.

"The most basic remediation is to cap the property with a clean fill," Placco said. "There are very limited areas that require remediation, and they will not be below any of the playing surfaces. We've isolated them and know where they are."

To shield the contaminated areas, a fabric barrier will be placed at specific places, and 2 feet of clean soil will be spread over the site. The top 6 inches of that will be organic soil, in which to grow plants. The underground contaminants -- by-products of the burning and dumping that used to take place at the site -- are mostly inert. Aslong as direct exposure is avoided, Placco said, no health problems should arise.

Save the Bay is completing its headquarters at the same site, on land leased inexpensively from the university for the next 50 years. The environmental-advocacy group has also been assisting the university in the project, having built not only on contaminated soil, but on a buildup of underground methane as well. H. Curtis Spalding, Save the Bay's executive director, is pleased with the project's progress.

"It's exciting -- taking an incredibly beautiful shoreline area, cleaning it up, and bringing it back to public use," he said.

Scott Lowe has a fellowship with the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. He can be reached by e-mail at slowe [at] projo.com

From The Providence Journal

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I 'm not sure I would call it an ncredibly beautiful shoreline, we'll not in the last 145 years anyhow.

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Certainly not, but I think J&W has big plans. They've focussed a lot of energy and money on their new Charlotte, NC campus over the last couple years, but I think they plan to refocus on Providence in the coming years.

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J & W gets $600,000 in federal assistance for Fields Point project. "Johnson & Wales University has made a commitment to revitalize the Fields Point area, which is part of our Harborside Campus," said Irving Schneider, president of the Providence campus. [ProJo.com]

The money will be used to help revitalize a vacant lot that once housed a former drive-in theater and a parcel that was once home to a restaurant, marina and a public skating rink.

I didn't realize the waterfront ever hosted so much public activity.

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J & W gets $600,000 in federal assistance for Fields Point project. "Johnson & Wales University has made a commitment to revitalize the Fields Point area, which is part of our Harborside Campus," said Irving Schneider, president of the Providence campus. [ProJo.com]

I didn't realize the waterfront ever hosted so much public activity.

There were also mill outlet stores down there many years ago.

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There were also mill outlet stores down there many years ago.

Wow, that would be nice to have back.

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