Council rejects Apex plea, declares property blighted

Council rejects Apex plea, declares property blighted

PAWTUCKET – After hearing from a steady stream of downtown investors and business owners about the need to take stronger action on redeveloping the landmark Apex property, the City Council voted unanimously last week to adopt a redevelopment plan amendment declaring the property blighted.

Several council members expressed frustration with the owners of Apex over a lack of redevelopment of the property going back many years, saying it’s time to change the narrative.

“We’ve had a lot of patience, (and it’s) getting thinner all the time,” said Council President David Moran, who described the council as “extremely frustrated.”

The council vote at the Nov. 7 meeting came despite representatives from Apex Development making their case that passage of “Amendment 15” will make it more difficult to develop the property as they talk with prospective tenants.

City officials reject that assertion, saying they’ll work with the property owner to find the best and most beneficial use for the property.

Key downtown investors 
urge action

Jeremy Duffy, co-owner of The Guild brewery up the road, said his company is all about being “great community citizens,” not just at its business or on its block, but on the economic success of the entire city. Duffy said he’s not sure he sees a vision by the Apex owners for what they plan to do with the property, which he says is decaying.

“I haven’t seen a blueprint of success,” he said, calling for “bold vision” on a property that should be a highlight of the downtown on Route 95. With a series of negative headlines in Pawtucket, including the PawSox announcing three months ago that they were no longer targeting Apex for a new stadium, “the time is now as it related to a better economy and opportunity” in the downtown, said Duffy, saying the city should be the caretaker of the property.

“I look forward to seeing what that could become,” he said.

Robert Colucci, of Collette Travel, which is planning an expansion in the downtown, called the Apex property a “linchpin” to successful redevelopment of the area. He said it’s the “anchor” here and he’s “very disappointed that it’s been idle for so long.” Colucci said he supports a new vision and a plan of action for the property.

Apex owners say they’re trying

Attorney Joseph Whelan, representing Apex owner Andrew Gates, agreed with the city’s assessment that the Apex property represents a critical property for the downtown, and that this is the gateway to the city and perhaps Rhode Island. But he contended that the owner hasn’t been given a fair chance to develop it, saying Mayor Donald Grebien brought up taking the property by eminent domain early in previous discussions about a ballpark.

Declaring the property blighted would only make it more difficult to land a tenant, he said prior to the vote. Also bumping up the level of difficulty is Amendment 15’s requirement that the owners come to the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency with any prospective plan for approval, added Whelan.

The attorney asked council members whether the owner had any chance of developing the property while conversations about a ballpark were going on.

Prior to the PawSox talks, the owner was in lengthy negotiations with one major national retailer, said Whelan, one involving “incredible amounts of due diligence,” but right when a lease was about to be signed, the company made some corporate policy decisions and pulled back.

Whelan said Apex has no interest in anything but finding a positive path forward by working together with the city to develop the 13-acre collection of properties.

Apex is a private company in every sense, he said, and is “maybe learning a lesson that we need to communicate better.”

Gates made a switch in PR firms two days prior to the Nov. 7 hearing, hiring Bill Fischer of True North Communications to replace Chris Hunter of Advocacy Solutions. Hunter said later that it was his company’s decision to end the relationship with Apex, saying he wishes the company well.

Fischer released a statement Monday in response to last week’s decision.

“Although we are disappointed with the outcome of last week’s hearing, we will continue to reach out to both the mayor’s office and members of the council regarding the unintended consequences of the amendments,” he said. “Attaching a blight status to the property inhibits development and undermines the city’s objective of spurring redevelopment. The timing of these actions is also counterproductive as we are having conversations with multiple national and regional tenants.  We believe we are well positioned to redevelop the Apex properties.”

 Fischer said the owner has “heard the concerns of the council loud and clear and we share their frustration – particularly because the ballpark debate hindered and delayed development. That said, we remain optimistic and believe the best path forward is to work together with city leaders to produce a meaningful outcome.”

Council members not happy

Councilor Mark Wildenhain said a track record of stagnation at Apex over the years factored into his desire to approve the amendment, saying he doesn’t want to be having this discussion again in another few years. He said if the amendment kickstarts development, he’s all for it. “I’m sick of waiting,” he said.

Councilor John Barry III noted the frequent frustration he has expressed at the condition of the property, which he said only recently saw significant cosmetic improvements once the city became more aggressive with the owner. Barry said he’s “very cognizant” that other projects, such as a planned Garden City-style mixed development on Newport Avenue, are moving forward rapidly with exciting plans.

“If there’s a vision and a desire, you can make it happen,” he said, adding, “This body has been more than fair to Apex. They have not been fair, that company, to the city of Pawtucket.”

Approval of the amendment doesn’t cost the city a penny, Barry added, and hopefully “it’s a prod” to get something to happen.

Councilor Michael Araujo said after a decade or more of watching an eyesore at Apex, the amendment allows the city to move forward while also working with the owners and “moving in a positive direction” for the downtown.

Council President Moran said he’s not convinced that passing the amendment will put a stranglehold on the owner’s ability to develop the property. He said reasonable and responsible actions can help get a transformational project done.

Councilor Albert Vitali Jr. asked Cassidy about the current assessed value of the main nine-acre part of the property, and was told it’s $4.3 million. It was valued at $10.2 million in 2009, said Cassidy. Asked if there have been any appeals from the owner on the value, he said Gates made the case in 2016 that the value should be reduced to $3.5 million. The owner appealed the combined value of all Apex properties, estimated at $6 million, saying they should add up to less than $5 million in value, he said. The city denied the request, though some of the Apex properties saw a slight reduction last year.

Apex pays about $200,000 per year in property taxes. The old department store is still open in half of the building, but few shoppers are ever seen going in. Gates has said he runs a very good online business out of the facility.

City representatives talk blight

Attorney Ted Orson, representing the city, presented the council last week with the case to approve Amendment 15 to the city’s redevelopment plan, language declaring the property blighted, declaring the property the centerpiece of downtown redevelopment, and allowing a negotiated purchase or acquisition by eminent domain.

Amendment 15 was planned as part of stadium talks over the summer, but city officials moved forward with it even without the planned PawSox ballpark in play because of the importance of the property to the downtown’s revival. Under the amendment, the Apex owners must bring any proposed tenant to the city for approval.

City Planner Sue Mara and planning consultant Mike Cassidy gave a history of the property, Cassidy saying it did “exactly what it was supposed to” until about the year 2000, when its struggles began. The city has gone to great lengths to help spark the revival of the property.

Apex is suffering from dilapidation, deterioration, age and obsolescence, all factors when considering blight, said Orson and Cassidy. Even putting a new big box store in the deteriorating structure with a sea of parking around it would be considered blight, they said, due to the obsolete nature of such stores and lack of connections with surroundings. Common planning principles call for development that is true to the cultural and structural character of the community and draws upon its history. Apex neither embraces the city’s historic qualities nor matches the density of its environment, they said.

Orson and Cassidy said the ultimate goal would be to have the property be a mixed-use development incorporating recreational opportunities along the waterfront.

Mara said everyone wants the same thing here, which is to see the property redeveloped in a way that supports downtown redevelopment, saying officials are ready to work with Gates in whatever ways they can.

Asked by council members about the definitions of blight, Orson said deteriorated blight, which the Apex owners deny, is more subjective, while environmental blight, which is proven at the site, is objective. Asked by Councilor Tim Rudd about the costs of cleaning up the site, he said it would depend on what a developer is looking to do. Conventional standards for a property of this size would put the cost for full removal of dirt at about $1 million per one-foot layer, he said.

Orson was clear that adding a fresh coat of paint and resealing the parking lot, as the owner recently did, does “does not eradicate technical blight.”

Whelan emphasized that the structure of the property is actually in great shape and could easily accommodate interior demolition to create a modern use.

Downtown stakeholders ready 
for movement

Linda Dewing, of Places & Spaces Realty, said she’s worked for a long time to drive new business in the downtown. The “derelict” department store building has a negative impact on that effort, she said, and it needs a plan of action.

Kara Larson, who’s working to bring nightlife to the downtown with Rhode Island Spirits, said she believes in the area and the possibility of economic development, but “vacant and derelict parcels” at Apex are “eating up our downtown.” She supported “another approach” to development of the site on the all-important riverfront, which R.I. Spirits shares with Apex.

Geraldine Barclay-King, of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, said the group based at 175 Main St. is “very much in support of the mayor’s objective” at Apex, saying the new national park status and the vibrancy of this gateway area depends on it.

Last chance for serious 
tax growth?

Director of Administration Dylan Zelazo told the council this could be the last opportunity for large-scale growth to protect residential and commercial taxpayers of the city, with those taxpayers “paying the price for inactivity” and every day that passes “a loss for the city and state.”

The local economy has gone in the right direction for many years, and “motivated investors” are finding success with such projects as the Hope Artiste Village, Pet Food Experts, and a new Garden City-style development on Newport Avenue.

There’s no doubt, said Zelazo, that Apex has been blighted for some time, and is holding the city back from reinvigorating its downtown and riverfront.

Jeanne Boyle, commerce director for the city and executive director of the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, said ongoing efforts to fill extensive vacancies in the downtown need a more comprehensive effort. Amendment 15 highlights Apex as the entrance to that downtown and the riverfront barrier property blocking a redevelopment connection.

Boyle said the world is going toward “lifestyle” centers, mixes of open space, residential and entertainment, or “experiential retail.” This is the right kind of project for Apex, she said, with a national park nearby, planned bike path, riverfront recreational amenities potentially combining to help make it a “unique gateway destination.” Without Apex, the downtown faces an uphill battle in fulfilling its potential, she said.

Conflicting takes on threats of lawsuit

Whelan took issue with officials’ claims in last week’s edition of The Breeze that the owner’s representatives had threatened to sue the city if they moved forward with the Nov. 7 meeting. He said no such threat was ever made, and said the owner has tried at every turn to work in partnership with the city, even after mediation talks on a possible purchase broke off.

Orson said while there was no direct threat made, officials took the language used in letters to the city as threats, particularly a line about the owners being deprived of their rights and calling the proposed legislation potentially “tortious.”

“We perceived that as a veiled threat,” he said.

Ultimately, said Orson, private industry does a better job of development, but in this case it’s better if the plan is consistent with the public’s vision for the property. Eminent domain is the last choice and worst option, he said, but given no other choices, it might be the only option. The City Council will ultimately decide on eminent domain proceedings, he said, and officials should have a say on the property’s future.

This amendment is not designed to derail ongoing discussions, emphasized Orson.