Apex out of stadium project, but Grebien promises resolution

Apex out of stadium project, but Grebien promises resolution

A revised rendering shows a more dense riverfront development from Fortuitous Partners.
Fortuitous forging ahead with denser project

PAWTUCKET – Long-standing attempts by the city to acquire the Apex Department Store site have proven fruitless, but Mayor Donald Grebien says he expects that the city will come to a resolution on negotiations by the end of the year.

Last week, representatives from Fortuitous Partners stated that they were not including the Apex site in a scaled-back $300 million version of their soccer stadium-centered project, solidifying earlier statements that they didn’t necessarily need the Apex site to fit all of the significant components of a Tidewater Landing project once tabbed at $400 million.

The city and representatives for Apex have been in negotiations for months on the Apex site. Stagnated negotiations on Apex two years ago were cited by owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox in their decision to leave behind Pawtucket as the location for a new stadium and head to a new stadium in Worcester, Mass.

Grebien this week said that Apex is “a critical gateway into the city’s downtown.” Discussions around reactivating the site have pre-dated even his time as mayor, he noted.

“We continue to have conversations with Apex representatives and have made it clear that we need this land to be redeveloped,” he said. “This is a key location to moving Pawtucket forward. The city will come to a resolution on negotiations by the end of the year. All options remain on the table to acquire the property.”

Asked this week whether carving out Apex from the Tidewater project came about at all due to failed negotiations with its owners, he said the decision to use the two properties came as a result of “many different reviews looking for the highest and best use of the Tidewater Landing project.” Reviews show that denser development on the riverfront creates better synergy for the site, he said.

“The Apex property needs to be developed in a way that connects the Tidewater Landing and the Transit-Oriented Development commuter rail,” Grebien said. “We continue to be optimistic to a high-end development with the current ownership so we don’t have to use the eminent domain powers.”

Answering a question from City Councilor Mark Wildenhain at the Sept. 23 council meeting about whether Apex might be factored back in, Brett Johnson of Fortuitous said his posture has always been that Apex is a “nice-to-have and not a must-have.” He said the project fits well on two sites attached by a pedestrian bridge over the Seekonk River near the Division Street Bridge, and while he would welcome the chance to work with the Apex site as a “fantastic addition,” he and his team by no means believe it’s necessary.

Johnson updated the council on where the project stands, saying he was pleased and excited to announce that the due diligence phase is now concluded and many positive steps will now come to fruition “in a fairly compressed” period of time.

He presented revised plans showing a stadium, hotel, event center and more than double the previous amount of housing, but less office space overall to comply with less demand for it during the new realities brought on by the pandemic. He said this project will “completely transform the area” and be a jolt to the local and regional economy, creating new jobs and activating the riverfront. The commitment remains to privately finance the stadium, he said. Also incorporated are large outdoor event spaces in addition to the main event space of the stadium, which will host games and concerts.

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Johnson thanked Councilor John Barry III for his diligence and hard work on the project, saying the councilman has made it better.

Next steps include: a lease review and execution of the lease by the council, finalization of public financing through negotiations, finalization of a development agreement with the city and state, and then moving to the first phase of the permitting process.

Dan Kroeber, of Fortuitous, said much has been happening behind the scenes since the stadium project was announced last December. He said representatives have really gotten to know the properties targeted for the development.

The overall site plan is fairly similar to the one presented last December, he said, except the hotel and event center are moved to the 45 Division St. lot instead of Apex. It’s a flat site the company believes works really well as it overlooks the stadium across the river and the Riverwalk and pedestrian bridge. He also expects new connections to the underutilized Festival Pier.

Public dollars are continuing to go toward the infrastructure and site improvement aspects of this project.

Kroeber said Fortuitous envisions an event plaza of sorts, with outdoor dining opportunities in a “restaurant row type of area.” The pedestrian bridge, he said, is critical to make the two sites feel like one.

The developers anticipate also creating an outdoor event space on the stadium side of the river for dining, farmers markets, festivals and other events. That side would be targeted for “game-day activation,” but there are opportunities for other days as well. There would also be apartments and a parking garage on this Taft Street side of the river.

Fortuitous representatives are describing the United Soccer League stadium as a “multi-sport and entertainment” stadium. New plans call for greater density and less of a sprawling project.

Councilors asked a number of questions of Johnson.

Councilor Meghan Kallman asked about incorporating locally owned companies, and Johnson said there have been discussions with a number of local companies, including some restaurants and breweries from Pawtucket.

She also asked about solar opportunities and increased public transportation, and Johnson said the company is prioritizing both.

Councilor Elena Vasquez asked about the price range on housing. Johnson said that’s something that will be explored in the next phase, but there will be an affordable/workforce component.

Councilor Terry Mercer asked about plans for calming traffic on the west side of the river, particularly with greater residential and retail spaces, the stadium and the parking garage in a consolidated area, and representatives from Fortuitous said they’re working on creative ways to increase efficiency of traffic flow. Barry also expressed concern on that front, saying it’s a “tight neighborhood.”

Council President David Moran asked whether the total seating of the stadium has changed, and Johnson said it has not. It remains at 7,500 seats with the ability to scale up to 15,000 seats over time.

Johnson said the city and state have been “nothing short of extraordinary” to work with.

Answering another question from Moran, he said he estimates that the cost of the project is now in the “low $300 million range,” but there are some substantial “off balance sheet costs” that would add to that.

Grebien spoke up after Johnson’s presentation to reiterate that Tidewater Landing is a great economic development opportunity for the city, but the needs of the community must also be met. He said upcoming hearings will help ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

Commerce Director Jeanne Boyle said everyone has been working hard and together on this project. Fortuitous has been a great group to work with, she said, and the state has been a wonderful partner as well. She said she’s looking forward to bringing various proposals before the council.

Asked by Wildenhain whether he’s seen any diminished interest from investors in the project during the pandemic, Johnson said absolutely not. Though the mix of uses within the project has changed, he said, the world “will start spinning” again and investors remain interested in sports-centered redevelopment.