Food Fight

PROVIDENCE - Plans for a $4 million pavilion adjacent to the pedestrian bridge that would include year-round food and drink service have some nearby restaurant owners crying foul. They say taxpayer money is being used to help private operators undercut their business.

The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission proposed the pavilion as part of upgrades to the seven-acre Innovation District Park along the Providence River. Armed with a consultant’s report that says the model has proven successful in cities around the country, the district leaders counter that providing food and beverages will help attract visitors and benefit the outlying restaurants .

 

“I think this will be transformative,” Caroline Skuncik, executive director of the I-195 Commission, told The Hummel Report in an interview earlier this month. “I think overall it will be very positive for the community.”

John Elkhay, who has operated a multitude of restaurants in Providence since 1986, responded: “It’s going to steal parking spots. And we’re already saturated. There’s everything you’d want to buy within a 10 block area.”

 

The restaurant owners also take issue with how the pavilion is being financed: with a $4 million “open space” bond voters passed in a special election 16 months ago, part of a $74 million request for environmental and recreational projects across Rhode Island. Some of the restaurant owners say they voted for the bond, unaware of the specifics of what the I-195 District Commission planned to use it for. There was no mention of the word restaurant - and, they say, very little public discussion about the project until several months ago.

 

“You say ‘open space,’ I say build out a park, not build on a park,” said Sharon Steele, the longtime president of the Jewelry District Association, who has attended every I-195 Commission meeting over the past decade. Steele has been an aggressive watchdog, and frequent critic, of the commission.

 

“There simply is not enough parking for an additional ‘pavilion’ restaurant, without perilously compromising existing businesses that did not get free land,” said Kim Anderson, owner of Plant City on South Water Street. “Our leaders are telling entrepreneurs like us who came and invested millions creating jobs and revitalizing blighted areas, that the thanks we get is to make our business continuation nearly impossible.”

Julianna Fonseca, owner of Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches on South Main Street, a block away from the park, said she heard about the pavilion from another business owner,  with no direct contact from the I-195 Commission. “You’re going to impact us directly and do you understand what that means? And do you care?,” she said.

 

The New York-based restaurant consultant hired by the commission did not speak with Elkhay, Anderson or Fonseca; all are within a five-minute walk of the park.

What exactly will be built - and where - is still a work in progress. The only certainty is that it will be located on the west side of the pedestrian bridge.

 

Skuncik said it will not be a $4 million restaurant with hundreds of seats, an option floated in early discussions of the project. And with rising costs she’s not sure what the $4 million will buy when construction is scheduled to get under way next year. The I-195 Commission hired a consultant in 2018 to come up with a plan for operating and maintaining a park.

 

“One of their key recommendations was that the commission should invest in some infrastructure for the park,” Skuncik said. “One of the recommendations was a freestanding pavilion that would include public bathrooms, that would include support space for park operations and would include some permanent food and beverage service.”

 

More permanent, she added, than food trucks. She envisions two or three vendors, offering a combination of sit down and grab-and-go food.  Ideally, Skuncik said, there may be an anchor vendor that has indoor seating and takeout windows.

 

“They will be expected to (pay for) some of that fit out, themselves,” Skuncik said. “We will provide a shell, a little bit of funding for the interior, but they will also have to make an investment. It’s not the state delivering something turnkey.”

 

Skuncik said she expects the food operators to generate revenues for the district, just as The Guild does now from a mobile setup that serves the brewing company’s beer, just west of the pedestrian bridge. On a recent Sunday, tables set up in a cordoned off grassy area were filled and a line of people waited for service. The district receives licensing fees: 10% of beer sales and 5% of food sales that Guild makes. Last summer that totaled more than $13,648. The revenue is used to help fund the district’s operating expenses. 

Skuncik said she has heard from restaurant owners who are interested in being vendors for the new pavilion.  “A lot of the conversations that we’ve had people say: ‘It sounds great, how can I be considered as an operator’?

 

“There are restaurants that recognize that adding infrastructure like this and investment like this will bring more people to the surrounding area, which will be good for their business too. And that’s what experience has shown happens in other locations.  Not every business has this view but there are businesses that we talked to who see this as something that will benefit them as well,” Skuncik said.

 

Last summer, the I-195 Commission awarded a $71,000 contract to Agora Partners of Los Angeles and New York to advise district leaders on the pavilion. Skuncik said Agora and representatives from the I-195 District have spoken with 19 local businesses owners and stakeholders close to the park, on both sides of the river, and contacted nine more that did not respond to the outreach.

 

Agora said the model Providence is proposing has worked in other cities: it cites Madison Square Park in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and parks in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and Philadelphia as places where a public investment in food and beverage service has benefitted the area.

 

Robert Burke, who has owned the 50-year-old Pot Au Feu restaurant in downtown Providence since 1986, rejects the comparison. “Those are absolute fallacies, they’re not apt comparison,” Burke said. “Because of the number of people in those cities that do not rely on cars. Rhode Islanders drive to restaurants, it’s that simple,” he said, adding that the first question people ask when they call his restaurant is: where they can park?

 

“Any restaurant consultant in America would immediately calculate that the market was already oversaturated and that there are already dozens of restaurants … all through the downtown district, all within easy walking distance of this site.”

 

Cliff Wood, executive director of The Providence Foundation, said he supports the concept of investment in the park, pointing to significant contributions of public money in other cities, like Dallas and Indianapolis.  “I don’t have an official position on what it should be (in Providence). Places should be flexible. You could do a sitdown restaurant, but you could also do grab and go,” Wood said.

 

And, Wood said, parking shouldn’t be a make-or-break issue for developing amenities in the park.

 

“Parking has always been a conversation, even when the city was virtually dead,” Wood said. “If those are questions that surrounding businesses have about the development, now is the time to raise them. Hopefully those concerns will be incorporated in the process and we’ll come out with a product that makes the most sense, for the park itself, for park visitors and for businesses around the park because they’re all constituents.”

So how did a $4 million request for a capital improvement included in the governor’s budget several years ago, morph into a bond issue asking for open space funds?  Skuncik said the I-195 District’s plan was finalized in 2019 and a request for funding was made through The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Although the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is a quasi-public agency, it has asked for capital improvement and operational funding from the state, requests that are passed through Commerce and ultimately wind up in the Office of Management and Budget.

 

Gov. Gina Raimondo, in her budget draft for fiscal year 2021, proposed funding the $4 million pavilion request from the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund, a pay-as-you-go funding stream used for capital projects throughout state government. Her administration changed course in July and asked the General Assembly to put the request on the ballot in the form of a bond. The reason: The legislature needed to use rainy day funds to close the previous year’s budget gap and that interrupted the flow of excess funds in the capital plan fund, lowering resources for capital projects.

 

Because the state is borrowing money to pay for the project, taxpayers will be on the hook for an additional $400,000 in interest costs, assuming a 5% interest rate and 20-year term.

 

The governor’s fiscal staff described the project this way: “…physical infrastructure at the District’s parks, including an event stage, concessions, expanded utility services, restrooms and trash receptacles, and capital projects in conjunction with adjacent properties.  The parks’ development plan does assume the ability to generate additional revenue after these amenities are in place; however, the assumptions behind those revenues are not entirely clear.”

There is no mention of a restaurant or food pavilion.

 

Question No. 2 appeared on the March 2021 special election ballot. The question asked for $4 million for the park infrastructure described by the governor’s office at the seven-acre Innovation District Park. “Funds will be used to construct park infrastructure to enhance utilities, support park operations and programming, and enable food and beverage service,” the wording said.

 

There was no description of year-round, indoor, sit-down dining service, which became part of the early discussion after the bond passed March 2 with 78% of the vote.

The Hummel Report asked Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who at times has been critical of the I-195 District Commission, if he thought building a restaurant with open space money was appropriate.

 

Through a spokesman, Ruggerio responded: “The Senate hearing process was transparent and the intent of the bond was clear when voters approved it. The food services component of the planned infrastructure was discussed during the public, televised Finance Committee hearings. While I defer to the I-195 Commission relative to the specifics of the project, the voter guide sent to the voters, who approved the bond in March 2021, clearly articulated that the bond was to provide for infrastructure including food and beverage services.”

 

Skuncik said district leaders have held 10 public presentations - either at community meetings or monthly commission meetings - about the pavilion,  going back more than a year. Steele, who attends all the meetings, said calling it “outreach” is a stretch.

 

Steele said the presentations to the commission consisted of Skuncik putting up some slides with updates on architect selection and general information about the project - with few details and no questions or discussion from commission members. Those updates came in May and August 2021 and this year’s January meeting.

 

“There was no outreach to the restaurant owners, to the entrepreneurs, to the business owners, didn’t happen,” Steele said. “Absolutely did not happen.”

 

Steele said the I-195 District publicized a 2 ½-hour community event in the park on June 16. Leaders asked those who attended to “help us plan the future permanent food and beverage pavilion in the park.” They promised free ice cream for those who attended.

 

Steele said she and others arrived, ready for a question-and-answer session. “They said, ‘We’d like you to go on your phone and fill out this survey.’ So you’ve asked us to come to the park at this time to participate in a listening session and this is what we get?”

 

Elkhay, who owns 10 Prime Steak and Sushi and four other restaurants in downtown Providence, said no one has contacted him. “I wasn’t called. There’s five restaurants within one block of me. No one has heard of this. No one was asked.”

 

He added: “If another restaurateur put up $4 million to build a restaurant, I would applaud them. But the government putting up the money, to put us out of business, or make us struggle more, it’s insanity.”

Burke is incredulous that a $4 million bond for open space made it onto the ballot in a special off-year election. “No one would put their private money into this. This is only an insider deal, that if the state will pay for the building…and somebody gets to come in and fail with the state’s money, it’s other people’s money,” he said. “And they’re more than happy to take the money and take the gamble, because it’s not really a gamble is it?”

Anderson, the owner of Plant City, and Brian Kingsford, the owner of nearby Bacaro, said they have emerged from the struggles of operating during a pandemic, only to have dozens of parking spaces eliminated along South Water street by the installation of a dedicated bike lane. It’s part of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Great Streets Initiative.

 

Kingsford, who has owned Bacaro for 15 years, said that with continued development by the I-195 District on both sides of the pedestrian bridge, the commission needs to address the parking issue before it can move forward with plans for the pavilion.

 

“They’re basically building a model where they say, we don’t have cars, we don’t want cars, there’s not going to be cars,” Kingsford said. “And you can hear that in the commission’s conversations when you’re at these meetings, you can hear that there’s a very large group saying, ‘We want to be a car-less city.’”

He added that 90 percent of his business comes from out of state. “They can’t bike here,” Kingsford said.

“For our tax money to be used to strain the parking condition beyond viability, adding further competition to post-COVID struggling businesses, in a city that has more restaurants per capita than any other, is inane,” Anderson said.

 

Asked if she agreed parking was a major issue, Skuncik said: “We are doing a parking study right now on the whole area. I don’t want to answer that right now, because we’re going to have results of the parking study shortly on the east side, then we’ll be starting a parking study on the west side.”

 

Burke noted that construction of the 46-story Fane Tower is still in the mix, now that the Rhode Island Supreme Court has cleared the way for the largest building in Providence to be constructed, with additional food and beverage service. Early plans called for the pavilion to be in close proximity to the Fane building, and Fane planned to have a sitdown restaurant and a cafe. 

 

The I-195 District Commission hopes to break ground on the pavilion next year, with a completion date of 2024.

 

“I think it’s going to be what’s best for the park,” Skuncik said. “Food service is offered in other public parks around the state and it’s something we’re focused on: the long-term best interest of this asset.”

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.