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Face Off at the State House

The controversy over State House construction

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Many passersby were surprised last month when excavating equipment suddenly appeared on Smith Street and started working on a long proposed, but slow to materialize project to expand the parking lot around the State House. There is very little controversy over whether there should be more parking around the building. Yes, there needs to be. And yes, it’s overdue. But behind the digging and paving lies a controversy that threatens to undermine the fragile balancing act that has guided construction within the Capital Center for over three decades.

The original documents setting up the Capital Center Commission were drawn up in 1982 and gave the state-city entity total authority to create design guidelines and oversight for the 77 acres of downtown freed up by the river relocations. This decision was made because of the complexity of competing interests. The land itself was owned in part by the State, the City, private business interests and the federal government (Amtrak). In addition, potential developers would need to have rules and regulations to follow as they submitted their proposals (or sought wavers) for their projects. Reflecting the potential for conflict, it was agreed that the commission would be composed of 15 members, appointed by the governor, the mayor, the legislature and the business community.

Three years ago, the State had sought approval for their project to add parking spaces to the top surface around the State House, several at the expense, unfortunately, of some lawn. While technically in violation of Capital Center regulations which prohibit surface parking, a compromise was agreed to by both parties. As a partial trade-off, the design was modified to retain some trees in the lot itself. Despite the agreement, the State still wanted to seek a waver contesting the Capital Center’s right to oversee the design and the project was put on hold.

Fast forward to last month. While the State was willing to resubmit its plans for review “as a courtesy,” they remained unwilling to acknowledge the Commission’s jurisdiction over the parking proposal. Complicating matters, the State has recently bought the land across from Veterans Auditorium and is planning to create an enormous parking lot there for a future building that clearly will be in violation of the Commission’s long-standing rules prohibiting surface parking. “The irony of course,” notes Capital Center Commission chairman Deming Sherman, “is that the State was one of the original signatories to the documents that created the Commission in the first place.” Also signing the document, giving the Commission its authority, were city, state and federal governments, Amtrak and the Providence & Worcester Realty Co., one of the major private landowners of the parcels.

The State is now arguing the Commission’s role is purely advisory. At a public hearing held just a few weeks ago, Todd Turcotte, a vice president of Capital Properties, an East Providence-based company that was formed in 1984 to manage and develop the Providence & Worcester properties, stepped forward to register his concern. His argument was that everyone who had developed parcels in Capital Center, had dutifully followed the rules or sought variances – as the Capital Center rules demand. To now have one of the original signatories, the State no less, go forward and just do what they want, seems to suggest the longtime guidelines are now porous at best.
Where this will go from here remains to be seen. The Capital Center Commission is unwilling to walk away from its mandate. The State seems prepared to push forward and do what it thinks is necessary. Meanwhile the buzz of litigation begins to waft in the air.

The reality of course is that the Cap- ital Center has meager funds to go to court while the State’s coffers are bot- tomless. But here’s where things get even more confusing. The 1982 agreement specifies that the City must represent the Commission in legal issues. After initially expressing willingness to help, the City has suddenly withdrawn its offer and wants to stay clear of the issue. This all said, groups like the Providence Preservation Society are exploring whether they will weigh in to help the Commission.
Meanwhile stay tuned for what might prove to be a landmark battle to better define the limits of the State’s power in matters of this type.