Public pushes back against politically connected developer in East Providence

“I do see some of the comments that pop up and say, ‘Nobody wants this,’” said Senator William Conley to his constituents, but in service to the developer. “Those aren’t going to be comments we’re going to be able to give a productive answer to, other than it’s private property…“ Pawtucket developer Marshall Properties is in the process of getting

Published on July 16, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

I do see some of the comments that pop up and say, ‘Nobody wants this,’” said Senator William Conley to his constituents, but in service to the developer. “Those aren’t going to be comments we’re going to be able to give a productive answer to, other than it’s private property…

Pawtucket developer Marshall Properties is in the process of getting a zoning change approved by the East Providence City Council for the Metacomet Golf Course on Veterans Parkway in East Providence. Marshall Properties has a purchasing agreement with the owners that is contingent on the rezoning of the property to make way for the largest development in recent East Providence history. The development, as proposed, would consist of residential, retail, office space and some open space.

On Tuesday evening Marshall Properties held a “community meeting” to explain their plan to residents, many of whom have formed a group opposed to the development called Keep Metacomet Green! (Website Facebook)

Here’s the video:

Representing Marshall Properties is lawyer WilliamBillyConley Jr (Democrat) who also a State Senator representing District 18, in East Providence. Also involved with the Marshall Properties development plan is lawyer Joseph Shekarchi, who also serves as the Rhode Island State House Majority Leader (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) under Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

In hiring and/or working with Conley and Shekarchi, Marshall Properties has bought the services of two powerful lawyer/legislators who have a lot of power to shape policy at the State House.

Joseph Shekarchi

Speaking to his constituents, but in the service of his client, Conley downplayed the public urgency around the project.

“Everyone should know that we are in the very first steps of our journey,” said Conley. “The hearing before the City Council on August 6th and 11th is simply for the zone change and comp change amendment. Nothing else at this time.”

Here Conley is referring to upcoming East Providence City Council hearings where changes to both zoning and the City’s comprehensive plan must be passed before the development can move forward.

“This is a project that probably takes ten years to build out,” continued Conley. “It will ultimately be a product of post-pandemic market forces and robust public input and review.”

However, there are a few things, Conley said, that we know for certain.

“We will be opening a site in our community that we have been excluded from our entire lives…” said Conley, before promising that he and Marshall Properties will, “in the very first days of this development, open up at least 30 acres of it to public open space. It feels really good to tell you that tonight.”

Conley made much of the fact that the owners of Marshall Properties are a “real East Providence family,” adding that “we are very fortunate to have people that know us, and they’re part of the fabric of our community who are willing to invest in our future with us in these uncertain times.”

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William Conley

Right now the property is designated open space, but that doesn’t mean that the property cannot be developed for some things, such as a hospital or an amusement park. That said, the property is not zoned for the complicated development planned by Marshall Properties.

“Additionally,” said a person on the call representing Marshall Properties, “this property is part of an opportunity zone. That’s designated by the federal government, and that encourages development of these properties into active developments that do things such as produce tax revenues, jobs and other opportunities for communities to advance development.”

Though true, this comment about opportunity zones elides some important context.

Opportunity zones were an important part of President Donald Trump‘s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Rather than the federal government picking out these zones, states such as Rhode Island submitted lists of areas they considered ripe for development. In Rhode Island, all 25 requests were granted, the maximum number allowed by law. Opportunity zones convey a number of financial benefits to investors with enough money to capitalize on them.

Read more on Opportunity Zones here: Opportunity Zones, embraced by Trump and Raimondo, exploit low-income communities and enrich billionaires

In 2018, the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed a resolution encouraging Governor Gina Raimondo and the state’s federal delegation to do all within their power to get these opportunity zones approved. That resolution was sponsored by former State Representative Kenneth Marshall (Democrat, District 68, Bristol, Warren) and the aforementioned Majority Leader Shekarchi.

These federal opportunity zones were bolstered by the passage of state legislation that added more benefits to investing in opportunity zones. This legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Billy Conley.

The developers at Marshall Properties are adamant that they will comply with all state and local laws when it comes to building their development, including affordable housing quotas. But as residents of Providence know, if the developer has enough clout the state can sometimes, through the power of the General Assembly, grant exceptions or change the laws to favor developers.

As the community conversation moved into its public comments phase, no one spoke in favor of the project. This did not dissuade the developers.

“I do see some of the comments that pop up and say ‘Nobody wants this,'” said Conley, “Those aren’t going to be comments we’re going to be able to give a productive answer to, other than it’s private property…”

“Once these zoning changes are approved, it’s the kind of thing you don’t really go back from,” said resident Derick Mendoza. “It’s not like the City Council’s going to take it back and be like, ‘Actually, we’re going to make this back into a park.'”

This was an important point. Though Senator Conley downplayed the importance of the upcoming votes on changing the zoning and the comprehensive plan, in fact these votes are pivotal moments where the community has a chance to influence the outcome of this project.

Cynthia Mendes, who is challenging Conley for his Senate seat in the upcoming Democratic primary, noted the large number of people who have signed a petition in opposition to the project and the formation of a group to oppose the project, Keep Metacomet Green! Mendes asked if the developers have considered the fact that “an overwhelming amount of people have communicated that they do not want this change, they want this space to stay green.”

Mendes also asked if the developers would be willing to “walk away” given the public opposition.

“Oftentimes, folks who are in support don’t come out. 3,000 people are very important in a community, but that’s not your 48,000 residents, okay?” answered one of the developers. “And the answer to your question is no, we have no intention of walking away.”

Keep Metacomet Green! will be holding an informational gathering at Weaver Library Thursday, July 16.
The East Providence City Council will take up the zone and comprehensive plan changes at their August 6 and August 11 meetings, starting at 6pm.

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