Warwick Station on track

Phil Noel has the malls.

Joe Walsh and Frank Flaherty, the dramatic commercial explosion – and accompanying tax revenues – of Route 2.

And when his chapter in Warwick’s history is written, Mayor Lincoln Chafee may well have Warwick Station, a new business district and inter-modal transportation center linking an Amtrak station with T.F. Green Airport.

Chafee is leery of defining his legacy too narrowly. But he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by his father, U.S. Sen. John Chafee, in November of 2000. So Chafee’s days as mayor of Rhode Island’s second largest city are numbered. He has been an extremely popular mayor. A Republican in a city long ruled by Democrats.

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City services are considered first rate, and he played a major role in securing union contracts and calming the waters at a tumultuous police department. But all of that aside, the talk around town is that the mayor loves to talk about high-speed trains and the ambitious Warwick Station.

A big one indeed.

And you get the sense that Chafee can feel it happening.

“This is the closest Amtrak line to an airport in the country – within a quarter of a mile,” said Chafee. “Baltimore is the next closest and that’s five miles away.”

The pieces of Warwick Station are beginning to fall into place. Two new zoning designations have been adopted by the Warwick City Council and a redevelopment agency has been established. The Warwick Station Redevelopment District is no longer an idea, but a reality.

Even more encouraging for supporters of the projects is the financial piece of the puzzle.

The Warwick Station project is being fueled by $25 million in federal dollars out of the $207 billion federal Highway Bill to build a new train station near the airport. Beyond that federal windfall, the state will infuse a $5 million matching grant. The project will also be funded by private investors. Financing from private developers would most likely be used to fund a 1,500-foot “people mover,” according to William Ankner, director of the state Department of Transportation.

A key to the project – in addition to the soaring popularity of T.F. Green – will be the construction of the new train station. In May of 1998, the city received $15 million to build a train station by the airport and $10 million to connect the train station and the airport. The New York-Boston Amtrak line passes within 1,200 feet of the airport terminal.

Perhaps most paramount, the project also appears to have cut through political lines. When Chafee does leave office – whether it be for Washington, D.C. or some other career opportunity, it appears that the Warwick Station project will hardly skip a beat.

Carlo E. Pisaturo, Jr., a Democrat on the City Council and a candidate for the mayor’s office, has supported the Warwick Station proposal since its inception. Earlier this year, he told the Providence Business News; “They’re not moving the airport to Quonset, as some people had hoped. And they’re not moving the train tracks. Let’s take advantage of them as much as we can.”

Earlier this month, Pisaturo said Warwick Station will serve as the basis for his campaign for mayor. And in fact, he said, one of his slogans will be; “Full steam ahead.”

Pisaturo is confident that Warwick Station will maintain its bipartisan support.

“I don’t see any reason why it would not,” he said. “It has the support of the majority of the City Council.”

Alfred A. Gemma, a political independent and former City Council member, is also an outspoken proponent of the Warwick Station proposal.

Gemma said the project is destined to make Warwick “shine like crazy.” It only makes sense to capitalize on the $300 million federal and state investment at T.F. Green Airport, said Gemma.

Gemma said that Warwick has long been perceived as a city of malls, because it has lacked a true downtown. But with Warwick Station, said Gemma, said Gemma. “Warwick has been perceived as a city of malls because we don’t have a downtown. Warwick will become a ‘big boy’ after this.”

Warwick Station is expected to include a skywalk, retail shops, office complexes, a conference center, hotels and parking garages. In the newly created district, according to preliminary plans, an emphasis will be placed on maintaining open spaces for walking, artwork and fountains in a park-like environment.

Jefferson Boulevard will be the primary route for traffic to the new train station. The center of the proposed business district will be a ten-block area between the new train station and the airport terminal.

In a mailing to residents detailing the proposal, Warwick Mayor Lincoln Chafee wrote; “The new train stop will make it even more convenient for travelers from the stretch between Boston and New Haven to fly in and out of Green and, beyond that, for business people to gather from around the country for meetings here in Warwick.”

Larry Kunkel, executive director of the Central Rhode Island Development Corporation, sees the Warwick Station Redevelopment District as an unprecedented economic development opportunity. Kunkel has suggested that the project has the potential to spur at least $250 million in private investment.

Jonathan Stevens, director of the Warwick Planning Department, has worked closely with city, state and federal officials and has developed a Warwick Station Master Plan. He has also visited with residents, discussing with them the potential impact and scope of the project.

For Stevens, the Warwick Station project is a unique opportunity.

“It’s not often you get to prescribe a very specific redevelop, get it adopted and then work with the state to make it happen,” said Stevens.

As a planner, Stevens is used to hearing from pessimists quick to throw cold water on an ambitious plan. But Warwick Station is somewhat different, he said. For one thing, said Stevens, it simply makes sense. And slowly, but surely, the pieces have consistently fallen in place. The result has been a growing number of believers.

“This is very deliberate,” he said. “It has come about by virtue of the airport, a $3.5 million Post Road improvement, the advent of high speed rail and $25 million in federal money.”

Stevens looks into the future and envisions a shuttle between Providence Station and Warwick Station.

“It is so important to synergize the development of Warwick Station and the redevelopment of downtown Providence,” said Stevens.

Chafee does not see Warwick Station as competing with Providence. He is convinced the two can thrive, capitalizing on the strengths of one another. It may or may not be his legacy, but he is convinced it is going to happen.

“Everyone is enthusiastic,” said Chafee. “I don’t see any insurmountable hurdles.”

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