It’s Time R.I. Rises to Challenge: Go Vertical with Development of I-195 Land

A vertical farm on this parcel of I-195 land in Providence would draw crowds and help make Rhode Island more food secure. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

A vertical farm on this parcel of I-195 land in Providence would draw crowds and help make Rhode Island more food secure. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI

PROVIDENCE — Two decades ago the installation of an award-winning art sculpture sparked WaterFire. This now-hugely popular event is a tourist attraction, destination event for locals and a vital piece of the city’s economy. The idea ignited the revival of the city’s riverfront and gave Waterplace Park its mojo.

A vertical farm could do the same for the I-195 land the city and state are so desperate to develop, at least according to Lisa Raiola, founder and visionary behind the Warren-based culinary incubator Hope & Main.

“It would be model for all of New England,” she told ecoRI News earlier this year. “It would be an urban living space with agriculture. It would attract funding and tourism ... a living-learning experiment that could be the future of local food.”

Such a multistory facility, complete with a family-attracting fish farm, would instantly become a curiosity to highway motorists — a billboard, sans an oversized head of a personal-injury lawyer.

Besides drawing more people into the city, such a development would grow local food, help local farmers and food producers, educate consumers, and would be a small step toward making Rhode Island more food secure.

The farm would generate tax dollars, create jobs and spur innovation. In fact, it would be much more than a farm and far more interesting than, say, privatized student housing. Such a complex could include unique urban office and living space, a brewery with space to grow hops, and local shops and restaurants. Chains need not apply. Visitors would come to tour the hanging gardens and stay to shop and dine. Build it with public transportation in mind, and make it pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Growing the local economy requires 21st-century thinking, not stale ideas regurgitated from the past. Baseball stadium? Rhode Island already has a good one, packed with plenty of history. Student housing? Enough already.

Why are we spending so much time and effort trying to entice out-of-state companies to relocate here by offering them tax breaks? There are plenty of hard-working local businesses that could use a helping hand, and likely won’t pack up and move when another city or state inevitably offers a bigger and better tax deal.

We should be building our local economy by working with existing businesses, preferably ones who weren’t lured here by the promise of not having to pay their fair share of taxes.

Rather than wait for a Dallas-based developer to propose building more student housing, or consider handing over taxpayer money to build a private baseball stadium, why can’t state and local officials be proactive and sincerely work with those who have a true passion for local investment?

The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and Gov. Gina Raimondo should be working with people like Raiola, Nat Harris and Leo Pollock at The Compost Plant, and David Dadekian, founder of EatDrinkRI. Dadekian wants to create something similar to New York City’s Chelsea Market or San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace here in Providence.

The commission and city and state officials should be collaborating with Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership to develop the economic opportunities afforded by the relocation of Route 195.

A vertical farm would be the perfect centerpiece to promote local food. We should be putting more time and energy into making Providence the epicenter of New England food tourism, rather than having the city used as a storage center for liquified natural gas.

Job creation and employment opportunities are without a doubt vital, but do we need to continue to rely on the expansion of fossil fuels and the building of a misleadingly named Clear River Energy Center to put people to work? The 10-mile river that had its name stolen isn't going to benefit from another power plant built near its banks. These fossilized remains of the past aren’t clean, despite all the greenwashing.

The new Burrillville energy center, to be owned and operated by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, promises to help “solve New England’s energy needs by creating a 900+-megawatt clean energy center in Rhode Island.” This facility will largely be powered by natural gas. Natural gas isn’t clean. Cleaner than coal perhaps, but hardly worth bragging about.

Put local builders to work constructing a food campus/tourism hub that incorporates a vertical farm and a marketplace for New England products and artisans. Power the facility with renewable energy — an array of rooftop solar panels would be eye-catching from the interstate — and infuse the area around this hub with 21st-century ideas and technology. Then boast about job creation. Building more pipeline miles shouldn’t be applauded.

While we have plenty of self-proclaimed “thought leaders,” what we’re really missing are ideas — like WaterFire. In 2005, the Providence Business News reported that WaterFire attracted more than 1.1 million visitors to Providence in 2004 and had a direct economic impact of $33.2 million that year, including some $2.5 million in sales tax from WaterFire events. It’s popularity and economic punch haven’t waned.

Vertical farming, like the local food movement in general, is a growing industry that needs to be better embraced by our local leaders. Vertical farming also addresses the issues of finite arable land and human population growth, by enabling more food to be produced with less resources used. A vertical farm in Japan, for example, with rows of thin soil bases controlled to the tiniest variable for temperature, humidity and light, allows the facility to harvest 10,000 heads of lettuce in a single day while using 40 percent less power and 99 percent less water than traditional farms, according to Foundation Earth.

Sky Greens, a Singapore vertical farming company, employs a growing system that allows plants to be rotated on recycled water-powered aluminum frames and exposed to water every eight hours. For densely populated places such Singapore, vertical farming addresses the issues of limited real estate and the high cost of this said real estate. For the record, Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state.

In fact, vertical farming is so efficient that there is growing belief that this type of urban farming could move beyond a niche market and become a solution for food insecurity. Some even believe vertical farming could be the future of agriculture.

The Association for Vertical Farming claims crops require an average of 98 percent less water and 70 percent less fertilizer. There are, however, challenges. Maintenance costs for vertical farming are high. Hydroponic systems require nutrient replenishment, not all plants can be grown in such a system and pollination must be done by hand.

Just an idea. But it would be a refreshing — and needed — change to see Rhode Island's power brokers address job creation and economic development by investing their time and our money into ideas that address food security, climate change, the environment and the prosperity of future generations.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.