ecoTalk Question: Why Don’t We Build Things We Need in Places That Make Sense?

By FRANK CARINI

ecoRI News' new podcast will focus on local economy, ecology and ecosystem issues.

ecoRI News' new podcast will focus on local economy, ecology and ecosystem issues.

For a short time that spanned the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, ecoRI News produced 10 podcasts called Blab Lab. Most of the shows were recorded around the dinning room table in the Providence home of the organization’s co-founders, and were often interrupted by the dog barking at the mail carrier, or by fire, ambulance and/or police sirens.

Now, three years later and lessons learned, we’re bringing back the podcast, with a different name, ecoTalk, and different format. For these new podcasts, I will be joined by ecoRI News contributor Nicholas Boke, a Providence-based freelance writer who also works as an educational consultant in the Middle East, Africa and the United States, and up to two guests. The discussions will focus on environmental, social justice and local economy issues that pertain to southern New England.

ecoTalk podcasts will be recorded in a downtown Providence studio at AS220 Industries, and are being made possible by Dan Levinson of Main Street Resources.

Nick and I recently recorded the inaugural ecoTalk podcast, and the basis of our conversation was to answer this question: Why can’t Rhode Island do a better job of building things we need in places that make sense?

We were joined by Scott Duhamel, secretary treasurer of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council. He offered interesting insight, and didn’t dodge any of our questions. The Rhode Island Department of Administration, which oversees the Division of Planning, said no one was available to participate in the podcast. Several requests to speak with someone for a story about the state's development goals and plans have been ignored.

Both Nick and I believe land use is one of the most important environmental and public-health issues Rhode Island faces. We’re hardly alone on that front. But Rhode Island lawmakers and developers continue to sacrifice woodlands, wetlands and watersheds, basically draining the Ocean State’s natural resources, for short-term political and economic gain.

Our unimaginative development includes:

Clear-cutting 60 acres of forestland in Johnston to make room for a 420,000-square-foot Citizens Bank office park with 2,408 parking spaces. One thing Rhode Island has in spades is infrastructure-ready vacant office space, but these properties are ignored because it’s cheaper to chop down trees.

Building a 77,500-square-foot casino with 1,119 parking spots on a 48-acre site in Tiverton that is largely wetlands. This project will leave a developed casino site in Newport vacant.

Destroying at least 200 acres of forest in Burrillville to build a fossil-fuel power plant. Studies, reports and common sense note energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects are the way to go.

Rhode Island has a significant inventory of vacant office buildings, big-box empties and brownfields that are largely ignored when politicians and developers want to build something new. In Providence, for instance, the Superman Building and Cranston Street Armory remain vacant. Too expensive to deal with, developers and their lobbyists whine.

They conveniently do most of their whining at the Statehouse. On Smith Hill, there are plenty of pockets to line, err, sympathetic shoulders to cry on. For example, Paul MacDonald, a lobbyist from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 99, recently called the package of power plant-siting bills as legislation favoring “the green-collar elitists.” Protecting air, soil and water quality in the era of climate change and polluting greenhouse-gas emissions isn’t a treehugging-thing, or at least it shouldn’t be.

MacDonald portrayed a class divide between wealthy, bleeding-heart liberals and middle-class families. Is alternative reality a thing now, too? He also claimed that the green elite are orchestrating an underhanded conspiracy to deny construction jobs. Yeah, construction is the only job sector that is hurting, and 20th-century infrastructure is the only stuff worth building.

He ended with this epic rant: “This is just one more indication of the utter disdain and disregard for salt-of-the-earth, middle-class jobs. Playing with the lives and livelihood of hardworking men and women of the building and construction trades is far dirtier than any gas that will carried by any pipeline or power plant.”

In North Kingstown, an empty 177,000-square-foot Lowe’s, surrounded by a sea of pavement, has been vacant since 2011. It’s been vacant three times longer than it was open. In Woonsocket, a 120,000-square-foot Walmart, also surrounded by a sea of pavement, also has been vacant since 2011. No rush to reuse these spaces, as property owners enjoy tax breaks for not having a tenant.

We hand out nickels and dimes for brownfield remediation, but entice companies from neighboring states with tax breaks worth millions. Recently, the state’s tax-break scheme helped a Waltham, Mass.-headquartered company get an advantage over a competing business that has been building its brand in Rhode Island since 2009. The governor and her commerce bureaucrats simply shrug their collective shoulders when they are told about this other Ocean State business.

Meanwhile, costs related to the services provided by Rhode Island’s dwindling collection of natural resources — protection from storm surge and flooding, pollution filtration, clean water, air and soil, and wildlife and fisheries habitat — are ignored or never considered. Forest and habitat fragmentation grows like Japanese knotweed in Rhode Island.

We don’t have a land-protection plan that is actually working toward something. We lack a development vision. Duhamel told us why.

Frank Carini is one of the co-founders of ecoRI News, along with his wife, Joanna Detz.