Commuter-rail service is playing a leading role in a transit-oriented development (TOD) project near Providence, R.I., that public- and private-sector leaders hope will give the region’s economy a much-needed boost.
Located in the Northeast Corridor and 12 miles south of Providence, the Warwick Station Development District is a 95-acre, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development in the city of Warwick. The TOD offers up to 1.5 million square feet of opportunities for office space, hotels, residential and retail development opportunities with access to all transport modes.
As Rhode Island government and business leaders see it, what sets the Warwick Station Development District apart from other TODs can be summed up with that old real estate saying — location, location, location. The district is situated between Boston and New York City on the Northeast Corridor, and at its heart sits a transportation hub with access to trains, planes, automobiles and buses.
Known as the Warwick InterLink, the transportation center opened in 2010 and features a new rail station, a 1,200-foot moving skywalk to the T.F. Green Airport terminal, access to bus service, 1,800 parking spaces for rental cars and 800 parking spaces for commuters.
City of Warwick Planning Director William DePasquale believes that a TOD with a transportation hub that connects rail to a medium-sized airport is unique among TODs nationwide. That element gives Warwick Station an advantage in the effort to address the region’s shifting demographics: The population is aging and, to attract businesses, the city needed to offer an environment that would appeal to a younger population seeking access to jobs, transportation choices other than cars, and more affordable housing options, he says.
“From a regional perspective, we offer a cost advantage here to the Boston ring communities,” says DePasquale, who, along with other city officials, has been working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. (RIEDC) to develop Warwick Station.
“When we do our assessments to housing costs relative to those Boston ring communities, we find up to a 60 percent deviation that is less cost for housing than those Boston communities,” he says. “Why is that important? Because housing and transportation costs generally make up about 50 percent of annual average household expenditures.”
A TOD that offers reduced housing and transportation costs is “really important to this region,” he adds.
“What we’re really trying to attract is the businesses, their workforce and residents to try to establish that permanent population,” he says. “If we don’t change, we’re going to be left behind and that customer — whether that’s a business, a workforce or resident — is going to go somewhere else.”
Those involved in the district’s development hope the TOD project will help fire up the region’s real estate market, and in turn, the economy. The Northeast, in particular, has been slow to recover from the economic downturn, “and Rhode Island has taken a little longer,” says John Riendeau, RIEDC’s director of business development.
Rail will be a key factor in helping to attract new businesses and a younger workforce to the region, he says. The district already offers Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter trains traveling between Warwick, Providence and Boston. The trains run on Amtrak rails, and Rhode Island officials hope that the InterLink will one day be a stop for Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains.
“We’re one of the few areas along the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak can really get true high-speed service at 150 mph,” says Stephen Devine, RIDOT’s chief of intermodal planning. “We want to take advantage of that location.”
Private businesses also seem to recognize that value, which is why many TODs around the country pop up around rail lines, Devine says.
Adds DePasquale: “From a local perspective, you really can’t have a transit-oriented development without commuter rail. It’s the backbone of the development. We’re in New England [where] traffic congestion leaves businesses with less productivity. … Rail can be the answer.”
Where does the Warwick Station district plan stand today? The city has approved a master plan and zoning ordinance for it, and multiple parcels in and around its boundaries are being developed. Phase I calls for 120,000 square feet of office space; future phases include a parking garage, 320-room hotel and 420,000 square feet of additional office space. A 160-room Hilton Garden Inn and an adjoining restaurant also are part of the plan, according to the RIEDC.
In early 2012, RIDOT received a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to make pedestrian and roadway improvements; in mid-2012, the state received $400,000 from FHWA to conduct a market analysis, build a brand and launch a marketing campaign for the district. RIEDC is working on a district marketing analysis and soon will draft a marketing plan, Riendeau says.
The ingredients necessary for creating the Warwick Station Development District are in place, now it’s time to go out and recruit the real estate developers, businesses and potential workforce that can make it a success, says DePasquale.
“What we’re hearing from businesses is that they’re looking for ‘place-making,’ an entire place where workers can work, live and go for retail and entertainment,” he says. “The soup is already there, we just have to simmer it a bit more.”
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