I-195 District Chairman Azrack: "All The Pieces Are In Place" For Growth

Feb 17, 2016

Azrack thinks lower property costs in Providence could insulate the city in case of a future recession.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Joseph Azrack, chairman of the I-195 District Development Commission, touts 2016 as a time when the district will move closer to the goal of becoming an economic generator for the state.

Azrack points to the signing of a purchase and sale agreement for two I-195 parcels last month by Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology as a sign that the district is approaching a more active phase.

While high commercial taxes have impeded development in Providence, Azrack said sufficient steps have been taken to cultivate a fertile climate for growth in the I-195 District.

"I think we've done all of the groundwork -- I mean that literally and figuratively" Azrack said in an interview with RIPR. "Literally in terms of getting the streets in and the utilities and having the parcels ready to go, as evidenced by the sale to Wexford and CV Properties. And figuratively in terms of the tax stabilization agreement that the mayor's office and the City Council passed last year; that takes away any uncertainty about tax policy for a new development. We've got the incentive programs, including the I-195 $25 million fund to plug any financing gaps. So I think all the pieces are in place."  

Azrack said Wexford's interest in doing something in Providence helped trigger "conversations almost daily with prospects. Some are currently within the state and need to expand. Most of the anchor institutions fall into that category. And there is also quite a bit of interest from within the region, particularly up north in Massachusetts."

Governor Gina Raimondo nominated Azrack, a successful veteran real estate investor who lives in Little Compton, to chair the I-195 Commission in February 2015. He succeeded Rumford developer Colin Kane. Under Raimondo, another experienced real estate investor, Peter McNally, was brought in as the I-195 Commission's executive director.

If there's a new recession or a broader slowdown in commercial property development, Azrack said he believes the I-195 District will less susceptible to a setback than property in some larger cities.

"What I call the macro factors is where I think the risk is, in terms of the US economy, in terms of significant movements in the capital markets that might re-price assets across the board," he said. "Fortunately, or perhaps ironically, I think places like Boston and New York City, where prices have exceeded historic highs, where the returns are quite dear, are more at risk than Providence is. Providence is a bargain."

"The price that was in the purchase and sale agreement with Wexford, you know, we're selling our land at $15 per buildable square foot. Comparable in Boston is north of $200 per square foot, and in New York it can be as much as $1,000 per square foot. I think the fact that our price point and the affordability of development in the city will insulate us to some degree, just because it's a more competitive value proposition for a developer or a tenant."