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Joe Paolino's State of the City

The former mayor discusses his vision for downtown and beyond

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Looking out from his office, Joe Paolino enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of downtown Providence. “I can keep an eye on Mayor Elorza and Governor Raimondo at the same time,” he wryly observes as he points to City Hall and the State House. Paolino is at the pinnacle of his career as a real estate developer and businessman, and while he is emphatic that his political life is behind him, there is still a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he talks about the city and the state.

His offices cover most of the top floor of 100 Westminster Street and the remaining space houses his cousin’s insurance company. While their business is real estate, the activity level resembles his old City Hall offices. There is a substantial support staff, everyone appears to be working at a frenzied pace and there are televisions everywhere. As we sit down, Paolino glances at a screen and says, “Look it’s Tad Devine,” who is appearing on a split screen as a talking head. Tad was his former chief of staff when he was mayor and directed his ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.

Does he want to be mayor? “Those days are behind me. I didn't serve long enough to be known as the city’s best mayor. But maybe I’ll make it as the city’s best ex-mayor,” he says.

Pictures from his political days and framed Providence Journal front pages are everywhere, and two administrative people in his office have been with him since City Hall. And, he will offer commentary and criticism of current elected officials at a moment’s notice. His comments are more thoughtful and come from an elder statesman with incredible institutional knowledge, which he thinks is in severely short supply at both City Hall and the State House.

He continues to remain in the limelight with his real estate deals and downtown development, as chairman of the Providence Downtown Improvement District and hosting a weekly TV show, In the Arena, on ABC6. He is also a frequent op-ed writer in both the Providence Journal and GoLocal.com.

In short, to Paolino, Providence is still “his” city. On a wall of his office is an eight foot square, three-dimensional map of downtown Providence with raised cubes delineating all of the buildings in downtown. Buildings painted brown represent property that Paolino Properties currently owns and buildings in grey represent buildings that the company used to own. City Hall is painted with this color.

His grandfather started the real estate company that his father, a tough, shrewd owner, manager and developer, Joseph R. Paolino, Sr., built into an empire. In Kennedy-esque fashion, Joseph R. Paolino, Jr. started his career in the family real estate business, then entered politics and was elected to the Providence City Council from the 13th Ward representing Federal Hill, the West End and Downtown, became council president and then became mayor when the late “Buddy” Cianci was forced to step down. He won a special election and then was reelected. He then ran for governor in the Democratic primary and lost to Bruce Sundlun, served has head of RI Economic Development, became Ambassador to Malta under President Bill Clinton and then lost the Democratic primary for Congress to Lt. Governor Bob Weygand. Several years later he lost to David Cicilline in the primary for mayor of Providence.

He went back into the family real estate business and led a group to develop a full casino at Newport Grand before selling to Twin River.

Today he has made the real estate empire into a dynasty centered in downtown Providence but with major holdings across the state. “My father was my best friend and teacher,” he says. “He always said ‘find your passion. It’ll make you sleep fast at night so you’ll want to get up early and go to work the next day.’” The message obviously got through. Paolino’s new offices have a gym and he is often using it by 6am.

In the last four years under Paolino’s leadership, Paolino Properties’ real estate portfolio has invested over $75,000,000 in the greater Providence area, including 100 Westminster Street, 30 Kennedy Plaza, One Ten Westminster (now just a parking lot with a façade that was to be a luxury condominium skyscraper and then a W Hotel), 40 Prospect Street, The Tilden-Thurber Building, The Fletcher Building, micro-lofts at 68-76 Dorrance Street and the Hasbro R & D Facility in East Providence.

He has made 100 Westminster an even bolder part of the city’s skyline by illuminating the large arch window at the top with dynamic LED lights visible for miles and will be expanding the lighting program.

One thing remains true about Joe Paolino: If you ask him a question, you’ll get an answer and it’s not always tempered and restrained, nor are his facial reactions.

On Providence Mayor Jorge Eloza, he says, “I don’t like the directions he’s going on a number of issues… and I’ve told him. It’s a tough job. I’ve been there. His staff lacks institutional memory, which is important when making decisions that can have long-term effect. People see India Point Park and think it’s always been there. When I was a kid, my father would take me by to see cars crushed for scrap metal. It was an eyesore, right in our backyard and on the bay, but that changed because of a woman with great vision, whose husband had great influence.

“Mrs. [Mary Elizabeth] Sharpe used to complain about the scrap metal operations along the waterfront at India Point, and she got her husband to use his considerable influence to get them moved and build a beautiful park.” Allens Avenue should be where commercial development occurs next, but scrap metal, oil and storage operations are standing in the way.

“I worry about the mayor’s over-reliance on planners. The 6/10 changes are fine but can we afford them? The bicycle paths they brought in are underutilized and have safety and maintenance issues like the one in front of the Providence Journal building where, not only is it confusing, you can’t plow them.”

Now on a roll, Paolino continues. “I don’t understand why he celebrates the fixing of potholes. It’s his job! I’d rather see them celebrate successfully clearing the snow on the East Side after a snowstorm.” A lifelong resident here who started his education at the old St. Sebastian’s school, Paolino knows firsthand just how important cleared streets after storms are to the East Side with our heavy local traffic and narrow streets.

Continuing on to what he thinks is needed to recharge the city: “What’s missing is a mayor-ringleader who provides leadership and vision. Given the changes in Washington, he needs to stress that we are not a sanctuary city. Elorza is a nice man, but he doesn’t seem to get it yet. I’m afraid.”

On Governor Raimondo: “I’m a big fan,” he says. “I think she’s doing a great job. There have been some bumps, but she’s getting companies to look at Rhode Island and a number of pretty major ones to expand here.”

On the old Industrial Trust Tower, or the Superman Building as it is called, Paolino believes that it can be viable but it needs the mayor or the governor to take the reins and make it happen. “There was a deal with Citizens Bank that was ready to happen, but it got killed by the company’s board at the 11th hour as they opted for a ‘safer’ deal with more space and plenty of parking. Best use is probably a mixed use of education and new business ventures,” he explains.

“Education is the best thing the city’s got going for it. It brings in jobs and is growing. Westminster Street needs to become more like Thayer Street. Dedicated to students. No other opportunities seem to be knocking at our doors right now.”

Adaptive reuse has worked in Providence before, he argues. Many old buildings that housed great department stores – Shepard’s, The Outlet, Gladding’s and Cherry & Webb – were dormant for decades before being adapted for educational purposes by RISD, Brown, URI, JWU and Roger Williams.

His idea is to tap into part of $20 million in bonds just approved for a URI entrepreneurial center as an anchor for the Superman Building. “Angus Davis says he’d move his company (Swipely) there and there are other companies that would follow,” he declares. “We need to get over the conversation about worrying about the tax implications. We need to create exciting places to work where companies will want to be, and that creates jobs.”

Paolino admits the state and the city gave the developers of Providence Place a particularly lucrative tax deal, but argues that without it they wouldn’t have been able to land their anchor, Nordstrom (a major attraction for signing other stores) and there wouldn’t have been a mall. He remarks that “It was a question of what do we have to do to make this happen and everyone worked together to make it happen.”

All this said, it should be noted that Paolino Properties has also fought aggressively to protect their own downtown turf when they thought it necessary. The company sued the City over Blue Cross’ tax breaks on their building when as a non-profit they started marketing excess space in their building at “below market rents,” taking tenants from his properties.

And what about his thoughts on the towering project that has been proposed as part of the 195 development? “I don’t have a problem with the state and city subsidies if that’s what it takes,” he states. “I like the Hope Tower proposal, so far. A lot of money is being committed. We also need more housing downtown. Millennials seem to like to live and work downtown.”

“But I think that the biggest game-changer might be the arrival of the new super high-speed tilt trains that Amtrak recently made a $2.4 billion investment into. Imagine two-hour trips to NYC or 15 minutes to Boston. We can’t compete with Boston, but we can complement it.”

One thing he is adamant about in his new vision for Providence is that the downtown bus terminal must be moved. “Kennedy Plaza was designed for horses and buggies, not buses. Maybe it should be at Conely’s Wharf on Allens Avenue near the hospitals or off Broad Street or Elmwood Avenue?”

Paolino has gone so far as to hire an architect to develop a redesign of Kennedy Plaza without the bus station, which includes resituating the ice skating rink and making the whole area a place for celebration. If you make a suggestion that he likes, you can expect to see an artist’s rendering of that improvement almost immediately. When you combine vision with showmanship you create excitement and that is becoming his hallmark.

He devoted tremendous time, energy and money to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign where it was rumored that he could have been Ambassador to Italy if she was elected. On President Trump, “I’m a loyal Democrat and supported Hillary but Trump is not a stupid man. He’s surrounded himself with some smart people and he’s doing what the people want, so we’ll see what happens,” he says.

And, while doing all of that, he has recently taken over as the head of the Downtown Business District, and has been taking on panhandling, the mayor and leading the effort to address the homeless situation. Now, with his decision to go all in with his purchase of the long almost-vacant St. Joseph Hospital, he clearly seems to be making a commitment to tackle what he calls “the chronic homelessness of Providence.”

The project is dramatic, ambitious and expensive. Will it work? Who knows? But you’ve got to take notice when Providence’s biggest commercial landlord goes all in to give it a try.