By JACOB MARROCCO It may be the Year of the Rooster, but don't expect any chicken ordinances to fly in Cranston this year. Mayor Allan Fung offered that scoop during a 90-minute discussion with the Herald on Thursday, exploring the year ahead while
It may be the Year of the Rooster, but don’t expect any chicken ordinances to fly in Cranston this year.
Mayor Allan Fung offered that scoop during a 90-minute discussion with the Herald on Thursday, exploring the year ahead while reflecting on his legacy as he enters his final term, as his fourth term reaches the limit.
“It’s been a fun job,” Fung said. “It’s something I’ve enjoyed for as much as it’s had its challenges and craziness. I like to have fun with it.”
While his final years as mayor loom, Fung looked back on the year that was for Cranston. The city repaved 6.5 miles of roads before spending doubles this year $20 million in bonds coming into effect. The city also bought all streetlights from National Grid and is looking to save more than $500,000 per year after the conversion to LED lights, according to a press release from Mayor Fung’s office. Special Assistant to the Mayor Mark Schieldrop said the purchase cost $168,000 but will essentially be offset by a $300,000 grant from the R.I. Office of Energy Resources.
Cranston’s fire and police departments filled vacant positions in 2016, and new businesses moved into Chapel View and Garden City. Along with Dave’s Marketplace agreeing to make its foray into Cranston this spring, the State Ballet of Rhode Island’s productions shifted to Cranston’s Park Theatre from Providence.
“I get satisfaction when I drive down Route 2 and see Garden City the way it is,” Fung said. “When I first got into office, that bottom half was really scary. Circuit City had just left. I can’t tell you what’s planned for Phase 4 [in Garden City], but a lot of restaurant and retail is planned.”
That next phase in development at Garden City is part of a three-part plan for 2017. Fung said the continuing push towards solar power, growing retail and fixing infrastructure would be the points of emphasis.
The City Planning Commission recently approved plans for a 68-acre, Lippitt Avenue solar farm, the second-such system in the city. Property owners DSM Realty Corporation and Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI have been collaborating on the $45 million plan since June. The 21.5-megawatt project, Gold Meadow Farms, will have the potential to power 2,500 to 3,000 homes.
The concept has been met with some opposition, most notably from Douglas Doe, who offered several reasons against the new solar farm at the Jan. 3 CPC meeting. Despite Doe’s concerns, which included pushing the farm’s fence back 20 feet to protect the conserved land, the CPC passed the measure. Construction on the farm begins in March.
Another could be on the way, too. Fung said plans for a third solar farm are “in negotiations.”
“I want Cranston to be the lead in the state in solar power,” Fung said.
Bringing additional retail to Cranston in the coming year also tops Fung’s agenda. Phase 4 of Garden City will include 30,000 square feet of restaurants and stores, while developments in Chapel View will “take advantage of the business climate.”
Fung ruminated on the state of Chapel View back when he was still on the City Council. Chapel View was provided with special flexibility that allowed the property owners, the Carpionato Group, to convert some of their condominiums into office space with limited trouble after the market took a hit. Carpionato didn’t have to endure the “back-and-forth on minor details,” Fung said, as the condo market dipped and it repurposed the buildings.
Now, with the vacant Citizens building behind Chapel View, Carpionato will look to expand retail once again. There are no concrete plans for what will happen with that land, but it is a certainty that Chapel View will extend its business reach in the area.
“As I drive through it, that provides me with a lot of personal pride, because knowing where it was, working with developers to get it where it is, it feels good,” Fung said. “To see [Chapel View] from that infancy stage to where it is, it feels really good to do that.”
Garden City will continue its makeover in 2017. Fung was quiet on what is exactly in the cards for Phase 4, but it will come on the heels of the latest newcomers to the area. L.L. Bean and Barrington Books Retold opened in 2016, and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza is on track to cut its ribbon this year.
“As soon as [The Wilder Group] invested the big dollars, getting the big buildings, getting Crate and Barrel, the Container Store, the activity started not just in the upper part, which is where they started first, but working their way down into the lower part,” Fung said. “It’s been wonderful and we’re still angling with some of the top retailers to complement that area.”
Infrastructure is another concern going forward.
Fung said the city is currently using approximately $1 million to $1.5 million to improve roads per year, but the aim is to increase that to $3 million with the bonds coming into play.
“It’s tough to use a miles figure because some roads cost more per mile, based on intersections and curves,” Schieldrop said. “There are some roads in western Cranston that have been undermined. It’s hard to exactly say how many more miles we’ll be able to address, but the idea is we’ll be able to double the funding.”
Another focus will be upgrading the schools. Safety improvements and fire alarm installations are among a few of the planned projects. Fung said that, as of now, he doesn’t see the need for another school in Cranston despite increasing enrollment.
“We just added a fourth middle school because our city is growing,” Fung said. “We’re at a growth rate of I think 1.5 percent and the population on the school side is holding steady and slightly growing. We’re still over that 10,000 mark with students. It’s going to be a challenge. At this point I don’t see the need.
“I see a need potentially for city facilities, because we’re bustling at the seams with some of our departments,” Fung added.
While Fung focused on the immediate needs of Cranston, he took some time to reflect on his legacy as mayor and what he would like to see in the “grand future.”
He said that a “one-stop shop” or “giant city complex” that could allow businesses or citizens to register for a permit or seek out an inspection at one central location, rather than going to several different locations across Cranston. This goal could also be accomplished on the web as the city continues to update its technology.
“I’d love to have one big facility where it has building inspections, the planning department, fire inspections and all those different touch points that you might have to go through under one roof,” Fung said. “The resident or the business owner or the developer just has a one-stop shop, but that’s way down the line.”
Fung also noted that the “one missing piece” for him has been determining the proper location for a hotel. Ideally, he said, it would be somewhere off Route 2 and “central to all that activity we have going on.”
“We can get some of that hotel revenue that [Warwick Mayor] Scott [Avedisian] been getting thanks to me,” Fung said with a laugh. “They have to go stay at Crowne Plaza instead. Even if it’s a boutique-style hotel, not like something giant going up, that’s in the right area.” An early look at legacy
The forward thinking had Fung thinking about his previous terms, talking at length about the positives and the negatives. Fung was particularly proud of the city’s ability to win the pension case, which is headed up to R.I. Supreme Court, and the response to the 2010 floods that devastated numerous homeowners and families.
Legacy-wise, it hit me when I was going through my inaugural speech and writing it,” Fung said. “It puts into perspective all of the work that you’ve done, all of the big issues that you’ve tackled. As you’re going through it, you don't realize, ‘Whoa, these are issues that people, for generations, said, ‘You’re never going to touch that. You’re never going to get that done.’”
Fung said the new pension plan is saving the city $6 million annually and said that, while the fund is still in substandard shape, it is inching closer to where it needs to be.
“We’re doing a lot of good things and tackling that one weighty issue is something that really was an albatross that every rating agency cited as a big problem in Cranston,” Fung, who said the most impactful results would be noticed a few decades from now, noted. “Moving out of the state pension system into defined contributions for all the City Hall employees, that is big, because that’s a fundamental shift away from defined benefits plans into defined contributions just like we have in the private sector.”
The flooding in Cranston was a particularly sobering event for Fung. According to a report from URI’s Dr. Tom Boving of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, the Pawtuxet River experienced the highest crests in recorded history during the 16-day span in March 2010.
“That image and everything that happened all along that time really stays with me from day one,” Fung said.
“The smells, just going through some of people’s basements, the mold, the filth, the stench from sewage, from the oil, from everything else. It didn’t hit home how bad the oil sheen was until you get up top there [in the helicopter], and you just look down and you see that coat on the top.”
Cranston was able to get relief money from the state and the federal government to purchase the properties and rebuild and refurbish them. Since then, several drainage plans have been put into effect to help prevent such a disaster in the future. Another drainage project, this one for Lodge and Abbott streets, was completed in 2016.
Fung also addressed the mistakes of his administration, including the City Council’s 5-4, no-confidence vote in 2015 following a report from the state police that alleged the Cranston Police Department was “grossly mismanaged.”
Then-Council President John Lanni told the Herald that “[Fung] let the department run rampant.” The state police report accused former Chief of Police Col. Marco Palombo Jr. and former union president Capt. Stephen Antonucci of “abuses of power.”
“Look, mistakes were made in that police department, but you owned up to it, you fixed it and you moved on,” Fung said. “I’m sure there’ll be other things that can happen, but so long as you take the attitude that you’re going to take ownership of it and be truthful to the taxpayers, so that they have that trust in you. That’s what I’m proud of, and I think it showed in the recent election when we got nearly 70 percent of the vote despite all the craziness that has transpired for the past several years.”
When the time comes to leave office, Fung said that he will “take a look at other races.” In the present, though, he has a solely Cranston mindset.
“Bottom line, I hope people remember that I cared,” Fung said. “I’m focused on Cranston right now. I’m not closing the door on anything, I’ll leave it at that.”
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