[Sidebar] December 14 - 21, 2000


Dig the new breed

Providence got a wake-up call when opponents sounded off against a proposal to turn Eagle Square into a strip mall. A look at the rhetoric and reality of nurturing the arts

by Ian Donnis

[] The cupola and 26-foot ceilings in her former loft space at the Silver Spring mill complex on Charles Street in Providence still inspire rapture for Jessica Van Daam. "I loved it there," says the 27-year-old painter. "It was just such a spectacular space." Packed with long-leaf pine, the coveted old-growth Southern wood that helped to propel the Industrial Revolution, the 42 buildings that comprise the 19th-century complex might, in the best of all possible worlds, be transformed into something like Mass MoCA, a contemporary art museum set in a sprawling former industrial complex in western Massachusetts. Instead, Van Daam and a handful of other tenants were evicted from their live-work lofts this summer, and the Silver Spring complex is due to soon be leveled to make way for a proposed Home Depot.

As it turns out, Van Daam plans to spend the next year in Holland to retain her status as a dual US-Dutch national. But when she and other displaced Silver Spring residents started looking for new studios, they found that Providence -- which continues to win national plaudits as a haven for artists -- has a paucity of work spaces that are appealing and affordable. The shortage is so severe, says Van Daam, that if she stayed in the area, she'd look for a work studio "out in the country."

To be fair, the Silver Spring complex is on the outskirts of the city, and it would take a fortune to put the complex to a new use. An out-of-town businessman, who was on the scene to salvage some 50 trailers of the rare pine, appreciates craftsmanship and design, but he has an unsentimental view when it comes to preserving old mill buildings: "You can't save 'em all," he says. If preservationists are worried about endangered structures, the businessman says, they should whip out their checkbooks.

But if this unsparing market-based philosophy is pursued to its natural outcome, parts of Providence will increasingly resemble the generic sprawl -- like stretches of Route 2 in Warwick or Route 1 in Attleboro, Massachusetts -- that has homogenized the American landscape. While there are still 58 mill complexes in Providence, 13 have been destroyed in recent years and seven more are slated to go, according to the Providence Industrial Mill Buildings Association (PIMBA), a new advocacy group.

The current ground zero for this battle is Eagle Square, a long-forgotten industrial crossroads sandwiched between Federal Hill and Olneyville, where artists and small businesses have partially filled the void once occupied by large manufacturers. The symbolic stakes are high precisely because the present and proposed future uses of the site are so sharply opposed: Feldco Development of Long Island, New York, wants to demolish seven mill buildings, one of which includes the popular underground performance space Fort Thunder, and build a 14-acre suburban-style shopping plaza with 26 stores, anchored by a Shaw's supermarket and a bevy of national chains. It's hard to imagine a starker contrast between the fort, an organic and proudly non-commercial entity that got its start in 1995, and the prefab concept of a strip mall.

Olneyville may be poised for better days after decades of disinvestment (see "Turning point," News, August 31), and few people would begrudge neighborhood residents who are enthused about a new supermarket and other signs of economic interest in a neglected area. Some of the threatened mills are vacant or in worse shape than others, and, as is typical with such properties, there's some contaminated soil in the area. But at a time when the reuse of old industrial spaces has long since found mainstream appeal, the idea of demolishing a cluster of mills (which may qualify for historic designation) for a cookie-cutter strip mall strikes many as short-sighted and woefully misguided. This is especially true in an architecturally noteworthy city in which scores of 19th-century homes on College Hill were saved from destruction in the '50s, and more recently, the Armory District has taken on fresh vitality through the restoration of once-faced Victorians.

"I think that Providence is a place where you get a lot of feeling from your environment," says Sara Agniel, the owner of Gallery Agniel on Wickenden Street. "It's why a lot of people move here -- there's a lot of wistfulness about things that have been adapted and reused, or forgotten and that have the potential to take on a new life. What this kind of demolition does [as proposed in Eagle Square] is erase any feelings of potential."

Feldco spokesman Gene Beaudoin says floodplain issues and environmental concerns make it financially unfeasible to preserve any of the mill buildings as part of the proposed shopping complex. But consider the fact that the development site straddles the Woonasquatucket, one of 14 federally designated American Heritage Rivers, and it's hard to believe that a better, more creative use couldn't be envisioned. Supporters of the proposed shopping plaza, like Ward 15 Councilwoman Josephine DiRuzzo, are absolutely right to say that Olneyville residents deserve a better quality of life. But it fairly smacks of desperation for her to say, "We'll never have an this opportunity again -- not in my lifetime." If Feldco is so interested in the site, some other developers probably would be, too.

Raphael Lyon

Raphael Lyon, 25, a freelance textbook editor who lives in one of the threatened mills, and has emerged as an articulate leader in trying to convince the developer to preserve a few of the mill buildings, likens his mission to trying to stop the city from shooting itself in the foot. "We have this chance that other cities don't have -- to do it right," Lyon says. "We don't have to make the mistakes that other cities made in the '60s," by destroying historic neighborhoods through so-called urban renewal programs. "We can proceed intelligently and carefully."

Unrealistic dreaming? Maybe. But if you told people 15 years ago that Providence would become nationally known as a Renaissance City, largely by uncovering the Providence River and drawing crowds with WaterFire, a signature installation of pyres periodically placed in the river and accompanied by moody music, they would have thought you were nuts.

MEETINGS OF the Providence Plan Commission usually attract little more than a glimmer of public interest. But on November 21, the council chambers at City Hall was the place to be, as an unusual coalition of artists, preservationists, scenesters, and neighborhood residents packed the room to challenge Feldco Development's proposal for Eagle Square. In all, more than 280 people signed in to register their presence -- an extraordinary outpouring of interest in the often soporific realm of planning and site design -- and many made thoughtful arguments. A petition drive gathered 818 signatures, and organizers were savvy enough to attract pro bono assistance from Deming E. Sherman, a lawyer with the high-powered firm of Edwards & Angell.

For many people, the mill buildings are a vital part of the city's fabric and loaded with a sense of possibility. Raymond R. Perrault, whose family thought he was crazy when he moved 16 years ago from Burrillville to a home on Knight Street, for example, relishes the sense of character and individuality that the mills lend to the neighborhood. "I bought my house because I wanted to live in an urban environment," says Perrault. "If we lose that [distinct sense of place], we are not going to be able to resurrect that."

The fight for Eagle Square is particularly important because it exposes a disparity between the stated goals of the Providence renaissance and the squeeze being faced by artists, many of who are moving to places such as Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Fall River, Massachusetts, to find affordable live-work spaces. It may be nice symbolically that artists who live in the downtown arts district don't have to pay sales tax on their work, but that doesn't count for a whole lot when the only artists who can afford to reside in the area are those at AS220, the pioneering nonprofit arts space on Empire Street.

The situation is all too familiar to Erminio Pinque, founder of the internationally acclaimed Big Nazo puppets, who knows downtown Westminster Street could be a populated and interesting place, hastening the inevitable gentrification, if property owners offered low-cost space to artists. But the cost of redeveloping old properties essentially precludes renting rough lofts at an affordable price, so the evolution of Downcity continues to move at a glacial pace. For his part, Pinque is being forced to look for a new home for Big Nazo, because, after 14 years, the nonprofit Providence Performing Arts Center plans to convert a fourth-floor office space into a reception area and board room.

Providence has made a name for itself as a city where the arts are celebrated, but Pinque likens the city's creative scene to a fragile ecosystem in which the reduced presence, say, of a certain kind of algae could have unforeseen and harmful consequences. "A lot of students go down to Fort Thunder -- it's funky to them," he says. "You take that thing away and people don't feel the city's magical any more. Just like with the algae, you notice with time, you don't get a certain kind of fish here."

But if nothing else, the kind of organized, intelligent protest that greeted the Feldco Development proposal served notice that the city hasn't done enough to prioritize affordable housing for artists and the preservation of historic mill buildings. "I think this was a wake-up call for us," acknowledges John Palmieri, Providence's director of planning and development. The presence of so many people at the Plan Commission meeting, and the strength of their arguments, make it abundantly clear, he says, "that these older mill buildings have to be reviewed and assessed," while looking at the needs of the arts community. "We have an obligation to respond quickly."

Considering the cost of getting old mills to meet current building and fire codes, it's no surprise that most property owners would sell out to developers if given the chance. It's no different from the way that scores of dairy farms across New England have been turned into rows of sterile subdivisions. Sure, it's a shame, but can you really blame farmers for wanting to cash in, instead of continuing to bust their humps for meager wages?

When it comes to redeveloping mills, "I think that the individuals out there who are willing to do something are very few and far between," says Leonard Lavoie, who manages work-only studio properties in Providence and Pawtucket, and believes that fears about vanishing mills are greatly overstated. "Either they don't have the finances to upgrade or they don't want to."

But there's no denying that these structures are an under-utilized asset in Providence. An artist, designer or Internet start-up is never going to move here because of a supermarket, but they might just be fascinated by the reuse of an old industrial space. In Pawtucket, where city officials have done well by imitating Providence's success in highlighting the arts, there's a database of mill buildings for lease and sale, and none of the 90 such properties have been demolished during at least the last two years, says Herb Weiss, a planning official who promotes that city's 307-acre arts and entertainment district. He estimates that hundreds of artists, along with the Stone Soup coffee house and other arts groups, have moved to Pawtucket in recent years. Still, Weiss says, "We do not have as much live-work space as I would like to see. I'm reaching out to the property owners' community to say, `Hey, this is a niche. This is something you should check out, because there's a great demand.' "

This kind of promotion of the arts isn't just in the interest of artists. "There are cities in this world that have made investments in art, design, architecture, and they're still making money off it," notes Umberto Crenca, AS220's artistic director, referring to places like Rome, Florence and Athens. "That's long-term planning. In a situation like this, we're not going to build another Acropolis." It's costly and difficult, Crenca adds, but "what you invest in design and aesthetics will come back to you. It's good economic planning."

Considering the inherent difficulties in reinvigorating old buildings, city and state government officials should take steps to make the process easier. The General Assembly passed a bill last year, based on a model in New Jersey, which is meant to make it less costly to rehabilitate old buildings by creating a separate building code. Palmieri says the city officials will review relevant zoning ordinances, consider tax incentives, and look at providing space and financial assistance if artists are displaced by development in Eagle Square.

Meanwhile, the fate of the proposed strip mall remains uncertain. Palmieri dismisses Feldco's attempt to dress the project in a transparently false New Urbanist wrapping, but, like other proponents, he says it would fill shopping needs in the area while generating jobs and new tax revenue. "I think his design is, for the most part, compatible, with development goals that have been established by the city," Palmieri says. In weighing the value of the historic properties that might be restored, "it doesn't counter-balance the development proposal. I think, overall, this would be a very positive project for the Valley neighborhood." And while critics question the value of the kind of low-wage jobs that would be created by the project, Palmieri says, "Any job is important in this community. The service sector should not be denigrated."

Perhaps most significantly, there are no real obstacles to the demolition of the seven mill buildings, Palmieri says, if Feldco exercises its options to buy the lots that encompass the proposal. But opponents like Raphael Lyon and Catherine Horsey, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, contend that the Plan Commission has the authority to determine whether the proposal is appropriate for the surrounding terrain, and to mitigate its effects by, for example, compelling the developer to preserve one or two of the threatened mill buildings.

In the realm of financing shopping plazas, in which bank lending is typically based on a developer's success in pre-leasing a large percentage of retail space to national chains, the whole scheme might fall apart if the commission puts even some modest constraints on Feldco's plan. And critics of the Feldco proposal are rushing to assemble an alternate plan that incorporates neighborhood concerns.

What happens next is anyone's guess. The Plan Commission is slated to decide the fate of the Feldco proposal during a City Hall meeting on Tuesday, December 19 at 6 p.m. Supporters were seriously outflanked during the last meeting, and both sides will no doubt rally their backers. The conventional wisdom holds that other than some fine-tuning of bike path and greenway issues, Feldco has the project in the bag. But nothing gets the attention of public officials like a massive show of public opinion, and it's possible that the outpouring on November 21 might have been enough to make the Plan Commission unwilling to immediately move forward.

JEREMY WOODWARD'S secret apocalyptic vision for Providence: all of the excellent public relations about the Renaissance City leads "a bunch of Ally McBeals up in Boston," as he puts it, to realize they can commute to Providence faster, via the high-speed Acela, than driving to Braintree and live -- within walking distance of Nordstrom -- at these sort of artist lofts downtown. For the time being, of course, this dystopia remains just an imaginary nightmare. And Woodward, a freelance theatrical set designer and puppet maker from Maine who settled in Providence after going to RISD in the early '90s, remains pretty psyched about the pleasant scale, proximity to New York and Boston, and interesting denizens of his adopted home.

The son of a building contractor, Woodward recognizes that artists, if they're honest with themselves, need to accept the reality of the SoHo effect -- that people with more money will invariably move in after urban pioneers settle in a neglected neighborhood and make it hip. At the same time, he can't help noticing that a growing number of luxury condos are being built around town at the same time that the mills, where artists actually work, are coming under the gun.

"It just seems like a strange disconnection between the stated goal [of the Providence Renaissance] and what's being able to happen," says Woodward, who has a share in a large work studio on Valley Street, near Eagle Square. "I feel like so many cities would just kill to have these kinds of buildings, and this history and the architecture. I feel like these buildings are fundamental to the history of Providence, and we really are starting to lose them."

Chalk it up to the Renaissance. Even though the police department is in the midst of something resembling a meltdown, even though Plunder Dome, the federal probe of municipal corruption, has intensified in recent months and parked a dark cloud over City Hall, Providence has been the subject of so much positive hype in recent years that the propaganda machine has taken on a life of its own. And although the city remains a bargain compared to Boston, it's the low-rent artists who feel the squeeze when housing costs rise and once-useful spaces begin to disappear. "We're losing people all the time,'' says gallery owner Agniel, who notes that she's making a large number of visits to studios in Pawtucket and Central Falls. "There's only so much that the proximity of RISD and Brown can do for you."

Deputy City Solicitor Patricia McLaughlin, Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci's point person on the redevelopment of Downcity, agrees that efforts to ensure the future of the arts community are overdue, but she disputes the notion that a shopping plaza in Eagle Square would set a bad precedent for the future of the city, or that a mass exodus of artists and creative groups is under way. "Any one project does have not that much influence," she says. "I don't think you can say that."

It's more important, McLaughlin says, to focus on the long-term. "My concern for the artists is that they begin to look at projects in areas where they cannot continue to be displaced," she says. "If we care about maintaining the arts community, we have to start working on programs that are going to ensure, if not some ownership in the buildings, at least some legal long-term leases. We're trying to identify possibilities of how we can assist as a city."

It will be more than just a sad day if the mills of Eagle Square are destroyed for a sterile shopping complex. But if the activism that greeted this threat sparks some real impact in preserving and upgrading other mills, and nurturing the more fragile elements of the artistic community, it might just be worth it. It's possible that in 10 years, as planning director Palmieri says, "we will look back and say the city responded quickly." Let's hope so. In a time of exaggerated hype and rising prospects, it would show that Providence can be seen as something other than just terrain fit for maximum commercial potential.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 2000 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.