[Sidebar] August 19 - 26, 1999


Sudden impact

Now that it's finally open, will the $460 million Providence Place Mall support or undermine efforts to build a thriving Downcity arts and entertainment district

by Ian Donnis

[] Sitting on Empire Street outside AS220, the alternative arts space that he helped to establish in 1985, Umberto "Bert" Crenca mulls the changes that have since reshaped downtown Providence. It wasn't that long ago, Crenca recalls, when Lupo's was closed, the Met Café was shuttered, Empire Street was a de facto red light district and people were afraid to venture downtown after dark. These days, though, the city's old retail core has the kind of quirky heterogeneity that has made Providence the envy of some other New England cities.

It's still a ways from the vision of a vibrant "Downcity" residential arts and entertainment district, but downtown has an undeniably strong foundation to keep inching in that direction: snazzy restaurants like Empire and Intermezzo mix with grittier bars and nightclubs, vintage buildings, college classrooms, an array of arts organizations, from Trinity Repertory Company to AS220 and the Perishable Theatre, along with the hard-luck cases who periodically trudge down the street.

Located a few short blocks away, the brand-new $460 million Providence Place Mall is invisible from the warren of narrow streets that form the city's old retail core, but it nonetheless casts an imposing figurative shadow. The question is whether the megamall -- historically an emblem of abandoning the city for suburbia -- will help or hurt the evolution of Downcity.

For many, the mall's completion enhances the collective self-esteem that soared -- and raised the city's national profile -- with the success of the NBC hit Providence. And for his part, Crenca is heartened by the recent changes that have taken place. Although the increased willingness of out-of-towners to venture downtown for WaterFire or other attractions has made parking scarcer for people coming to events at AS220, he sees the influx of suburban visitors as a healthy thing for the city. In the same way, although Crenca, a painter and musician with a shaved head and long, thin whitish beard, isn't your typical shopping mall habitue, he believes Providence Place will deliver tangible benefits.

But along with his good feelings, Crenca is concerned that Providence Place signals the start of a fundamental change in the city, a change in which the alternative arts groups responsible for helping to put downtown on the map might easily be marginalized and left out of the discussion that guides Downcity's future. "What tends to disturb me is the notion that arts and artists and diversity are stepping stones," he says. "It's very easy, now that the money's coming in, for these developers to shortlist us. I think that would be a monumental mistake."

A ripple of development sparked by Providence Place is already on the way. Reading Entertainment of Philadelphia, which manages the Angelika Film Center in New York City's East Village, has signed on to operate a seven-screen arthouse cinema on a triangular parcel of land, across Interstate 95 from the mall, at Harris and Kinsley avenues (see sidebar).

Considering how local filmgoers have had to drive to Warwick or Seekonk, Massachusetts, to see first-run films like Eyes Wide Shut and Summer of Sam, the upcoming arrival of a flood of new screens -- which include 16 and an IMAX coming to Providence Place, respectively, in November and January -- is a welcome development.

But Crenca's uncertainty about the mall's impact is shared by other observers in the downtown arts community. On one hand, the completion of Providence Place after more than a decade of fits and starts is a big psychological vote of confidence in the resurgent Providence. But it's hard to know whether the mall, with more than one million square feet of retail space, will become an integrated part of the surrounding city or merely an isolated bastion of upscale consumerism.

Like many people, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, has high hopes. In the best-case scenario, he says, "bringing people to this part of the city, [the mall] will have a spillover effect, so we will have increased retail and, perhaps more importantly, increased arts and entertainment. In my ideal world, people would start to see the Downcity part of the city that Trinity is located in as a lively place to spend the evening."

Without missing a beat, Eustis adds, "What I'm worried about is that the great sucking sound we heard will be a movement away from the Downcity and that the mall will succeed in being a self-enclosed space. I think this tension functions constantly with malls and retail spaces around the country. I think it's our job to welcome the mall, be delighted it's here, and do everything we can to ensure that people spill out of the mall and feel welcomed by the city around it."

No one can conclusively predict whether visitors to Providence Place will stray from mall (and the skybridge linking it with the Westin) to travel the short distance downtown. Malls, after all, have typically been about providing an antiseptic, contained and highly controlled experience for consumers who don't want to be exposed to the nuances and blemishes of city life.

But in separate interviews, Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci and mall spokesman Michael Doyle describe Providence Place as a permeable complex designed to encourage visitors to explore beyond the mall's confines. "Unlike other shopping malls, it's very open to the community," Doyle says.

Wintergarden, a glass-encased observatory with sweeping views of the city, "exposes other areas you're going to want to go out and walk to," he says. In addition, shoppers will have to walk outside to gain entry to most of the restaurants that are located along Francis Street. There are also the recently introduced RIPTA trolley-buses, which, for 50 cents, will carry visitors to and from the mall to Downcity, the Jewelry District, Federal Hill, the East Side and other destinations. Although mostly bereft of passengers since their recent launch, except during WaterFire, the trolley-buses are seen as an important way to introduce mall visitors into the surrounding city.

As the city's consummate salesman, Cianci touts Providence Place as significant in itself -- the return of the long-lost retail sector that was once found downtown, along with tax revenue, more than 2800 permanent jobs and cinemas -- but also as an important piece in the larger puzzle of building on Providence's plaudits. Sounding a little bit in his ambitions like Robert Moses, the ruthless master builder of New York City's modern infrastructure, Cianci says the mall will enhance the city's status as a destination and build momentum for relocating Interstate 195, redeveloping Providence's waterfront and the blighted areas along the Woonasquatucket River, and -- most improbably, he concedes -- knitting together the city by building over sections of Interstate 95. Providence Place, says the mayor, "will bring millions of dollars of spin into the city. We have primed the pump of economic renewal."

Cianci, who is well-regarded in the arts community for his record of support, says his commitment to AS220 and other grassroots arts organizations remains unwavering. His administration cosponsored the charrettes which led to the Downcity plan, and adopted zoning to support it. Cianci also rejected a developer backing a gambling casino that would have undermined the vision of Downcity as an arts and entertainment district.

As an example of his ongoing support, the mayor cites the tax incentives available to artists who reside in Downcity, including the chance to not have to pay state income tax or sales tax on their works. Mindful of the importance of a retail presence downtown, Cianci sees the mall as a win-win. Providence Place, he says, is "not a fortress and it wasn't intended to be a fortress -- that's a key."

Other observers, though, are less certain. "I think it would be wonderful if some of the folks who visit from around the region have the opportunity to walk across the skybridge and then go into Downcity and experience the galleries, the Trinity Rep, AS220, all of the things that Downcity has to offer," says Arnold Robinson, director of the Providence Preservation Society. "But I think it's a wait-and-see. I think, by and large, Downcity still has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps."

In a country with a voracious consumer culture, it was only a matter of time before shoppers and stores were clustered together to speed the flow of commerce. In the decades after World War II, Shepard's, Woolworth, Peerless and other fabled retailers disappeared one by one from downtown Providence as suburban malls in Warwick, North Attleboro, Massachusetts, and elsewhere established their hegemony over the shopping landscape.

First proposed more than a decade ago, Providence Place has finally come to fruition, or at least Nordstrom and close to 50 of the 160 stores that are slated to open Aug. 20 (the other anchor stores, Filene's and Lord & Taylor, are not scheduled to open until, respectively, October and spring 2000). Delayed by false starts and changes in financing, contractors and the development team, the giant shopping center is now spread over 13 acres along Interstate 95 in the shadow of the State House.

The Providence Journal, which has pervasively boosted the mall in its news and editorial pages, stands to gain millions of dollars in advertising revenue from it. One of the largest development projects in Rhode Island history, Providence Place has attracted gripes from consumers about its status as the first mall in the state to charge for parking. Customers who spend at least $10 at the mall will be able to park for up to three hours for $1. Non-validated parking fees start at $5 for one hour, $7 for two hours, $9 for three hours and $10 for four hours. Regardless of grousing about the fees, the mall is expected by its developer to draw more than 12 million visitors a year. Just based on the numbers, many observers think that Providence Place will inevitably help the nearby downtown.

"The introduction of major regional retailing into the center of our city is something that we've been missing for 30 years," says Dan Bowdoin, executive director of the Providence Foundation, a private group that advocates for development in the city. "To have a vibrant downtown center city, you really need major retailing. Once you have that many people coming to one place, it presents an opportunity."

But other downtown watches appear less confident that the mall's traffic in shoppers will translate into benefits for Downcity. "The mall is here, and we hope that it does very well," says Cliff Wood of Cornish Associates, which is working to develop loft housing in the Peerless and Alice buildings. "We just hope that people involved with the mall will do their best to sell the downtown. We hope people will be conscious of making it something that's an integral part of downtown," rather than something separated from it.

Jane Holtz Kay, the architectural critic whose upbeat appreciation of downtown's redesigned river scheme was recently published in the New York Times, used the occasion to castigate Providence Place as a threat to the pleasant scale of Waterplace Park and nearby pedestrian-friendly areas. A resident of Boston's Back Bay, she likens Providence Place to Boston's Copley Place as an ill-suited megaproject that will be frequented by visiting suburbanites, but not by residents of nearby neighborhoods.

"The mall is competing with the city," Kay says. "Whomever the powers that be who are allowing the mall, they are saying, `go for it.' With people coming in their cars and going to the mall, it's the opposite of an urban experience. It's oriented toward the highway."

She may well be right. But city and state officials are unlikely to object if, as expected, shoppers stream to Providence Place from Massachusetts, Connecticut and even farther away. An economic analysis predicted that the mall's collection of upscale stores will attract $260 million in sales from the surrounding 25-mile radius. The mall will also aid the nearby Rhode Island Convention Center, an underperforming state venture that needs a stronger lure to draw additional bookings. If some bemoan that the mall wipes out the view of the State House and Waterplace Park from a section of I-95, it also adds a built edge to a once unused part of the city.

In 1996, supporters were bitterly disappointed when plans for a Downcity cinema were shifted by Providence Place developer Daniel Lugosch III to include a separate, larger movie complex at the mall. In an era where retail-only malls are losing customers, the change reflected Providence Place's competitive need to serve as a one-stop complex for shopping, eating and entertainment. But in the eyes of many, the move positioned the mall as a competitor of the downtown.

After delays, construction is supposed to start this fall for a Downcity cinema (which will also include a stage for local performing arts groups) on a parking lot owned by the Providence Journal Co. at Washington and Mathewson streets. While some might question the demand for three multiplexes within a relatively short distance of each other, others call it a logical step after the opening of Providence Place.

Meanwhile, it seems clear that for Downcity to thrive, it needs to function as a sharp contrast to Providence Place. The Groceria, an upscale Italian-themed restaurant and gourmet shop on Westminster Street, failed precisely because it was targeting the kind of shoppers more likely to visit Nordstrom than the small, idiosyncratic shops and ethnic eateries that are better suited to succeed downtown.

While an initial crew of residential pioneers have filled the Smith Building almost to capacity, other efforts to develop loft housing in Downcity are proceeding fitfully. It's a sharp contrast to the hothouse housing market in Boston, where rents have soared and development is threatening to squeeze artists out of the Fort Point Channel neighborhood across from the financial district.

But although some don't relish the prospect of gentrification in downtown Providence, "that is a problem I would love for us to be coping with," says Trinity Rep's Eustis. "I feel like that is a problem that has not even appeared on our radar screen because of a lack of activity. I would much rather be fighting about the rents on the lofts in the Downcity, rather than what we're doing right now, which is trying to get them open."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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