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Although the plight of artists and affordable housing has gained more attention since Eagle Square, things are not necessarily any better

AN ITEM LISTED for the March 15 meeting of the Providence City Plan Commission — "CASE NO. 00-046MA X EAGLE SQUARE" — seemed innocuous enough on the surface. But Feldco’s attempt to eliminate one of the conditions for final approval of its project in Eagle Square could open a lot of old wounds. The bland listing, after all, hinted at none of the intense public debate that raged five years ago over the New York company’s initial proposal to demolish a complex of historic mill buildings — including the fertile and widely recognized Fort Thunder art collective — to make way for a Shaw’s supermarket and other development.

The resulting uproar from artists, preservationists, and others led Feldco to offer a second plan that preserved some of the mill structures. Now, though, Feldco, which is apparently having difficulty renting artist studio space at $15 per-square-foot on one floor in the Uncas and Crawford Seed buildings — the rate set during past negotiations — seems interested in changing this condition. (As it turned out, Feldco requested that the matter be pulled from the agenda for the March 15 meeting. Spokesman Gene Beaudoin did not return a call seeking comment.)

It remains to be seen what happens with this attempt at below-market rent — the only thing, notes Erik Bright of the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space "that was given to the artists population displaced by the redevelopment." It’s clear, though, that many artists still feel under the gun in the Providence, the city’s continued promotion of itself as an arts mecca notwithstanding. In addition to the Eagle Square evictions, a year has passed since 60 artists were evicted on a day’s notice from mill buildings at Oak and Troy streets in Olneyville, and it’s been two years since the Station fire prioritized issues of fire safety statewide.

These influential events have not necessarily made things better, safer, or easier for Providence artists. Some have been dissuaded from living in mills. But Laura Mullen, the artists’ affordable housing liaison for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, says that the ones who have chosen to stay "are so afraid of getting busted by the code enforcement people that they’re not even putting up permanent structures, or are putting up structures that are even shoddier because they’re hastily done, so they can be hastily disassembled," in the event of short notice fire inspections or evictions.

This situation, Mullen notes, is the very opposite of what is desirable. "What we want is people becoming invested in their space because they know they can stay," she says, "so that they then take the proper precautions working with the code officials to make the space a safe space." Yet public dialogue on the issue has not been forthcoming, largely because of the precarious living situations of some artists.

Mullen is currently working to address these issues with several groups, including Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Housing Network of Rhode Island. The first step is a survey about the "current and ideal live/work conditions" for Rhode Island artists, which indicates that a large portion (62 percent of respondents) make less than $25,000 a year. Mullen says this information is important in showing developers of affordable housing that artists are part of their demographic.

Pawtucket, another city garnering attention for its arts and revitalization efforts (see "Pawtucket makes its move," News, February 18), has yet to really face the thorny issue of artists living illegally in mill buildings. That city is attracting artists, but as one person put it, "If you’re asking if Pawtucket has a Fort Thunder, the answer is, ‘No.’ " So far, Pawtucket’s art scene has attracted mostly older, established artists and, as a result, it has largely been spared the clashes, conflicts, and hand-wringing that come with artists dwelling illegally in old mills.

Why hasn’t Pawtucket seen the same sorts of artist communities develop as in Providence? It could be the absence of institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design, which draw young artists to Providence and help keep them here. Pawtucket also lacks stores and services within walking or biking distance that cater to the arts’ community.

Part of the reason for the concentration of illegal underground mill living in Providence is certainly the cache. To the people living there, the spaces carved from the blank slate of industrial workspace are exciting, dynamic, and community-oriented. But more importantly, the lack of affordable workspace, plus the lack of affordable housing, leads some artists to illegal mill living because these spaces meet their physical needs — and it’s all they can afford.

The type of space available in Providence and Pawtucket, and their relative affordability, makes a big difference. Most mill redevelopment projects in Providence have been of the high-end variety. These projects have largely preserved historic buildings, but they decrease the affordable workspace available to artists and other small businesses, and displace much of the arts community.

Developers in Pawtucket, on the other hand, have actually developed affordable workspace for artists in a way that developers in Providence have not. You can see examples of this at 545 Pawtucket Ave. and 560 Mineral Spring Ave. Both buildings have been divided into units ranging from 500- to several thousand-square feet, which are rented out as workspace. With the exception of a few thousand square feet, both buildings are fully occupied with artists and light manufacturers, and there’s a waiting list to get into 545 Pawtucket Ave. Many of the artists and craftspeople in these buildings live in Providence but work in Pawtucket precisely because these spaces are there. The studios in 545 Pawtucket Ave. include those of Cloth, formerly located on Westminster Street on the West Side of Providence, Highchair Design Haus, photographer Scott Lapham, silkscreen artist Pete Cardoso, woodworker Corwin Butterworth, and bookbindery If’n Books & Marks. They’re all Providence institutions, but they ply their trade in Pawtucket.

The man largely responsible for developing affordable commercial space in Pawtucket is real estate broker Len Lavoie. Lavoie has been brokering commercial and industrial real estate in Rhode Island for 27 years, and the building owners he represents have been the first and only ones to develop affordable workspace on this scale. Lavoie says that after the evictions at Eagle Square, he convinced building owners he knew to divide up their buildings and turn them into clean, safe, legal, reasonably priced work spaces.

This is not to say some artists haven’t tried to live in these spaces. "I was here one morning," Lavoie says of 560 Mineral Spring Ave., "to do some work and put some fliers up at about 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning. A young lady walked past me in her bathrobe and slippers. There was no way she was going to tell me she wasn’t living here." The reaction to such instances, Lavoie says, is severe and decisive. "She was out the door by 3 o’clock in the afternoon," he says. "The police were removing her. In order to make these things work, we have to do them properly. We have to abide by the law."

Some affordable, newly remodeled workspace will soon be available in Providence. Lavoie is helping to develop workspaces in 951 Hartford Ave., a mill building right behind Atlantic Mills in Olneyville. And the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space, led by Lisa Carnevale and Monohasset Mill’s Erik Bright, are master-leasing the old Dunlop Tire building at 200 Allens Ave., which they plan to make available as workspace.

What no one in either Providence or Pawtucket has yet made available is affordable live-workspace that mimics the experience of illegal mill living. The construction cost is one reason for this, but code is another, especially since the state building and fire code was changed following the Station fire.

Paul Audette manages property for Pawtucket-based Providence Metalizing, a company with substantial real estate holdings around the Lorraine Mill complex in Pawtucket. After the evictions at Oak and Troy streets in January 2004, Audette says, a group of artists from that building came to him looking for live-work space. He had 10,000 square feet of space he would have been happy to set up for them — "wide open all the way," he says. "Brick walls, stairwells, double-wide bit." Audette approached the planning department and the city’s fire marshal with his preliminary plans, saying, "What I want to do is make a dormitory for these people and the rest is a workshop. The max would be 10 people, dormitory living, the rest is a workshop; anyone who doesn’t conform to the group has to leave." According to Audette, the response was, " ‘absolutely no.’ By the time I got through [with requests from planning and the fire marshal], the people could no longer afford it. I had plans all over the place that I had to abandon." Audette adds that this is a statewide issue — one that developers in every city and town are now forced to contend with. The state fire marshal’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Although many people see new developments in Providence and Pawtucket as a sign of good things to come, others lament the hot real estate market’s ability to continually displace artists and other small businesses. Mullen says, "One of the saddest things about this conversation is that the era of incredibly cheap square footage is just gone from these buildings. The era for $200 rent for 2000-square-foot little factory spaces is just gone. [It’s sad] because I think that allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be in a position to own their own business to own their own business; or to work in a business or to have a space."

Meanwhile, a wave of new luxury residences is planned in Providence. A Boston subsidiary of Intercontinental Real Estate Corporation, for example, plans to develop 193 luxury condos in two high-rise towers adjacent to the State House. How such projects will impact artists and their access to space, beyond the obvious issue of displacement is not clear, but Cliff Wood, director of Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism, says that his office is there to help facilitate and sustain the development of new artists’ spaces, if and when artists take the initiative. "If you’ve chosen to go through the city, then it’s our job to assist your sustainability, to guide you through the law, to guide you through the resources available to you. Therefore as we guide you through it, when you’re done, it’s cool. If you want to go around it, see what happens."

The arts remain an important part of Rhode Island’s identity and economy. Providence, Pawtucket, and the state all say they want to encourage and nurture this trend. But if they truly do, they’ll need to help ensure that price and code issues don’t drive out the artists responsible for this activity.

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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