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The new fight for Providence’s mills
Converting industrial buildings into housing threatens to eliminate a surprisingly robust source of jobs and small businesses

THREE TEENAGE GIRLS in jeans, T-shirts, and protective goggles bustle around an open furnace. One grabs a steel pan with a set of tongs, whacks the pan with a mallet, and sticks it back in the fire. Her supervisor looks on as heat sears out of the furnace and metal clangs on metal from the tools in the girl’s hands. This could be a scene out of Providence’s industrial past, but it’s actually an advanced blacksmithing course at the Steel Yard, a nonprofit industrial arts space located next to Monohasset Mill in the Valley neighborhood.

The Steel Yard welcomed visitors and the public with an open house last Thursday, October 28. In the year or so since it first opened, the Steel Yard has established a public foundry, ceramics studio, and blacksmithing shop, as well as space for jewelry making, bronze casting, welding, and woodworking. The blacksmithing students are here from the Met School, as part of the Steel Yard’s Youth Enrichment Partnership, which makes free classes available to youth from local high schools and arts groups. These facilities are accessible to the public through tuition-based courses, residencies, and other approaches. The Steel Yard runs a number of community-based programs, such as "Made in Providence," in which participants fashion functional items like tree guards and bike racks from recycled steel, and then install them locally. There’s also an "urban agriculture unit," a colorful shipping-trailer-turned-greenhouse, where growers nurture hydroponic basil — grown entirely in water without soil — to prove that agriculture can exist in urban areas under the right conditions.

By providing community space for the industrial arts, the Steel Yard (www.thesteelyard.org) is unique in the local area. But perhaps more significantly, in the ongoing conversation about preserving the city’s historic industrial space, the Steel Yard is the only redevelopment project in Providence that preserves not only a historic site, but its historic uses as well.

Four years ago, a New York developer’s plans to raze a cluster of historic mills in Eagle Square, and replace them with a generic strip mall, galvanized an outpouring of community opposition that ultimately helped save four of the 14 threatened buildings. The fierce reaction served as a wakeup call for city officials (see "Dig the new breed," News, December 14, 2000) about the importance of preserving Providence’s industrial landscape — which, by siring the art collective Fort Thunder and other underground hotbeds, has significantly contributed to the city’s cultural cache. To their credit, city officials responded by establishing a mill preservation program meant to diminish the threat to old mill buildings.

In the time since then, a number of mills have been converted, as part of high-profile redevelopment projects, into market-rate or upscale housing. For a cash-poor city like Providence, these developments represent investment and more tax revenue. At the same time, however, some observers fear that with so many old mills being remade as residences there won’t be much industrial space left for, well, industry. The unintended consequences of preserving and redeveloping mill buildings, in fact, may include driving away the small businesses, craftspeople, and artisans that quietly occupy mills, contributing – representing almost 16,000 jobs by one estimate — in no small way to the city’s economy.

THE LATEST CASE in point is the Procaccianti Building, a complex of old mills on the Eagle Street side of Eagle Square (commonly misidentified as Eastern Butcher Block because of the prominent signage displayed by its neighbor) that were owned until recently by the Procaccianti Group, a Cranston-based hospitality-management company. In September, Artiste Lofts LLC of Los Angeles bought the 190,868-square-foot, three-acre complex for $1.7 million, according to Neil Amper of Rodman Real Estate, the broker for the sale. According to a press release from Artiste Lofts’ Michael Gazdacko, the company, which has done adaptive-reuse projects in cities including Portland, Oregon, and Bloomfield, New Jersey, has preliminary plans to redevelop the Procaccianti Building into 145 "New York SoHo style" live/work loft condominiums, ranging from 700 to 2500 square feet, with an average unit size of 1150 square feet.

Ron Wierks, who represents Artiste Lofts from New Brunswick, New Jersey, says the company was attracted to the location in part because of other recent developments in the area, including the one at Eagle Square. "We feel like that area there is in a transitional period," he says. "You now have the conveniences of the [Shaw’s] grocery store and the retail that’s been built all around it." Wierks adds that the company will prioritize historic preservation of the buildings. "We want to do it in a historic manner so we keep the mill-style look and the atmosphere of being old. We’re not going to do like next door where they knocked the buildings down and created their own village."

The serious decline in manufacturing in New England over the last 75 years makes most people take for granted the notion that local industry is dying, if not dead. The visual cues of buildings in disrepair suggest they are empty, with none of the jobs that once enabled blue-collar workers to make a solid living.

Actually, though, many of these old mills teem with a surprising amount of industry — perhaps not an unusual situation in a state where small businesses provide the largest source of jobs. Based on the findings of a recent survey, the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space (PCIS) — a new advocacy group spearheading attempts to get Providence to rethink its mill preservation program — estimates there are 1261 businesses, and 15,672 jobs in the 250 buildings listed on the city’s Industrial and Commercial Buildings District. The Procaccianti Building at 25 Eagle St. is itself home to 24 small businesses and 142 employees — all of which will likely have to relocate due to Artiste Lofts’ redevelopment plans.

Thomas E. Deller, director of Providence’s Department of Planning & Development, was surprised to learn of the extent of employment in the city’s industrial spaces. "You drive by these mills and they look empty, and to actually find out how many people are in there, and to find out all those jobs were in there, was actually quite stunning," he says. "I didn’t know they were there. And there are actually some very good jobs in there."

With Providence facing an unprecedented degree of development pressure (see "Boiling Point," News, October 8), the question now becomes whether the squeeze will continue to get worse, or whether the city’s well-intentioned mill preservation effort can be tweaked to help maintain an important part of local culture and the Rhode Island economy.

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Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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