The development of Rising Sun Mills came about at a pivotal moment in the real estate boom of the late nineties/early oughts. The redevelopment and subsequent razing of Eagle Square shook the development community as well as the arts community that was using these buildings as cheap and abundant space.
As an alternative, successful Baltimore developer Bill Struever was brought to town to attend hearings on the Eagle Square matter, and to offer an alternative development proposal that would save more of the historic buildings. Urged on by his daughter, Sarah, then attending RISD, and moved by his memories of attending Brown University himself and working at places like the Providence Fruit Warehouse, Bill made some impassioned speeches to the City Council. While Eagle Square was not saved, the City Council got their first taste of the fire that Mr. Struever could conjure, as he decided to open a RI-base for his company.
Taking advantage of the generous State Historic Tax Credit program, SBER set their sights on the former Providence Worsted Mills, bordered by Valley Street on one side and the Woonasquatucket River on the other. The large complex would be a perfect first project for the developer who was already used to tackling huge mixed-use redevelopment. Tide Point, a $63 million dollar 400,000 sf project was one such development that the company had under its belt. To make it easier and get a primer on how development in RI worked, SBER partnered with the Armory Revival Company on the development of this complex.
Changes were in the air for the community of Olneyville, and artists were not happy about it. Already spurred on by the Eagle Square fiasco, the once large Fort Thunder group had to split into factions. Some moved into a space dubbed The Bakery deeper in Olneyville. Others broke away to become The Hive, still more left town completely. Rents were already on the rise in mill spaces as well as regular rental homes in the Olneyville and West Side of town. Some of this was speculative, and some was really market-driven. And the thriving Fort Thunder scene was getting attention for other reasons and being legitimized by one of its spin-offs’ (Force Field) inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, as well as Lightning Bolt’s explosion onto the hipster music scene. So, it should have been little surprise that their new “under-the-radar” digs were raided by City Fire Inspectors, and they were quickly displaced again.
What does this have to do with Rising Sun? Well, because it was one of the first – and arguably still one of the largest – redevelopments at the time, it and its development team took a lot of flak from the community, who were understandably concerned about the sudden gentrification of their neighborhood. While on one hand, Olneyville needed some social and economic investment, the residents were worried that they had very little say in the matter, and that soon, they wouldn’t be able to afford to live there themselves.
Eagle Square and the arrival of companies like SBER made one thing clear: the “Fort Thunder” era of huge, cheap space in Providence was over. No more living undisturbed by landlords just happy to get something for rent in these unwanted, hard-to-heat spaces. No more late night music shows and film premieres. No more pop-up art galleries. No more wrestling shows and general mayhem. Providence was changing, and not everybody liked it.
Excerpts from an article in the Pheonix explaining both sides (Full story here)
By Ian Donnis
Providence Pheonix | February 7 -13, 2003
For critics, the plan to redevelop the former Providence and National Worsted Mills in Olneyville is about as natural a form of neighborhood growth as a sudden landing by a massive alien spaceship. But for proponents of the envisioned Rising Sun Mills, which is poised to offer 151 loft-style apartments, 100,000-square-feet of office space, and an ecological small-business incubator, the $45 million project represents a much-needed source of investment and stability in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Rhode Island.
Those critical of the development, mostly young artists and activists, cherish Olneyville’s downscale polyglot funk and fear that an influx of upwardly mobile types will raise housing costs and spark gentrification. The developers, led locally by the Armory Revival Company, cite additional housing as an antidote for rising rents and they describe the initiative as a welcome alternative to the continued deterioration of the neighborhood's 19th-century mill buildings.
Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore, the lead developer of Rising Sun, has a well-deserved reputation for helping to reinvigorate economically blighted neighborhoods, and Bill Struever’s firm became involved in the project after emerging as a possible alternative developer for Eagle Square. Given all this, it’s slightly ironic that Struever Brothers and the three partners of Armory Revival, who helped to resuscitate the Armory District before branching into more upscale developments, are drawing criticism from a small band of idealistic critics.
Even some of those who cite the multi-million dollar investment as an undeniable positive for Olneyville – where 41 percent of families live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census, compared to a citywide average of 24 percent – describe Rising Sun as a potentially mixed blessing that could impact the largely Latino neighborhood in unexpected ways. Rents at Rising Sun will run from $600-$1400 – with most between $700-$1100 – a far cry from the luxury housing sprouting in pockets around town, but not exactly housing on the cheap, either. The development comes as Olneyville is showing some promising signs of improvement, including development of the Riverside Mills Park and the Woonasquatucket River Greenway…
The steadily increasing difficulty of finding decent, affordable, and suitable space in Providence has led some artists (and arts organizations) to set their sights for Pawtucket, Fall River, Massachusetts, and other destinations. The situation is so serious that AS220, the nonprofit arts organization, is exploring the possibility of buying another downtown building. “It is getting very expensive to live in the city,” says artistic director Bert Crenca, who sees Rising Sun as having a mixed impact. “I’m hearing that on a daily basis – ‘What’s going to happen? We’re all going to get priced out.’”
The concerns expressed about affordability are symptoms of a housing crisis that extends far beyond mill buildings and the particular needs of artists. “Housing costs in Rhode Island are just out of reach of the common family,” says Godfrey. “Rising Sun is not going to drive up the rents. Rising Sun is a symbol of what is already happening. The upward pressure [on rents], the increased demand [for housing], allows Rising Sun to happen.”…
Although the housing crunch is a national problem, it is particularly serious in Rhode Island… the average statewide rent for a two-bedroom apartment jumped to $854, from $613, over the last four years, and Rhode Island had the greatest increase in home prices over the last year (and the third highest nationally over the last two decades)…
Although a monthly rent of $2000 seems better suited to midtown Manhattan than the former site of the Silver Top Diner, an underserved market for high-end housing has triggered plans for a handful of other luxury developments in recent months, including 83 condos in Fox Point, envisioned apartments in the Capital Center, and condos across Fountain Street from the Providence Journal Building. Across town, Rising Sun marks the most ambitious project for the Armory Revival Company, whose recent efforts include upscale condos on Thomas Street (one of which sold for $1.2 million) and on Westminster Street, near the Providence School Department. Providence, a city long known for its unstudied idiosyncrasy and relatively cheap digs, is increasingly going pricey.
…“I think in the long run, it should prove to be a positive,” says architect Steve Durkee, since such residents can help to support restaurants, cultural activity, and other desirable elements of city life. At the same time, Durkee, who worked last year with the Olneyville Housing Corporation to develop 32 units of affordable rental housing – which attracted more than 600 applications – knows how the lower end of the market suffers from a woefully inadequate amount of attention.
Rising Sun’s most vociferous critics, who were informed about the proposal just a few days before it was presented to the city Plan Commission, remain stung by what they see as a lack of public participation in the process and the absence of dialogue with the developers. “Overall, it seems like the project was created in a vacuum and there was no intention to integrate it into the fabric of the community,” says Adriana Young, executive director of English for Action, a nonprofit that works with immigrants in Olneyville. There’s suspicion, too, about Armory Revival’s acquisition of nearby property and a fear that it will be more difficult for young artists to buy lofts in the area as a result.
Mark Van Noppen and B.J. Dupre, who, with Barry Preston, constitute Armory Revival, say they didn’t anticipate criticism from members of the local arts underground and focused their earliest informational efforts on the dozen or so businesses and artists being displaced from the mill complex. Noting that the wide swath of land from Olneyville Square to Atwells Avenue, between the Woonasquatucket and Route 10, produces less than $800,000 in annual tax revenue, Van Noppen says, “It’s like a giant whole in your wallet. We want our investment to be something that’s going to add to the long-term value of the community.” Dupre adds, “It’s really about building community,” citing an unmet demand for loft apartments in the city, as well as plans for Rising Sun to include office space and the ecological small business incubator being organized by Sara Struever, daughter of Bill Struever, whose goals include gallery space, a media center, nonprofits, and community development organizations… a new Armory Revival development on Pearl Street is due to include 18 lofts for sale and 36 apartments, with 20 percent of the housing at affordable prices, thanks to a program backed by the Providence Preservation Society’s Revolving Loan Fund…
Offering subsidies for artists is sometimes a controversial subject, but considering the benefits that Providence and Rhode Island have gained from marketing themselves as bastions of the arts, ensuring the presence of artists is a smart forum of economic development. And although even established arts organizations face difficulty during lean economic times, it’s worth noting that it’s the underground arts groups that have attracted some of the most enthusiastic out-of-town notices during recent times. The work of the art-music collective Forcefield, for example, previously included in the Whitney Biennial, was featured on the front of the Sunday arts and leisure section of the New York Times a few weeks ago. Similarly, Lightning Bolt received an enthusiastic review in the Times last year, and the alt-rock heroes of Sonic Youth performed a symbolic passing of the torch to the group during a recent gig at Lupo’s.
Godfrey still tends to get quizzical looks when he speaks about the importance of coming to terms with Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Although he has no illusions about the difficulty of changing the situation, he hopes that publicity about growing homelessness… will spark change. “The irony is that those of us who own our homes get richer every day,” he says. “To a certain extent, we like the way it is. Yet,” when it comes to buying a home, “our kids can’t afford to get in.”
Condensed from the National Register Nomination form, Barbra Sokoloff 1999; Kulik 1978; RIHPHC 1981
Built incrementally between 1881 and the 1930s, the thirteen buildings of the National & Providence Worsted Mills are significant as the location of a major manufacturer of worsted textiles during the period when Rhode Island dominated worsted production.
The National & Providence Worsted Mills complex is located on a ten-acre, two-block parcel by a car lot to the north, Valley Street to the east, house lots to the south, and the Woonasquatucket River to the west in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. The complex includes several large one-to-four-story buildings with heavy timber frames, load-bearing red brick walls, flat or shallow-gabled roofs, and large windows with segmental arches. The buildings are arranged on the site according to function. Yarn production facilities stand near the river and mill pond (now filled) to take advantage of the water source for washing wool and dumping waste. The cloth weaving facilities are located near the street for convenient transportation of finished goods.
Although Rhode Island’s textile industries had originally been based on cotton manufacture, changes in production technology, sources of raw material, and available markets pushed the woolen industry to the fore by the middle of the 19th century. Improvements in combing, spinning, and weaving machinery, from the Noble and Lister combs to the Crompton and Knowles Worsted Loom, shortened worsted production time. When the Civil War blockade of southern ports cut the supply of cotton, many local manufacturers turned to producing yarns and cloths from local and imported wool. Several Rhode Island mills specialized in worsted yarns, made from parallel strands of long-fibered wool. Fabrics made of worsted cloth had a smooth texture and sheen, highly desirable for Civil War uniforms as well as coats, suits, and cloaks.
In the late 1870s and 1880s, expansion of the worsted industry focused along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, which produced more worsted goods than any other American city. The Providence & National Mills were established at this time by Charles Fletcher, an English immigrant. In 1875, Fletcher rented an old mill building (known as the Rising Sun Mill, no longer standing) on the Woonasquatucket where he produced mohair and genappe yarns under the name Providence Worsted Mill. As he continued to add buildings to his first yarn-making complex, Fletcher established a separate operation, the National Worsted Mill, and erected another series of buildings to produce fabrics. In 1893, the two operations were incorporated as the National and Providence Worsted Mills. At that time, the company employed 750 workers, produced 900,000 yards of worsted goods yearly, and was the largest single consumer of wool in the United States.
With the combined effects of the Panic of 1893, out-of-region competition, and increasing financial conservatism, many owners of independent textile mills were forced to consolidate their holdings. Fletcher and his partner William Wood of Lawrence, MA created the American Woolen Company, which in turn acquired the National & Providence, as well as other facilities in Providence and Massachusetts. Production of worsteds and other fine woolen goods remained steady until the 1920s but fell off in the following decades. In the 1950s, Textron acquired American Woolen and finally ended production of worsteds at the National & Providence Worsted Mills.
The most dramatic changes to the complex occurred between 1926 and 1937 when the northern-most portions of the complex were removed. The property was purchased by Textile Properties Inc. in 1954 and sold that same year to Donstan Corporation. The 1956 map identifies the property as Donstan Corp. Between 1956 and 1983 an addition was made to the west end of mill No. 2. The 1962 directory lists Donstan Corp, real estate and mtl specialties, at this address. Donstan Corp was run by members of the Blacher family, including Louis Blacher, president; Donald L. Blacher, vice president; Stanley P. Blacher, secretary; and Benjamin Blacher, treasurer. Until recently, the complex was occupied by several small industries and businesses and owned by Blacher Brothers. Inc.
Shirley Hanley My grandmother (an immigrant from England) worked at the mills as a burler. She worked there all during World War I and II. She would purchase some of the fabric and it was fantastic.
Andrew H. Panciotti Sr. My wife and I operated our business at this location. Our experience in the redelopment process was verry unpleasant. I don’t believe that any of the stated goals or assurances given were acomplished. I do not wish to speak for others, however many of the busineses, residents,and members of the community were not included or even considered. I sincersly believed and had hoped the Project as presented would succeed. To me it represents tremendous opportunity lost and I feel very said to say this. I wish it wasn’t true. AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM
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