Eagle Square, which was known as Fort Thunder, was home to many artists and bands, as well as a vibrant weekend flea market. In 2001, developers by the name of Feldco approached the city to raze the complex and put in a shopping center. Their original proposal would have leveled all of the buildings and erected a cookie cutter Shaw’s plaza. After much protest and back and forth with plans, Feldco agreed to design changes to save more buildings (four out of 16) and incorporate more of a mill “look”, as well as some mixed use residential spaces. In the end, although the tenants put up a great fight, Feldco won and demolished most of the strutures, and displaced a hundred or so artists.
On a brighter side, the demolition produced a total of 59,701 tons of waste, of which only 349 tons (less than 1%) went to landfill. Old factory buildings were typically constructed in a way that is ideal for reclamation. The precision arm of the Komatzu "long arm" allowed them to pluck timbers from the building frame without damaging them. The buildings were full of old growth yellow pine. The timbers in this project were milled into flooring, the bricks that were in good shape for resale were sold, and the rest were crushed for on site fill.
It is a small glimmer, I know.
A few years later now, the Shaws that the plaza was originally built around has closed, as larger restructuring forced Shaws out of RI in general. A Price Rite has entered the space, moved over from it’s location on Manton Ave. The neighborhood is better suited for a Price Rite anyway, and it is anice, large, clean space – it even has a cafe. Other typical retail has filled in – a Staples, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Blockbuster, etc... The area around the river and bike path has been better landscaped and is pretty nice, actually. The way that Feldco worked with the existing buildings (that they saved) and the footprints of some of the others was their greatest challenge. Hence, they have one of the most complicated parking lots around, which seems to be the largest drawback of the place.
The real silver lining might instead may be the smart development that rose out of the ashes of Eagle Square. We mean Monohasset Mill, the Steel Yard, the Plant, Firehouse 13, and to a lessor degree, the Streuver Brothers investments in the City: Rising Sun Mills, Calender Mills, Alco, and the Dynamo House. The first four were artist-inspired or artist-run and managed, and the SBER projects were inevitable investments in the sought-after mill spaces – ones, which we believe, though mixed-blessings in their own right, will prove to be valuable options for people wanting to live in the city. They provide a range of housing that a diverse place like Providence needs, and they also represent a “line in the sand” for the artists that decided to own something and take control, rather than rely on altruistic investors to do the right thing. All of these projects benefitted from the Eagle Square conversation, and “Not another Eagle Square” became a personal and public mantra for people in the field.
The Valley Worsted Mills were founded in 1842 by John Giles, one of the earliest worsted mills in the US. Initially the machinery was oxen-run, and the worsted yarn was used by hand knitters. In 1866 the old mill was destroyed by fire and a new one was put up the same year. The main mill was three stories with a slightly pitched roof and segmental-arch windows. A second 2-story brick, gable-roofed structure was built between 1868 and 1875. The flat roofed 2-story building adjoining the mill was a 20th-century addition.
By 1868 the mill turned out 2000 pounds of yarn a day. In the late 1880’s the mill employed 450 workers, and by the 1890’s it was at the height of its productivity. It upgraded its equipment with modern machinery; 120-horsepower engines were replaced by three 250-hp motors and several upright boilers. Soon the mill produced 100,000 pounds of worsted yarn a month.
In 1899 the American Woolen Co. bought the mill (as well as several others in or near Olneyville) until 1928, when they abandonded it. The Valley mill was sold to a realtor in 1931, who leased space to other textile companies, trucking businesses, and jewelry firms.
New stories below detail the life that the mill took on from the early nineties to 2001.
by Ian Donnis
Providence Phoenix | December 14 - 21, 2000 (abridged)
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.
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. 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. (Ed- 2008: No record of this group can be found online)
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, 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 this opportunity again – not in my lifetime.” If Feldco is so interested in the site, some other developers probably would be, too.
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.”
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.
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, dorm-style nonprofit arts space on Empire Street.
Providence has made a name for itself as a city where the arts are celebrated, but Erminio Pinque, founder of the internationally acclaimed Big Nazo puppets, likens the city’s creative scene to a fragile ecosystem. “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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Perhaps most significantly, there are no real obstacles to the demolition of the seven mill buildings 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.
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, a freelance theatrical set designer and puppet maker, has a secret apocalyptic vision for Providence: all of the excellent public relations about the Renaissance City leads “a bunch of Ally McBeals up in Boston” 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. 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.
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.”
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.
Craig Scorpio Jan 30 2012 I grew up across the street (on Valley Street – the light blue house that appears in a few of the pictures – its now painted yellow and the location of the 288 Chinese Restaurant.) My family (going back 3 generations lived there, too, until the last of us moved out in the mid 1980s). I have heard many stories from relatives, that when they were growing up – they used to play in the complex (disaster waiting to happen). After seeing a mill fire up the other end of Valley Street as a kid, I constantly used to worry that this mill would catch fire, and we would lose our house. Judging by the pictures and the conditions of the mill (and the many mill fires I have seen since), I dont think my fears were off base... While I am all for preservation of these types of buildings (similar to the work done at both ends of Valley Street) I think there was only so much at that time that could be done, and really, in the end, this was a win-win for the neighborhood. As the visual aspects of the neighborhood look so much better. However, for personal reasons, I am glad they chose to save the Uncas Building (My grandmother, and other relatives worked there for many years – When I drive by, I can still see them (from when I was a kid) waving their hankees/white towels in the window at me, towards our house, as our living room windows faced where they all sat. It was a big thrill as a kid. After my grandmother passed away a few years ago, I drove down newark street – when I got to the corner of valley street, and I looked up at the top floor of Uncas – I saw that same sight (although I realized a few minutes later, it was just workmen) for just those few seconds, I saw Grandma.
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