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Buff Chace has Downcity jumping
After the doctor called with the bad news, Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr. was baffled. Just 50 years old, and active, the downtown developer had a serious health problem. But then, after some research and a visit to a different doctor, Chace became convinced of the true source of his illness: Vincent A. Cianci Jr., the Providence mayor.
While trying to revive Providence's old downtown, Chace had waded deep into the world of Providence politics.
One day, the mayor was praising his downtown development plans, and the next, he was sabotaging them. At meetings, Chace would try to raise issues of civic improvement, and Cianci would make fun of him, he says.
Chace says he believes the stress of dealing with Cianci turned his system highly acidic and made him sick. Back in December 1998, Chace said, “Buddy was the biggest battle I had.”
Now 57, and healthy again, Chace says he has learned many things while working in Providence. Among them, he says, is a belief that “your enemy is your best teacher.”
The Chaces owned the Berkshire Hathaway textile business, which was bought 40 years ago by the now legendary Warren Buffet. Buff Chace said that his father, Arnold B. Chace, sold off his stake in Berkshire Hathaway to Buffet, while his uncle Malcolm Chace held onto his shares and remained involved in the company. Berkshire Hathaway went on to become one of the most profitable companies in the world, making Malcolm Chace and his children very wealthy.
Arnold B. Chace’s “progeny didn't benefit from the greatest investment record in the 20th century.” Buff’s side of the family focused on land. A submariner during World War II, Buff’s father held land on Cape Cod and timberlands in the Carolinas.
Buff grew up in Providence, on the city’s East Side, and went away to boarding school at St. Paul’s School, in Concord, N.H. After high school, he worked for a year on a ship carrying mail between Asia and San Francisco. He enrolled in the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and studied to become a writer. Instead, he became a filmmaker in Cambridge, Mass., making documentaries about folk singers and the anti-war movement. He also became interested in Buddhism.
Chace returned to Providence in 1985, when his father became ill. His family asked him to figure out how to redevelop a shopping center they owned in Mashpee, Mass., on Cape Cod. He read about the work of planner and architect Andres Duany, who designed Seaside, a showcase community in the Florida Panhandle. Chace invited Duany to Mashpee, and held brain-storming sessions with residents and town officials to hear their ideas for the development.
The result was Mashpee Commons — a New England-style village with small shops and residential units — similar in feeling to what Chace is trying to create on Westminster Street in Providence. Both developments seek to create compact, walkable areas with a sense of place. Duany, and others who think the way he does, focus on streets and neighborhoods, not simply impressive structures.
Chace said that Duany convinced him developers can have a positive impact on the community — by focusing not on short-term profit, but on projects with a civic value. “It took a long time, getting comfortable calling myself a developer,” Chace recalled. “Rather than making [developers] schmucks, we should be trying to make it an attractive profession.”
CHACE SAID he first saw the potential of downtown Providence on a spring morning in 1991. Actually, he said, it was his eight year-old daughter Sarah who saw it first.
Chace read in the morning newspaper that an entire block of buildings behind City Hall was up for auction. Curious, he climbed into his Volkswagen bus and drove from his East Side home, with Sarah and her twin brother, Ben. Chace and the twins walked around the cluster of dilapidated buildings.
"Can you believe someone could buy this whole city block [at] a fire sale?," Chace asked. Well, Chace remembers his daughter telling him, why don't you do something about it?
The challenge did not come out of nowhere. A preservationist streak runs through the Chace family. Buff's aunt Beatrice Chace was instrumental in preventing Colonial homes on College Hill's Benefit Street from being torn down. As a young person, "I remember seeing those houses restored. They were influential on me," Chace recalled.
The notion of contributing to the civic good was a family virtue, Chace said. His own name, Buff, is short for Buffum; he's a descendent of Elizabeth Buffum Chace, the 19th-century abolitionist and suffragette, a bust of whom is displayed in the State House.
For his part, Buff Chace decided to make his mark by improving Downcity. But first, he had to figure out how to take the leap from saving the old buildings to making them profitable. "The banks are not going to lend you money unless there is some profit," he said.
He got financial help from his cousin Malcolm "Kim" Chace, and his wife, Liz Chace, who became part owners of many of his Downcity developments.
He would also need support from the city's foundations, the state and the city. And he hoped to get the backing of the mayor, the persona whom many associated with the city's rebirth.
EASIER SAID than done. Chace says that Cianci seemed to enjoy playing him like a "marionette."
Up and down. Up and down. Just when he thought the mayor approved of an idea, Cianci would turn and give him a yank. Chace remembers one meeting with Trinity Repertory Company's then-director, Oskar Eustis, other civic leaders, and Cianci.
"He was ruthless in castigating me," Chace recalled of the mayor. "He was withering in his abuse."
"That was his modus operandi. He would go and praise you, but secretly, if you were actually getting any traction, he would be planting the seeds to prevent you from being successful, because if you were successful you were competing for the limelight with him."
The animosity, at times, was personal. Chace remembers trying to discuss
an issue with the mayor during a luncheon at Capriccio restaurant.
"He had a chip on his shoulder," Chace said. Yet, at the same time, Chace said, "he was so bright. He could grasp an idea and articulate it better than I could."
As time went on, Chace grew increasingly frustrated. He thought about running for mayor, but realized he would lose. "You couldn't go and scream at him, because you know what would happen. I basically internalized this conflict." Chace says he dealt with Cianci "the old WASP way. . . . grin and bear it."
In 1998, the doctors found and treated a superficial tumor on Chace's bladder. To prevent a recurrence, Chace was convinced he needed to turn his system "more alkaline."
He started drinking more water, eating mostly a vegetarian diet and working on finding ways to deal with stress. "I had to learn how to process adversity differently," he said.
ONE TEST came from Rich Lupo, owner of the popular rock club, Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, on Westminster Street. Lupo had a multi-year lease with Chace on the first floor of the former Peerless department store. He wanted to stay there. "It was my livelihood," said Lupo.
But Chace, who bought the building for development, had other plans. He wanted to turn the upper floors into apartments. The rock club had to go, he said. Chace offered Lupo money to relocate. Lupo turned him down, saying it was not enough. In November of 1999, Chace terminated his lease with Lupo and went to District Court to evict him.
"He would do anything possible to get rid of my club," recalled Lupo. "Judge that as you will. He really had to have his way, and I suspect he always had." At about the same time, Lupo attended a fundraiser for Cianci on Federal Hill. Lupo said the mayor pulled him aside to tell him about a meeting he'd had with Chace and a group of civic leaders.
"Mayor Cianci came up to me and said 'the blue-bloods are going to offer you money, and you better take it,' " said Lupo. "He said, sooner or later, they are gonna get you." In April 2001, a judge ruled that Lupo could keep his club in the Peerless building.
Chace came back and offered more money. Lupo said he took the offer and moved his club to The Strand, on Washington Street. Lupo would not disclose the sum. "It was a fair offer," he said. "I would have preferred not to go."
Today, Lupo says he hopes Chace's "downtown projects work out, for everyone's sake." But he hasn't gotten over having had to move his club. "[Chace] has little regard for other people's property rights," he said. "This is the true sense of entitlement."
THE LEGAL SYSTEM in 2002 did make things easier for Chace. Cianci was convicted of corruption, in U.S. District Court, and sentenced to prison. The next year, David N. Cicilline, who had been a big supporter of Chace's projects as a state representative, took office as mayor.
"In terms of a collaborative environment, it's night and day," Chace says. Chace is also now getting praise from public places. "There is no question, Buff loves the city and is committed to it," said state Rep. Paul E. Moura, a Providence Democrat. "He deserves a lot of credit."
The Deputy House Whip, who works for an arm of the Laborers' union, said Chace and his development team won his support for a state historic tax credit, which passed in 2001. "It's one of the best things I've done since I've been in the legislature," said Moura.
Thomas E. Deller, who served as director of planning and development under Cianci, and now, Cicilline, said that Chace took a chance on a Downcity that few developers would. "He cares about it," said Deller. "I know, it seems kind of corny to say that someone cares about it."
Chace said he hopes his work will invite more developers to invest in Providence. "We are trying to represent the new way of doing business," he said. Chace said it could take a long time before his projects succeed financially. He's worried, but he's no longer worried sick.
"I'm 57 years old. I would hope that, before I die, this thing was proven. It could be sooner than that. I hope that I see it."
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