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Providence’s development boom: marvel or menace?
Although fresh investment is a boon for the city, concerns persist about displacement and the pace of planning
When crowds of revelers twice jammed parts of downtown in recent weeks, first for the 20th anniversary of as200, and then for the soundsession music festival, it marked a new high point in Providence’s evolution as a small place with some big city panache. With a wave of development starting to unfold around town — more than $2 billion in construction is planned through the next four years — some believe that the new growth will foster this greater sense of vibrancy while also strengthening the local economy.
Count Mayor David N. Cicilline first and foremost among the believers. His administration, citing the cash-strapped city’s dire need for increased revenue, has aggressively moved to court investment and encourage growth while steadily talking up Providence to anyone who will listen. Although Cicilline’s colorful predecessor, the imprisoned Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., was an equally enthusiastic cheerleader, the newfound level of interest from developers — hailed by Cicilline as the "trust dividend" of his cleaner and more transparent brand of politics — represents a major vote of confidence in the city.
Although it’s just one of a flurry of projects, a 32-story condo tower planned for 110 Westminster St., across from the Arcade, with units priced between $500,000 and $2.5 million, best epitomizes this startling new development landscape. Even with downtown’s accelerating transformation into a residential neighborhood, it’s still hard for many to imagine the willingness of affluent cosmopolitans to drop such major bucks for digs in the city’s old retail core.
If some still wonder where the residents for such high-end developments will come from, other luxury condos are nonetheless planned near Waterplace Park, in the shadow of what will be GTECH’s towering new corporate headquarters, and on Atwells Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Federal Hill. Meanwhile, as the cost of buying a house in Rhode Island has doubled in the last five years, developers have steadily scouted locations and bought up land around Providence, seeking to capitalize on the prevailing sense of momentum. Cicilline points to growth in the city’s tax base — for the first time since 1992, he says — in contending the entire city will benefit.
Not everyone, though, shares the mayor’s unbridled optimism. In fact, many neighborhood activists harbor a kind of free-floating anxiety about how development pressure and unnecessarily rapid change could remake a number of Providence neighborhoods in unpredictable ways, displacing current residents and further squeezing the artists who play an integral role in the city’s national reputation as a creative bastion. There’s also frustration that the city, rather than tapping the swelling level of investment to address such pressing needs as affordable housing, is more interested in raising the tide of development.
SHARE THE WEALTH
A case in point is the concept of inclusionary zoning, a practice in which for-profit developers contribute a percentage of the cost of a project to help create affordable housing. To advocates, including city councilors David Segal and Miguel Luna, such a policy would spread the benefits of Providence’s development boom widely and more equitably. Although his administration did introduce a policy requiring developers receiving a public subsidy to contribute to a housing trust fund, Cicilline suggests the Providence market is not yet strong enough to support inclusionary zoning. Noting that the Annie E. Casey Foundation commissioned a study of how it would work in Providence, the mayor says, "I think we’re getting very close to that… I’m certainly very willing to consider anything that will create more affordable housing, and not be an impediment to investment and growth in the city." As it stands, however, says Cicilline, Providence’s real estate market still lags behind that of Boston (which has an inclusionary zoning policy), so cultivating economic growth remains vital.
Herein lies the rub. Although all cities go through periods of boom and bust, Providence is a different place than it was 10, or even five, years ago — far more so than Boston or New York. Rhode Island’s capital has increasingly been discovered since Cianci’s second tenure, striking those accustomed to higher costs elsewhere as an affordable and appealing alternative. Meanwhile, although influential low-rent artists used to be able to evade official scrutiny while living cheaply in forgotten mills, this fabled era came to an abrupt end with the frenzy over fire codes following the Station nightclub fire disaster in 2003. The result of all this is that housing prices have soared, and affordable alternatives have vanished.
In contrast to the slower, more deliberate approach sought by some residents, Cicilline makes it clear that he wants to maintain the current level of growth into the future. Given the current absence of any challengers likely to give him a hard time in the 2006 mayoral race, it’s possible that Providence could look dramatically different by the end of a second Cicilline term in 2010. (Although he declined to speculate during an interview on how much the city’s population might grow over the next 10 years, Cicilline, in a July 8 op-ed in the Providence Journal, noted that the capital’s population was 75,000 greater in 1955, writing, "The path forward, in many ways, is a reconnection with our past.")
Most of those concerned about development recognize the potential benefits that can come with a denser, more populous, and vital Providence — like better public transit and more support for small businesses — and there’s no doubt that the city, like the rest of the state, has long suffered from a lack of good jobs. Yet the fear still lingers that surging development could erode the community’s character, transforming Providence into something resembling a high-priced residential annex to Boston. As Laura Mullen, the artists’ affordable housing liaison for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, puts it, "Development can often be a very positive thing in terms of revitalizing a neighborhood, but I would be very concerned about the existing population . . . . Gentrification is a very slippery slope. There are lots of positive things that may end up having ripple effects."
As it stands, the big question remains: can Providence get the development balance right between opportunity and risk?
A WORSENING HOUSING CRISIS
Within the next two months, the City of Providence plans to announce a project to create between eight and 12 units of affordable live-work space for artists in the Riverside Mills building in Olneyville, additional affordable housing in a newly constructed building with some ground floor retail space, and an artist-in-residence position. The effort will be partially funded by money from Feldco Development, as a sop to the city after the developer, which displaced the Fort Thunder art collective in Eagle Square, proved unable to rent artist studio space, at $15 per square foot, on one floor in two buildings in its controversial development.
On the face of it, the Olneyville effort might seem like a win-win, helping to ensure a long-term creative presence in a part of the city where artists are being threatened by displacement and rising rents. Elsewhere, the city plays a positive role in various ways, helping AS220 to buy the Dreyfus Hotel for additional live-work space for artists, for example, and contributing to the Westfield Lofts affordable development in West Elmwood. On the South Side, the city enabled the Dash Development Company to secure the development rights for an innovative project involving alternative energy sources, three affordable homes, and four for-sale units of retail space, at 1040 Broad St. To its credit, the city also backed efforts to significantly expand a tax-free zone for artists.
When it comes to having a comprehensive plan to supply affordable housing, or to maintain the presence of artists in the city, however, critics say that Providence falls short. "The city as a whole seems to have the creative culture of Providence in mind," says Lisa Carnevale, executive director of the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space (PCIS), an arts advocacy group, "[but] I don’t think there’s anything really concrete in place that will preserve this." Adds Mullen, "I just don’t understand, with all this development pressure, why the city isn’t more aggressively pursuing [inclusionary zoning]. I would encourage the city to codify and implement those things immediately before we lose all this development money and interest."
The City of Providence can’t reasonably be expected to solve the its housing needs entirely on its own, particularly considering how a statewide housing crisis has only worsened in recent years. Richard H. Godfrey Jr., executive director of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation, says the Ocean State, despite one of the lowest housing vacancy rates in the nation, continues to attract 500 new families each year. This helps to explain why the typical statewide rent for a two-bedroom apartment climbed to $1121 in 2004, up from $613 in 1999. Summing it up, Godfrey says, "We’re seeing overcrowding increase, homelessness increase, and prices skyrocket, as more and more people fight for fewer and fewer homes."
Cicilline, who says the creation of affordable units in Providence has doubled over the last year, points to the development of more housing as the necessary cure. The danger for the capital city, though, is that the artists who have helped put the city on the map could increasingly be pushed out of town. Xander Marro, a mainstay of the Olneyville arts scene, says increasing development is making is steadily harder for artists to remain even in that section of town. "People want to be here," she says, "but to try to buy something and be here in a sustainable way has gotten doubly, triply hard."
In February 2004, after about 60 artists and musicians were displaced
from a derelict building near Olneyville Square, Mark Van Noppen, a
principal in the Armory Revival Company, cited the need for private
developers, foundations, the city and the state to work together "before
Providence loses the Mother of all incubators" (see "Whose
creative economy is it?" News, February 13, 2004).
FAULTLINES IN RENAISSANCE TOWN
The clash between Providence’s past and future also plays out downtown, where the proliferation of luxury housing leads some to question whether the neighborhood will become a province of the rich. Although AS220 is expanding with its acquisition of the Dreyfus Hotel and hundreds of RISD students will soon be residing downtown in the Hospital Trust bank building, these might be the exotic exceptions among an affluent new class of residents. If this is the case, will there be the public desire to maintain the presence of such noisy, rambunctious events as SoundSession and AS220’s 20th anniversary blowout?
"People are individual and different in many different ways," says Cicilline. "One of the reasons that people who have the ability to live anywhere are attracted to the downtown, and one of the reasons that they can command those kinds of prices, is because of the vitality of the city, and its diversity and vibrancy. It would be curious to me that people would come here because of it, and then hope to extinguish it. I mean, that’s why people want to live here." Noting that Providence is the fastest growing city in New England, the mayor adds, "I certainly wouldn’t expect that the presence of new residents in the downtown is going to do anything but enhance that reputation."
The battle between short-term profits and long-term appeal might prove more difficult when it comes to the waterfront land being made available by the relocation of Interstate 195. Advocates like David P. Riley, co-chairman of the Friends of India Point Park, fear that the city may succumb to the temptation of tall residential developments along the water, rather than growth that maintains water views, incorporates more public use, and fosters other long-term benefits. Riley notes that when the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned Central Park, he recognized that its first benefits for New York City might not be realized for 40 years.
With developers knocking at the door, though, it’s difficult for Providence to pursue such a far-sighted course. Many residents, in fact, feel the city is doing things backward by currently rewriting its zoning laws in advance of updating the comprehensive plan. Cicilline and Thomas E. Deller, director of the Providence Department of Planning & Development, take a different view, describe the zoning rewrite — due to be adopted this fall — as a tool for increasing the city’s management of development in the city. The two sides even clash sharply in how they describe the accompanying public comment process; Cicilline calls it open and participatory, while neighborhood activists like Kari Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, describe it as too rapid, with policies whose ramifications haven’t been fully thought out.
The same dichotomy can be seen in a zoning proposal to divide the Industrial Commercial Buildings District (ICBD), which was adopted by the city to preserve mills after the Eagle Square fiasco, into three classification tiers. Cicilline calls it a matter of practicality, describing some ICBD listings as being in a "bad state of repair which are almost impossible to rehabilitate safely . . . I believe there are some that we can’t preserve." Critics, though, see the proposed changes to the ICBD as an attempt to give the city a more flexible hand in cultivating development and demolishing mills.
THE CURRENT MOMENT
There’s no doubt that the mayor, a savvy politician and self-described urbanist, talks a good game, saying in an interview, for example, "I don’t judge the success of the city by how much development we have. We really have to judge it by how we improve the quality of life." Similarly, Cicilline cites the desire to grow Providence’s tax base while being sure "that we protect the character of Providence and the special quality of place that the city has." Development "has the potential to impact the quality of the city, and we have to be sure it impacts in a positive way."
The administration, which favors a mixed-use project, recently backed up its urbanist credentials by discouraging the Licht family from selling a 16-acre parcel between Kinsley Avenue and Valley Street to a developer that wanted to create a big-box development (see "Struever Brothers targets ambitious development in Valley neighborhood," News, This just in, July 15). Given such a move, one wonders whether Cicilline, had he been mayor at the time, might have found a more inspired use for the majestic former Silver Spring mill complex on Charles Street, which was demolished about four years ago to make way for a Home Depot.
Still, there are times when the mayor sends conflicting signals on the development front. In June, during a planning session on the future of Federal Hill, for example, Cicilline expressed hope that the neighborhood could be a local version of Boston’s Newbury Street — a place marked by astronomical rents and high-end boutiques — while also citing goals for the area of a good public transit, parks, and mixed-income residences.
Perhaps he meant an affordable version of Newbury Street — if there is such a thing. Or maybe, with Providence experiencing its greatest development surge in a long time, Cicilline wants to keep the city’s tax base growing and his options wide open.
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