Retail Moves out as Residential Moves In: The Evolution of Downtown, Capital Center, and the Providence Place Mall

1915 postcard of Westminster Street from the Rhode Island Postcard Collection, Providence Public Library.

Downtown Providence’s core purpose has shifted greatly over the years. In its early incarnations, downtown was the center of business-to-business commerce with the shipping of goods moving through the ports and out to all four points of the compass. As the working middle class grew, downtown and its proximity to water-based shipping lanes became less important. Shipping via rail and truck became cheaper and faster. Railroads dominated the landscape starting in 1845 and continued to dominate until the removal of train tracks around Union Station in the 1980s.

While shipping shifted the landscape, the needs of a growing middle class turned Downtown Providence into a financial center with a strong retail-based street front economy.

#The Early rise of Retail in Downtown

Wholesale fruit, vegetable, and hardware sales had been well established along the waterfront on Canal Street since the early 1800s. West of Canal Street, the first indoor shopping mall had been constructed in 1828 spanning Westminster to Weybossett Streets. The Arcade was a center of pre-department store retail, designed as a single roof over multiple small establishments.

Rooftop view of carts for an open air market along the Providence River with buildings in the background, 1927. Providence Public Library Digital Collection.

Commercial and retail grew westward as the city grew. By the 1880s, the area between Dorrance and what is now Empire Street was a retail center. The department store represented a new economy of scale, replacing what would have been many small specialty shops with one larger center featuring a wide variety of goods. By 1900, Providence had three such department stores.

The first, Callendar, McAuslan & Troup’s “Boston Store” (1866) opened and quickly expanded to fill most of the block by 1892. The Shepard Company was founded in 1880 and achieved great popularity as well, expanding to fill the entire block of Westminster, Clemence, Washington, and Union Streets.

A women’s wear store, Gladdings, moved into the Burrill Building in 1891. During the same year, the Outlet Company opened on Weybossett Street and also rapidly expanded to occupy the entire block. The success of these full-service giants cemented downtown’s role as a retail center. Furniture, housewares, clothing, books, cosmetics, and more could be purchased in any of these locations.

Downtown grew in density, with many former residential buildings razed and replaced with mixed-use commercial buildings as investment properties. The Burgess and O’Gorman Buildings (1870) and the Alice Building (1898) were two such structures built along bustling Westminster Street. A well-known ground-floor tenant anchored the building, with smaller office and retail spaces above.

Westminster Street looking west, Callendar, McAuslan, & Troup on the left foreground. Rhode Island Postcard Collection, Providence Public Library.

#A Hub of Retail and Transportation

Downtown would not have been bustling as a retail center if it were not for the transportation system. Initially focused on railroad travel, the old Union Station suffered a fire in 1896 just as discussions for how to improve the railroad system were finalizing. A new Union Station was completed in 1898 along with the new State House and landscaping of the open spaces of Exchange Place and City Hall Park, now Kennedy Plaza.

By 1909, the East Side Train Tunnel connected downtown Providence with points east over the Seekonk River via the Crook Point Bascule Bridge and into East Providence. Extended streetcar lines also linked outlying suburbs with the downtown. Exchange Place became the center of this important transportation hub, just east of the retail core.

Retail was only one activity that a visitor could partake. Hotels, theaters, movie houses, performing arts centers, and restaurants filled the area and lured visitors to stay longer and spend money. While downtown construction greatly slowed after the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the second World War, it survived and grew again in the 1950s. Streetcars gave way to a system of buses, bringing more and more visitors downtown.

We say “visitors” even though these folks were likely all local to Rhode Island and the residential neighborhoods of Providence. Visitors in this case emphasizes how very few people lived downtown. Most residential areas of downtown had been razed for larger commercial buildings or the reconfiguration of streets. Around 1910, the widening of Empire Street destroyed one of Providence’s Chinatowns. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the newly proposed interstate highway system was used as a blunt instrument to raze immigrant and African-American neighborhoods on the outskirts of Downtown in the name of progress.

#Mid-twentieth century Urban Renewal: Downtown Providence 1970

An aerial rendering of Downtown Providence as envisioned in 1961. Notice how the beaux-arts City Hall and Union Station are not present, and also notice all the parking in the foreground

By the 1950s Providence was ready to reinvent itself and produced the “Downtown Providence 1970” report. An ambitious set of future development guidelines called for rebuilding the central business district and proposed razing City Hall (1878) and Union Station (1898) in favor of modern, concrete buildings. The inclusion of a helicopter landing pad shows how fashionable and trendy ideas crept into urban planning.

Luckily, the exuberant plans of city officials were stymied by economic factors. Only a few “modern” buildings were created as part of these plans. One was the Bonanza Bus Station (1963) and another was the Providence Civic Center (1972), both featuring fashionable brutalist elements.1

#The Westminster Mall

1966 postcard of the Westminster Mall.

One of the ideas proposed and actualized in the Downtown 1970 report turned Westminster Street into a pedestrian mall, limiting vehicular traffic through the area. It was not a new idea, however — it was first proposed as early as 1907. The Westminster Mall, as it was known, opened in 1964. Little did planners know that three years later the first suburban competition would open — Midland (now Rhode Island) Mall, and three more years later, in 1970, Warwick Mall.2

Landscaped with benches and plantings, it attempted to bring the encroaching suburban shopping mall phenomenon to the downtown area, which was suffering from attrition. Despite the effort, the lack of additional amenities did not attract more shoppers. Business were happy for the first few years, but public perception of downtown generally continued to decline.

The automobile era was in full swing, which meant dense traffic and an increased desire for easy parking options. Many did not want to venture into downtown traffic to shop, and therefore frequented the newer suburban shopping centers instead.

While an emphasis on parking is a very car-centric way to think, there was no doubt that the public put a premium on the convenience of parking. And they were feeling a lack. A 1982 Providence Journal article calculated there were 2,070 spaces in 1945 compared to 838 in 19773 within the bounds of Downtown.

#Downtown’s Decline

The Downtown declined during the 1970s and into the 1980s. Retail establishments began to close. Shepard’s, Providence’s most prestigious department store and one of the largest in New England, closed in 1974. The once-bustling Outlet Company closed its doors in 1982 and the building suffered a major fire in 1986 prior to its renovation as residential apartments. Peerless also closed in the mid 1980s, and downtown generally started to feel very empty.

Old gems like the former Loew’s State Theatre, now the Providence Performing Arts Center, and new buildings like the Civic Center attracted national touring entertainment, but any visitors that came didn’t stay as long as businesses wanted.

Westminster Mall in 1970 — empty enough to have a game of frisbee. Chester E. Smolski photographic slides and publications, Special Collections, James P. Adams Library, Rhode Island College.

The Westminster Mall suffered as department stores closed. By 1980, 15 years after it opened, crime on the mall was rising while residents and businesses complained about the lack of maintenance and cleanliness of the nooks and crannies around park benches and plantings. In an article from 1983, “[t]he manager of one store said his place was broken into last November, in February, March and again in mid-May. ‘I don’t think there’s a business on the mall, or near the mall, that hasn’t been hit in the last six months’”4

Civic groups starting to consider the future of the mall and investigated how much money would be needed to open it back to traffic as early as 1983.5 It finally was renovated and converted back to vehicular traffic by 1989,6 almost 25 years after it was created.

Smaller business suffered after larger department stores left downtown. In 1992 Casual Corner, which had a store downtown for 35 years, closed citing “declining sales and a decision by the parent company to shift merchandising to the suburbs.” A Burger King at Fountain and Empire Street also closed — it must have been pretty bad if fast food couldn’t survive.7

By 1993, Woolworth’s on Westminster Street also closed, the last remaining major retailer in downtown Providence.8 While the big retailers were fleeing the Downtown core, there were plans to reshape expectations for what a Downtown was supposed to be used for. And plans to reshape the city to expose the waterfront that was currently underfoot.

#A Rebirth and Renaissance

As early as 1981, a rag-tag group of artists and architects gathered at the Blue Point Oyster House on North Main Street. They were William Warner, landscape architect and urban planner; Peggy Warner, a RISD teacher; Irving Haynes, painter and architect; and Friedrich St. Florian, Providence architect. The wine was flowing and they generally were complaining to each other about the direction of City planning efforts. Instead of thinking small, they discussed the ideal — what would a reclamation of the City as a walkable, interesting and exciting urban center look like?

Why had the City turned its back to the two rivers that converge near its center? People love the water. Why is it covered up? Initial ideas were bounced around at the table, literally drawing on napkins, and that is where the idea for Waterplace Park was born. In truth, it was not a new idea, but this group had the connections to catalyze the vision.9

They caught the ear of mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci and others in City planning, and the idea picked up momentum. This was one of the biggest catalyst of change and renewed development interest in the city, and it “only” took $1.5 billion in state, federal, and private money to make it happen.

Interestingly, Blue Point would be demolished because of the increased attraction in the mill next door after work on Capital Center was nearing completion. Pilgrim Mills was turned into residential condos around 1998, and the restaurant that bore the idea for Waterplace park and Capital Center suffered the consequences.

#The Renaissance Reverberates and a new Mall Idea Grows

1982 aerial “before” of the Capital Center project area. Photo by William Barrett, 1982-83, Library of Congress.

While Downtown was declining, Capital Center was gaining momentum. The project started by moving the train tracks behind Union Station and won approval in 1982 with a $126 million investment. The parking lots between Union Station and the State House would be prepared for developers.10 Amtrack would construct a new station at the foot of the State House by 1986. Eventually the project would include a new Convention Center and the Westin Hotel (phase 1, 1993).

Meanwhile, famed urbanist Andres Duany was talking about and proposing that redevelopment get small — block by block, floor by floor, one building at a time. And he was stressing historically sensitive urban redevelopment, not raze it all and build anew. His vision very much informed what Buff Chase and Cornish would start to do in the late 90s and early 2000s. And a portion of his approach may have influenced the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) as well.11

The genesis of the Providence Place Mall started as early as 1987 under Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. The proposal was originally $300M and included three department stores, two office buildings and a luxury hotel. It was also supposed to be complete and open by 1991.12

#Providence Place leads a Retail Renaissance

Malls were a suburban phenomenon, for the most part. Urban malls worked when they drew very big brand names — unique names that were not common in the area. An example of this is the Bloomingdale’s in Newtown, MA. After changes in the developer line-up for the Mall, and some issues obtaining land from Amtrack, the project was stalled but not dead by 1993. Mayor Cianci kept hope alive and focused on obtaining those big, brand names in an editorial, saying “Macy‘s is a secured tenant, and the Governor [Bruce Sundlun] and I will be flying to Seattle next month to seek Nordstrom’s as the second anchor.”13

Despite some enthusiasm, there was pushback on the mall plan among concerned citizens who didn’t like the creative financing and the city’s financial stake in its success. Taxes were deferred for as number of years and the direct benefit to the city was greatly reduced in favor of the butterfly effects of such a development. Taxpayers were rightly alarmed at how the mall was financed.14

Others thought that building a new mall in the 1990s was like creating a Zoo around the last dinosaur. Malls were not fashionable anymore, and creating a car-centric structure was not going to be good for Downtown or the City in the long-term. They may be proven right 25 years later. But at the time, the construction of a new Mall at the foot of the State House with high-end brand-name retailers represented the success of Providence’s larger Renaissance.

The final mall plan won approval from the City Council in 1996. The project now had a $360 million budget. The design team was Providence architect Friedrich St. Florian and ADD Inc. of Boston. The design concept was to represent a small city of its own, built up as different buildings over time that were eventually joined together, in contrast to most malls which were monolithic boxes that faced inward more than outward.15

The mall opened in 1999 and cost a total $460 million — $100M over budget. It was close to one of the most expensive projects in the state, third only to two electric-generating facilities.16

#Construction becomes an Archeological Excavation

Circa 1997 aerial view of the construction site. Uncredited source on Pinterest.

While excavating for the foundation of the mall, PAL (the Public Archeology Lab) found the remains of the former Rhode Island State Prison. The entire footprint of the prison, including the foundations of the solitary confinement cells, the warden’s house and prison workshop could be seen. The site was heavily documented and the public was even invited to visit the site before construction eventually continued.17

The prison operated from 1837 until the Adult Correctional Institutions were built in Cranston in 1877. It housed about 250 inmates, including the last prisoner to be executed in Rhode Island. It was demolished in 1894. For a short time, there were tours of the site that construction unearthed, and artifacts were photographed and collected.18 Construction eventually resumed and the mall was complete and open to visitors by 1999. Macy’s did not originally open in the mall as planned, but later replaced Filene’s by 2006.19

#Retail Consolidation leaves Downtown to Find its Purpose

Large-scale national brand retail officially moved out of Downtown and into the new Mall. This was somewhat inevitable as retail had been moving from stand-alone stores in urban locations like Downtown to suburban malls and strip-malls like Route 2 in Warwick and Route 1 in Attleboro, MA, during the 70s and 80s.

While the mall was under construction on the other side of Kennedy Plaza and Union Station, Downtown underwent its own rebirth. Led by the ideas of Andres Duany early in the 1990s, local developers applied his “block by block, one building at a time” development approach. Small-scale redevelopment of these wonderful former retail buildings was a more sustainable and attractive solution, as opposed to demolition and rebuilding like previous failed Urban Renewal plans.

The slow-moving civic investment in Capital Center and Waterplace Park sparked investment in downtown’s own rebirth. Cornish Associates were the developers that led the charge, reshaping much of the area between Washington to the north, Dorrance to the west, Weybosset to the south, and Clemence Street to the east, with Westminster Street running through the center:

  • 1992–1994: Johnson & Wales’ new downtown campus on Weybosset Street was built upon the site of the former Outlet Company
  • 1994–1995: The Shepard Building was converted to the Providence campus of the University of Rhode Island, which had to relocate because of the construction of the mall20
  • 1997–1999: The Smith Building at 1 Fulton Street, converted to residential with ground floor commercial by Cornish Associates
  • 1997–2002: The Alice Building, converted to residential with ground floor commercial by Cornish Associates
  • 1998–2004: The Fletcher Building, converted to graduate studios by RISD
  • 2000–2003: The John Mason building, next door to Fletcher, converted to studio, classroom, and exhibition space by RISD
  • 2002–2004: The Burgess & O’Gorman buildings, converted to residential with ground floor commercial by Cornish Associates
  • 2003–2004: The Wilkinson Building, converted to residential with ground floor commercial by Cornish Associates
  • 2003–2005: The Old Stone Bank on Empire Street, converted to a black box theatre as a joint project between Brown University and Trinity Repertory
  • 2003–2005: The Hotel Providence in the former Lederer Building & Blackstone Hotel, converted by Stanley Weiss
  • 2004–2005: The Palmer Block, former mixed use commercial converted to luxury apartments with ground floor retail
  • 2004–2006: The former Peerless Department Store building, converted to residential with ground floor commercial by Cornish Associates
  • 2005–2007: The former Hotel Dreyfus, once owned by Johnson & Wales, taken over by AS220 as artist lofts, gallery exhibition space, and ground-floor restaurant

As these projects suggest, in about a decade, Downtown Providence was converted to a successful residential-dominant neighborhood. Many more projects that came before these contributed to its success as well, but this critical mass of new residences tipped the scales. Ground-floor retail and offices continued to make downtown walkable and livable, but it was no longer the home to national brand retail.

#So, Did the Mall work?

In some ways, yes, the Mall worked. It opened late and cost too much, but it attracted developers like flies to sugar water. When they saw the City’s investment, they wanted a piece of the action. Since the buzz of the mall started in the late 80s, you could attribute development around Capital Center to its success earlier than we have.

The following projects were directly or indirectly a result of the investment in Capital Center, Waterplace Park, and the Mall in the decade after the mall opened. We limited this list to the area directly within or around Capital Center:

These were private construction projects, but many only went forward because of in-state and local incentives like tax abatements and historic tax credits.

#Malls Experience Record Profits even as Demand Shifts

During the summer of June, 2007, conglomerates that own malls across the country posted record profits. Properties were experiencing large volumes of shoppers and transactions as the post-9/11 downturn turned up amid a recovering stock market and strong jobs market. And as the previous list of real estate investments suggest, the mid-2000s were a boom time in other sectors as well.21

Demand for new malls, however, slowed to a crawl. Even the mall-owner conglomerates were diversifying their portfolios by creating and investing in “Lifestyle Centers,” a concept that gained prominence in 2005 but were being discussed as a concept as early as 2002.22

Richard Askin, of the Cambridge, Mass. architecture firm ADD Inc, laid out the national development landscape. “The next generation of retail development is being led by ‘place-making’ projects, where town centers are either created from existing urban cores, or built from scratch.” 23

Ten years after co-designing the Providence Place Mall, ADD Inc. was designing the retail projects that would supplant it.

#What is the Future of the Mall?

Starting in 2022, the owner of Providence Place started asking the City to extend its 20-year tax deal, which would expire in 2028. Warning that “retail trends threaten its business,” citing the growth of e-commerce accelerated by the pandemic, the proposed tax treaty would reward the mall for not going out of business. The mall paid the city $1,006,234 under its existing tax agreement in 2022. Without a new deal, the tax bill could rise up to $25 million per year.24 The City wants the Mall to pay more, but how much more?

The owner discussed ways to keep the mall open and in the black by floating ideas about residential apartments. Much like the previously mentioned mixed-use “Lifestyle Centers” that have been more fashionable and economically viable, the owners are considering building a village in the mall, with residences, support services, medical offices, gyms, and retail.25

Examples of successful lifestyle center concepts include Chapel Hill in Cranston, the former Sockanosset Boys Training School, and The Village at South County Commons, in South Kingstown, designed by ADD Inc.

Meanwhile, retail churn has grabbed headlines. Turnover at a multi-unit indoor mall comes as no surprise. But recently, some of the bigger names in retail have been closing their doors at Providence Place. What does this say about the future of the mall?

The Gap, one of the original tenants who have been open at the mall since 1999, left in 2003. It cited a 2020 announcement that would review all of its over 1000 stores to keep only the most healthy and profitable.26

It seems that after retail moved from Downtown, and Downtown became focused on residential, the thing that might save Providence Place is also residential. The architecture at the mall was inspired by a city skyline, by the ways in which different buildings are built at different times in different styles. Exactly the way Westminster Street looks now.

To think, in an alternative universe, brand-name retail remained downtown, added residential, and Providence Place was never built. What goes around comes back around.

  1. Much of the early history referenced in the sections up to this point have been taken from the National Register nomination form for the Downtown Providence Historic District, prepared by William McKenzie Woodward, Principal Historic Preservation Planner, 1984 

  2. Smolski, Chester. “Westminster Mall: Mauled by suburbia, but what’s next?” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. EDITORIAL, 13 Sept. 1989, pp. A-19. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 19 Feb. 2024. 

  3. “Downtown area loses 850 off-street parking spaces in past 5 years.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY ed., sec. NEWS, 2 Feb. 1982, pp. B-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 18 Feb. 2024. 

  4. “Downtown Providence: crime on the Mall.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. EDITORIAL, 26 May 1983, pp. A-12. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 19 Feb. 2024. 

  5. “Providence to discuss opening Westminster Mall.” Providence Journal (RI), WEST BAY ed., sec. NEWS, 10 Mar. 1983, pp. C-03. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 19 Feb. 2024. 

  6. Smolski, Chester. “Westminster Mall: Mauled by suburbia, but what’s next?” 

  7. CASTELLUCCI, JOHN. “Casual Corner to close downtown Providence store Few retailers remain in center; Burger King also shuts down.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. NEWS, 25 June 1992, pp. A-03. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 18 Feb. 2024. 

  8. KERR, BOB. “At Woolworth, bargain prices are bittersweet *Shoppers are mourning the loss of another variety store in a specialized retail world.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. NEWS, 23 Oct. 1993, pp. A-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 18 Feb. 2024. 

  9. MacKAY, SCOTT. “A napkin, some wine, and imagination led to city’s rebirth.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. News, 13 Apr. 2002, pp. A-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 19 Feb. 2024. 

  10. ROSENBERG, ALAN. “Huge project to shift railroad approved.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY ed., sec. NEWS, 7 Jan. 1982, pp. B-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 19 Feb. 2024. 

  11. SMOLSKI, CHESTER E.. “Bringing it together, downtown.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. EDITORIAL, 21 Nov. 1991, pp. A-16. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  12. GARLAND, RUSSELL. “Capital Center retail project called symbol of R.I. renaissance by DiPrete.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY ed., sec. NEWS, 21 Apr. 1987, pp. C-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  13. CIANCI JR., VINCENT A.. “Mayor Cianci vs. Mr. Brussat.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. EDITORIAL, 14 Oct. 1993, pp. A-17. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  14. NORWALK, ARTHUR D.. “If Providence Place is so great, why is the public stake so high?” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. EDITORIAL, 3 May 1994, pp. A-13. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  15. SICLEN, BILL VAN. “Keep your eye on the mall City doesn’t need another Center Place.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. LIFEBEAT, 11 Jan. 1996, pp. F-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  16. WYSS, BOB. “Providence Place mall - OPENING OF THE MALL - This is not your bargain-basement project.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. Special, 15 Aug. 1999, pp. M-10. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 21 Jan. 2022. 

  17. CASTELLUCCI, JOHN. “Preservationist finds fault with plan for Providence Place mall (SEE CORRECTION ABOVE).” Providence Journal (RI), CITY FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 14 Oct. 1988, pp. C-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Jan. 2022. 

  18. “Mall developers offer tours of state’s first prison site.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. NEWS, 30 May 1997, pp. A-12. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024. 

  19. “Providence Place.” Wikipedia, Accessed 24 Feb. 2024. 

  20. “Shepard’s, also known as University of Rhode Island College of Continuing Education.” Guide to Providence Architecture, Providence Preservation Society. Accessed 24 Feb. 2024. 

  21. Grimaldi, Paul. “IMPACT 50: SPECIAL REPORT - RETAIL - No stopping shoppers - Most of the nation’s malls, including those in this region, are in the midst of profitable times.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. Business, 1 June 2007, pp. F-01. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 21 Jan. 2022. 

  22. Grimaldi, Paul. “Shopping for a new look - Lifestyle centers are replacing enclosed malls.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. Business, 29 Apr. 2007, pp. F-10. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 21 Jan. 2022. 

  23. Ibid 

  24. Anderson, Patrick. “Providence Place owners seek tax break to ‘reinvent’ mall.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 8 Oct. 2022, p. A8. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 24 Feb. 2024. 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. Landeck, Katie. “One of Providence Place’s original stores closing.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 1 Apr. 2023, p. A5. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 24 Feb. 2024.