Dig the new breed
Providence got a wake-up call when opponents sounded off against a proposal to
turn Eagle Square into a strip mall. A look at the rhetoric and reality of
nurturing the arts
by Ian Donnis
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.
As it turns out, Van Daam plans to spend the next year in Holland to retain
her status as a dual US-Dutch national. But when she and other displaced Silver
Spring residents started looking for new studios, they found that Providence --
which continues to win national plaudits as a haven for artists -- has a
paucity of work spaces that are appealing and affordable. The shortage is so
severe, says Van Daam, that if she stayed in the area, she'd look for a work
studio "out in the country."
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. An out-of-town
businessman, who was on the scene to salvage some 50 trailers of the rare pine,
appreciates craftsmanship and design, but he has an unsentimental view when it
comes to preserving old mill buildings: "You can't save 'em all," he says. If
preservationists are worried about endangered structures, the businessman says,
they should whip out their checkbooks.
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.
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 (see
"Turning point," News, August 31), 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 an 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."
Unrealistic dreaming? Maybe. But if you told people 15 years ago that
Providence would become nationally known as a Renaissance City, largely by
uncovering the Providence River and drawing crowds with WaterFire, a
signature installation of pyres periodically placed in the river and
accompanied by moody music, they would have thought you were nuts.
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.
For many people, the mill buildings are a vital part of the city's fabric and
loaded with a sense of possibility. Raymond R. Perrault, whose family thought
he was crazy when he moved 16 years ago from Burrillville to a home on Knight
Street, for example, relishes the sense of character and individuality that the
mills lend to the neighborhood. "I bought my house because I wanted to live in
an urban environment," says Perrault. "If we lose that [distinct sense of
place], we are not going to be able to resurrect that."
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 nonprofit arts space on Empire
The situation is all too familiar to Erminio Pinque, founder of the
internationally acclaimed Big Nazo puppets, who knows downtown Westminster
Street could be a populated and interesting place, hastening the inevitable
gentrification, if property owners offered low-cost space to artists. But the
cost of redeveloping old properties essentially precludes renting rough lofts
at an affordable price, so the evolution of Downcity continues to move at a
glacial pace. For his part, Pinque is being forced to look for a new home for
Big Nazo, because, after 14 years, the nonprofit Providence Performing Arts
Center plans to convert a fourth-floor office space into a reception area and
Providence has made a name for itself as a city where the arts are celebrated,
but Pinque likens the city's creative scene to a fragile ecosystem in which the
reduced presence, say, of a certain kind of algae could have unforeseen and
harmful consequences. "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. Just like with the algae, you notice with time, you don't get
a certain kind of fish here."
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. "We have an obligation to respond quickly."
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. Still, Weiss says,
"We do not have as much live-work space as I would like to see. I'm reaching
out to the property owners' community to say, `Hey, this is a niche. This is
something you should check out, because there's a great demand.' "
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
Considering the inherent difficulties in reinvigorating old buildings, city
and state government officials should take steps to make the process easier.
The General Assembly passed a bill last year, based on a model in New Jersey,
which is meant to make it less costly to rehabilitate old buildings by creating
a separate building code. Palmieri says the city officials will review relevant
zoning ordinances, consider tax incentives, and look at providing space and
financial assistance if artists are displaced by development in Eagle Square.
Meanwhile, the fate of the proposed strip mall remains uncertain. Palmieri
dismisses Feldco's attempt to dress the project in a transparently false New
Urbanist wrapping, but, like other proponents, he says it would fill shopping
needs in the area while generating jobs and new tax revenue. "I think his
design is, for the most part, compatible, with development goals that have been
established by the city," Palmieri says. In weighing the value of the historic
properties that might be restored, "it doesn't counter-balance the development
proposal. I think, overall, this would be a very positive project for the
Valley neighborhood." And while critics question the value of the kind of
low-wage jobs that would be created by the project, Palmieri says, "Any job is
important in this community. The service sector should not be denigrated."
Perhaps most significantly, there are no real obstacles to the demolition of
the seven mill buildings, Palmieri says, 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.
In the realm of financing shopping plazas, in which bank lending is typically
based on a developer's success in pre-leasing a large percentage of retail
space to national chains, the whole scheme might fall apart if the commission
puts even some modest constraints on Feldco's plan. And critics of the Feldco
proposal are rushing to assemble an alternate plan that incorporates
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'S secret apocalyptic vision for Providence: all of the
excellent public relations about the Renaissance City leads "a bunch of Ally
McBeals up in Boston," as he puts it, 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.
And Woodward, a freelance theatrical set designer and puppet maker from Maine
who settled in Providence after going to RISD in the early '90s, remains pretty
psyched about the pleasant scale, proximity to New York and Boston, and
interesting denizens of his adopted home.
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. At the same time, he can't help
noticing that a growing number of luxury condos are being built around town at
the same time that the mills, where artists actually work, are coming under the
"It just seems like a strange disconnection between the stated goal [of the
Providence Renaissance] and what's being able to happen," says Woodward, who
has a share in a large work studio on Valley Street, near Eagle Square. "I feel
like so many cities would just kill to have these kinds of buildings, and this
history and the architecture. I feel like these buildings are fundamental to
the history of Providence, and we really are starting to lose them."
Chalk it up to the Renaissance. Even though the police department is in the
midst of something resembling a meltdown, even though Plunder Dome, the federal
probe of municipal corruption, has intensified in recent months and parked a
dark cloud over City Hall, 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."
Deputy City Solicitor Patricia McLaughlin, Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci's
point person on the redevelopment of Downcity, agrees that efforts to ensure
the future of the arts community are overdue, but she disputes the notion that
a shopping plaza in Eagle Square would set a bad precedent for the future of
the city, or that a mass exodus of artists and creative groups is under way.
"Any one project does have not that much influence," she says. "I don't think
you can say that."
It's more important, McLaughlin says, to focus on the long-term. "My concern
for the artists is that they begin to look at projects in areas where they
cannot continue to be displaced," she says. "If we care about maintaining the
arts community, we have to start working on programs that are going to ensure,
if not some ownership in the buildings, at least some legal long-term leases.
We're trying to identify possibilities of how we can assist as a city."
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