After opponents staved off the demolition of Eagle Square, Feldco Development
is back with a new plan. Will Providence make the most of this opportunity?
by Ian Donnis
True story: After visiting Providence in May, Carl W. "Bill" Struever, a 1974
graduate of Brown University who epitomizes the phrase "enlightened developer,"
learned about the plight of Eagle Square, the cluster of historic mills that
came perilously close last year to being replaced by a suburban-style strip
mall. Intrigued by the possibilities, Struever walked the blocks around Eagle
Square into the early morning before capping the outing with a meal at one of
his favorite old haunts, the Silver Top Diner.
The storybook ending for this scenario isn't hard to imagine: Struever, who
has won numerous accolades for his community-minded approach to historic
preservation in Baltimore, offers a bold plan to sustain and invigorate Eagle
Square with a creative mix of retail and residential uses, including affordable
live-work spaces for artists. The ensuing development offers something for
everyone -- even a supermarket for longtime residents -- and helps to jumpstart
the Promenade District's evolution as a thriving arts district.
Well, so much for such hopeful thinking. Although Struever (pronounced
"Streever") is offering advice about Eagle Square to the office of Mayor
Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, the City of Providence is ready to cast its lot with
Feldco Development of Long Island, New York -- the same company that last year
wanted to raze Eagle Square's distinctive mill buildings in favor of a generic
shopping strip. And after months of back-and-forth, Feldco is expected to
present what's billed as a significantly revised plan to City Hall on or about
Tuesday, August 7.
There's certainly reason to be skeptical about Feldco. During meetings of the
Providence Plan Commission last November and December, company officials did
everything they could to demonize the mill buildings of Eagle Square as
derelict structures and impediments to economic development. Preserving any of
the buildings was not financially feasible, they said, because of floodplain
and environmental issues. In fact, it was difficult not to imagine a better,
more sustainable use for Eagle Square than a generic strip mall, and it was
steady opposition by a coalition of artists, preservationists, and neighborhood
residents that finally led Cianci to sit up, take notice, and demand changes.
Although officials declined to discuss the revised proposal in advance, it
appears that the number of Eagle Square structures that would be preserved has
increased to at least four. "I do think with the significant changes on the
Feldco project, we will see enough changes to go forward with the Feldco
proposal," says Patricia McLaughlin, Cianci's director of administration.
Feldco spokesman Gene Beaudoin calls the revision a work in progress -- "a
major modification to the proposal that's on the table" -- but he wouldn't
Cianci and McLaughlin deserve credit for having played some appropriate
hardball with Feldco, but their devotion to the developer stems directly from
the cold calculation of economics. Even though some observers were convinced
that Struever was backing a competing development proposal (untrue, according
to Struever), Feldco has maintained control of the options to buy the property
needed to develop Eagle Square. As put by Deming E. Sherman, a lawyer with
Edwards & Angell, who has lent pro bono assistance to advocates of mill
preservation, "Struever doesn't have any options. His plan may be wonderful,
but without the right to purchase the properties, it's meaningless."
This doesn't mean, however, that the city is powerless when it comes to the
future of a strategic chunk of land laden with historically significant
buildings and incredible potential. On the contrary, it was the misguided
notion of putting a cookie-cutter development on this site -- a violation, as
critics argued, of the city's comprehensive plan -- that triggered such
passionate resistance. It seems remarkable that Cianci, whose popularity is
closely tied to the reinvention of Providence as an urban mecca, once seemed
relatively untroubled by Feldco's original plan. And although officials may
have once approved dubious developments, rather than letting vacant property
languish, the city's bargaining position has improved considerably with the
advent of a state law that makes tax credits available for renovations to
All this said, Feldco's new proposal remains to be seen. Preserving a handful
of mill buildings, in itself, is no guarantee that Eagle Square will be
developed in an intelligent way, or that it will jibe with the envisioned
Promenade District component of Cianci's New Cities plan. As Catherine Horsey,
executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, says, "It's not a
question of how many buildings are preserved, it's a question of whether it's a
good development for that area. We'll continue to oppose any development that
is not compatible with the neighborhood, that doesn't add to the area, or that
looks like suburban development. Even if two buildings were saved, but the rest
looked like a strip mall, I think we'd still be unable to support that."
Small wonder then that artist Barnaby Evans, whose WaterFire
installation has become an iconic signature for the city, was among those who
felt compelled to share his feelings with Cianci. In a July 18 letter to the
mayor, a copy of which was obtained by the Phoenix, Evans stressed the
importance of the larger context of Eagle Square and the possibilities it
represents: "My point is that we will never be able to afford to build
buildings like these again. Saving one or two isolated buildings leaves you
only with an isolated, mediocre mill building . . . Two or three converted mill
buildings spread amongst a low-end suburban mall simply won't work for anyone.
A suburban shopping mall destroys any possibility of creating what could be a
very exciting historical renovation that would celebrate the buildings, the
river, and the arts."
Like some observers, Evans is encouraged by indications that Feldco is
increasing the number of preserved buildings in its latest plan. But others are
concerned that the city is bringing the process to a premature close.
The doubters would say Eagle Square is too closely tied to low-to-moderate
income neighborhoods like Olneyville and the Valley to support something more
daring and imaginative. But the same people would have scoffed at the kind of
positive changes that have put Providence on the national map. And if the
doubters won the debate last year, one of the most unique parts of Providence
could have already been turned to dust.
AS AN UNDERGRAD at Brown, Bill Struever unloaded freight cars at the former
produce terminal a few blocks from Eagle Square. Blueberry muffins at the
Silver Top were his snack of choice after getting off a 2 to 8 a.m. shift, and
in a July 31 telephone interview from Barcelona, Spain, where he's vacationing
with his family, Struever was pleased to report that the quality of the diner's
muffins hasn't slipped a bit in the 27 years since he graduated from Brown.
In May, Struever was back in Providence to visit his daughter, Sara, a senior
at RISD, who's taking a studio space at Monohasset Mill on Kinsley Avenue,
which, with city assistance, is being redeveloped with a mix of market-rate
condos and affordable live-work spaces for artists. He also visited his old
landlord, property mogul Harry Bilodeau, who was a graduate student at Brown
when Struever was an undergrad majoring in anthropology. Bilodeau says he
handed Struever a copy of the Phoenix with an update on Eagle Square,
and encouraged his old acquaintance to check out what was happening in the
A lot of well-informed people in Providence were convinced well into this week
that Struever was pursuing a proposal to preserve the mills of Eagle Square
with a range of residential and commercial uses geared to different income
levels. Indeed, McLaughlin, Cianci's director of administration, suggests that
preliminary talks were held. "We've talked at length with Mr. Struever about
the type of proposal he'd have for Eagle Square," she says. "Quite frankly, if
the Feldco project doesn't come back next week at the level of expectation, of
course, we'll talk with Mr. Struever. [But] I think you're going to see a
significantly better [Feldco] proposal."
Struever, however, says his role has been limited to an informal advisory
capacity, although he didn't rule out the possibility of pursuing a project in
Providence. "Feldco has site control of the properties," he says. "It's really
his opportunity at this point to make a proposal to the planning commission and
seek city approval for development of the site. We're simply in an unpaid
advisory role with the city. We do think the mayor's Promenade District concept
is terrific." Cianci's plan calls for remaking the old industrial area between
the Providence Place Mall and Olneyville with a mix of retail, residential, and
It's hardly surprising that Struever strikes many observers as a more
appealing partner for Eagle Square than Feldco, which is in the business of
developing shopping malls. The CEO of Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse,
Struever -- who was named Marylander of the year for 2000 by the Baltimore
Sun -- has a reputation as a dedicated volunteer and civic-minded developer
who would rather preserve historic buildings and put them to a new use, despite
the increased cost, rather than demolishing them. He's credited with helping to
bring high-tech jobs to Baltimore's old industrial waterfront, and his firm is
known for hiring local residents for construction projects.
When it comes to Eagle Square, "We have to judge the project on its merits
more than anything," says Raphael Lyon, an artist and freelance textbook
editor, who helped to rally opposition last year to Feldco's demolition plan.
"Will it help the long-term stability, the long-term viability of Olneyville,
or will it hurt it? . . . Nothing Feldman's done leads me to believe he's
interested in those issues, where Bill's track record leads me to believe those
are very important issues to him."
Lyon makes a pretty reasonable argument: "My feeling, considering the
importance of the area, the importance of Olneyville, we have to give him
[Struever] every possible chance to present a proposal . . . [But] I think
they're [the city] interested in having this be concluded quickly, and I really
don't see any reason for that."
The preservation society's Horsey notes how a huge constituency emerged to
advocate for a better future for Eagle Square. "I think the city would be
foolish to fly in the face of a development, done by out of state folks, who
don't necessarily have well-being of the city as their best or highest
interest," she says.
This possibility of being overrun helps to explain a recent guerrilla sticker
and graffiti campaign on the streets of Providence. Most notably, a Citizens
Bank billboard overlooking Interstate 195, with the motto, "Lip service," was
juxtaposed for a day with the message, "Save Eagle Square."
HOW'S THIS for irony: even though the fight over Eagle Square served as an
important wake-up call in highlighting the threat to local mills and the
shrinking amount of affordable work space for artists (see "Dig the new breed,"
News, December 14, 2000), the mills of Eagle Square aren't included on the
lengthy list of properties that Providence officials have targeted for
preservation. This gets back, of course, to how it's Feldco who has the options
to develop the property.
If things move quickly, Feldco's revised plan could conceivably go later this
month before the Providence Plan Commission. Last year, it was only the
principled stand of commission member Bryan Principe, who extended debate and
cast a decisive tie vote on the proposal, which blocked Feldco from exercising
its property options and going forward with demolition. In the interim, Feldco
has tried other stratagems, such appealing the question of jurisdiction to
Superior Court, and then the state Supreme Court, before being rejected at each
In many ways, the grassroots support for Eagle Square has represented a
vibrant form of democratic expression. "I think the heightened attention is
very good," says Sherman, the lawyer for the supporters of preserving Eagle
Square. "The fact that we have a public debate going on is very good. A year
ago, people didn't know where Eagle Square was or what it was." The debate has
also prompted greater oversight, Sherman says, of other development proposals,
albeit sometimes at a late stage in the game.
Asked about those who view Feldco warily because of the company's previous
plan to raze Eagle Square, Beaudoin says the firm targeted demolition only
after being told by Providence planning and economic officials that the site
didn't include any historic structures.
This may have been technically correct, even though most of the seven or so
mill buildings in Eagle Square are more than 150 years old and eligible for
historic designation, since such a designation wasn't in place at the time. But
anyone who made the effort to examine the location, which straddles the
Woonasquatucket River -- one of 14 federally designated American Heritage
Rivers -- would grasp the potential for something much more appealing than just
another shopping strip. This is especially true in Providence, which enjoys a
reputation for supporting the arts and architectural preservation, not to
mention outside-the-box thinking, such as uncovering the Providence River.
To be fair, the city has done a good job of stepping up to the plate since the
growing threat to mill properties became evident last fall. In May, Cianci
unveiled a mill preservation program that includes enhanced protections,
incentives to foster reuse, and an ordinance that's slated to be discussed in
greater detail later this month. The city also came forward to support the
remaking of Monohasset Mill on Kinsley Avenue with a mix of market-rate condos
and affordable live-work spaces for artists -- a project that could well become
an arts incubator for the nearby Promenade District.
"The next development is really going to set the tone for what gets done up
here," says Erik Bright, a ceramicist who helped to launch Monohasset Mill. "If
we have a strip mall in the area, you're going to have a whole different kind
The important thing, of course, is that Providence doesn't have to accept the
lowest common denominator, particularly when it comes to Eagle Square. If
anyone should know this, it's Buddy Cianci, who preached the gospel of mill
preservation when he spoke during the festive dedication of Monohasset Mill.
Renovating historic buildings is typically more costly than building new ones,
but the benefits are much greater, as Bill Struever knows. "They can be
enormous generators of revitalization in the neighborhoods around the
buildings," he says, as well as anchors for new neighborhoods. "The opportunity
for a win-win for the existing community and the city at large is a real
Indeed, the promise of Promenade District -- visible from the apex of the
Providence Place Mall -- "makes you realize this is going to challenge the East
Side," says one observer. "When those things are in place, [if New Cities goes
according to plan] Promenade is going to be one of the coolest addresses in
this whole city."
If there's a poetic quality to Bill Struever's late-night survey of Eagle
Square in May, the same is true of how the National Trust for Historic
Preservation will be holding its annual conference in Providence from October
16-21. The theme, "Preserving the Spirit of Place," couldn't be more fitting.
This topic was inspired by a speech given by former Senator John Chafee, prior
to his death in 1999, when he invoked the words of D.H. Lawrence: "Different
places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different
vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different
stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality."
As if it wasn't already abundantly clear, opportunity is knocking in Eagle
Square. The question remains, will Providence make the most of it?
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.