[Sidebar] August 2 - 9, 2001

[Features]

Crunch time

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 elaborate.

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 historic properties.

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 area.

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 creative uses.

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 turn.

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 of developer."

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 one."

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 idonnis@phx.com.

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