James Fallows has written “Nice Downtowns: How Did They Get that Way?” for the Atlantic, about how active city downtowns arise not naturally or organically but are planned. He takes the example of Seattle, which was a hollowed-out reject 50 years ago, and when the movie houses became the last major downtown institutions to evacuate to the suburbs, there was truly no reason to be there, especially in the evening.
He quotes this letter from a Seattle reader:
It took a long time, but for nearly 50 years this effort has carried on, successfully I think, but hardly anyone recalls that the origins of the effort were very deliberate and came about when the nighttime downtown was the precise opposite of what it is today, and few people probably think of it as involving a conscious goal then or now. They just think “that’s the way Seattle is.” But Seattle wasn’t.
Seattle’s leaders saw the decline and reacted, much as the leaders of Providence did in the late ’70s when they confronted the same “you could roll a bowling ball” effect of suburban flight here. In Seattle and in Providence the winning strategy was to turn downtown into a residential neighborhood, with benefits. In Providence, the planning process for that took several wrong turns, but the result is that today the urge to live downtown continues to generate new residential projects.
Providence’s old commercial district at first sought to bring back retail, but Providence Place mall stole that plan’s thunder (which may not have worked anyway), and the city shifted its plan to residential, with Arnold “Buff” Chace doing most of the heavy lifting, with help from the New Urbanist firm of DPZ, led by his friend Andrés Duany, who did a historic overlay plan for the old downtown that emphasized preservation, ground-floor retail, art, entertainment (not excluding nightclubs, which needed to be – and eventually were – civilized) and, of course, residential. The result is for all to see – an animated downtown, attracting more and more new shops and restaurants, but with more work to be done.
Here is a list of the latest apartment projects, with possible number of units:
- Union Trust Bank, 60 units.
- Lapham Building, 50 units.
- Kinsley Building, 44 units.
- 32 Custom House St., 10 units.
- Merchants Bank, 8 units.
- George C. Arnold Building, 3 units.
That’s 175 units in all. Vince Geoffroy, developer of the 56 Providence G apartments completed in 2014, just purchased the Union Trust. The G opened at about the same time as the 48 micro-lofts of the Providence Arcade renovation.
They join Chace’s pathbreaking 200 units in six downtown rehabs (I lived in the first, the Smith, in 1999-2010, the first five years blissfully carless). Since their completion, they have spawned many others – the 12-unit Cosmopolitan, the 20-unit Strand Lofts, the two artist cooperatives developed by AS220, the Dreyfuss and the Mercantile on Washington Street from its headquarters on Empire Street, with 14, 22 and 12 artist live/work units respectively. These all have joined two Capital Center residential towers, the Westin (“The Residences”) and the Waterplace Luxury Condos, with 100 and 193 units respectively, and the earlier Avalon at Center Place with 225 units. That’s 902 units since work began on Capital Center in the late ’80s, housing some 1,500 people at an average of 1.5 per unit.
And of all these joined the longstanding Beneficent House, with 180 affordable units for the elderly, and the Regency Plaza complexes, with 444 units in three towers. And let’s not forget the charming Conrad, on Westminster, rehabbed in the 1980s with 16 units. That was all that was available prior to the mid-1980s – 640 units with, let’s say, 1,200 people.
I’m sure I’ve left something out. Please let me know of you think of someplace that has eluded me. I am not counting anything on the other side of Route 95 or the Providence River, or in the Jewelry District, although folks living there are close enough to behave as if they lived downtown.
I leave out the vacant Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Bank and two prospective apartment complexes mentioned as possible by Chace in the parking lots across Fountain Street from the Journal Building, which he recently purchased. The Superman Building’s owner has displayed an attitude that is unlikely to help persuade the public to the provide subsidies he seeks if he is to develop some 248 units in that civic treasure of a building. Chace’s two prospective buildings are just that – still in the dream stage.
The focus here is on adding residential to downtown, as Seattle has, but it would be folly to neglect the influence, since the 1990, of six new hotels and the addition of retail (including Providence Place and along Westminster), the extraordinary expansion of the restaurant scene, which has proved remarkably sturdy through the economic cycles, the bar scene and night life, and the renovation of the already robust set of entertainment venues – plus new programming in public spaces such as WaterFire along the new waterfront.
Unlike Seattle, with its giant high-tech avionic, computer and coffee industries, Providence has managed to expand even as its major commercial and industrial base has continued to contract or to leave the city (and state) victimized by a business climate that has been for decades and remains among the worst in the nation. With its beautiful setting, historic character, fine colleges and location between Boston and New York, the quality of life in Providence is high. Turn around its business climate and the possibilities are endless.
What we do not need is yet another expensive quest for the perfect tourism slogan!