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Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Reconstructing Providence: Adaptive Reuse, Urban Revitalization, & Neighborhood Change


Written & produced by Robin Amer
Edited by Paul McCarthy & Jim Moses
Original music by Alec K. Redfearn

HOST: If you walk around Providence, you can’t help notice the giant red brick buildings scattered though most of the neighborhoods. With their distinctive smokestacks and eight-foot tall windows, these are the city’s mill buildings - former textile mills or jewelry factories, once the economic engines of the city.

All together, there are nearly two-hundred and fifty old mills in Providence, left over from the city’s days as an industrial powerhouse. But since industry left Providence for points south and then overseas, those buildings that weren’t reoccupied by artists or small businesses fell into disrepair, or, in worse case scenario, burned down. For this reason, the city saw them as eyesores and rattraps. If they had the money to do so, they would have just torn them down.

All that’s changed over the last few years, however, as people have started to think about breathing new life into these old buildings. Suddenly these have become desirable spaces, and a popular destination for private developers.

But renovation and adaptive reuse of the city’s mills has sparked intense debate…revolving around city’s efforts to revitalize the neighborhoods, and the need for artists’ space in a city and region that promotes the arts. It is also a battle about gentrification, and about who has control of change in a city that’s changing fast.

This week on Focus Rhode Island we’re devoting the entire hour to a documentary that examines the adaptive reuse of Providence’s historic mill buildings over the last few years…and all the controversy that’s come with it.

From local independent producer Robin Amer (AIM-er), this is Reconstructing Providence: Adaptive Reuse, Urban Revitalization & Neighborhood Change.

Part I: {A Clash of Mills}

In January of this year, the Department of Inspections in Providence, Rhode Island, received an anonymous tip that there were people are living illegally in two mill buildings in the Olneyville neighborhood of the city.

Inspections confirmed that there were indeed people living in the Oak and Troy Street mills, which inspectors determined were zoned for manufacturing, not residential use, and which were not up to building, safety, or fire code.

But what inspectors might not have realized was that these buildings were the hub of Providence’s underground art and music scene, and home to about sixty artists.

{sound of people talking}

A little more than a week after the first inspections, about forty of the artists are gathered on the 6th floor of the Troy Street mill. They’ve just met with the property manager, who’s told them they have three days to clear out, but less than twenty four hours before the landlord’s demolition crews will arrive to tear down their spaces.

Edwards: this is the first piece of paper circulated. And it’s from the lawyer. We’ve seen nothing form the landlord, nothing from the city. And nothing from the property manager up until this letter. Which isn’t notarized, which is a photocopy.

People are trying to figure out if they’ll have a place to stay once they’re kicked out.

Chippendale: I thought I had a place to go but today it was like 7 in the morning and…my cats can’t go there quite yet. It takes a long time.
Edwards: it takes more than 12 hours to figure out what you’re going to land in.
Chippendale: I feel like a month you’d get stuff done. And that’s only if you had a place to begin with.
Koch: If they had given us notice a week and a half ago when they had come in that would have been a different story. But with 14 hours notice…15 hours notice. That’s just unbelievable.

Edwards: even if everyone needs to get out, why isn’t anyone stepping forward to say we need to find some temporary housing? They haven’t even offered a gym with a cot.

{music cue}

Each of the building’s twelve or so spaces is about four thousand square feet with twenty-foot ceilings. The artists living here have built makeshift partition walls, and filled their spaces with salvaged appliances, furniture, musical instruments, art supplies, and piles of bikes. None of which is easy to move on such short notice.

They pack through the night. At 7am the demolition crew shows up, but the crowd of people standing outside with signs that read “We need more time!” deters them from even approaching the door.

{music out cue}

At 11 o’clock, everything happens all at once. The property manager arrives. So do lawyers for the building owner and the tenants, camera crews from local news stations, and finally, building inspectors and the fire marshal.

Inspector V: I want to go up to the shantytown upstairs though.

Inspector V: This is just all wooden walls. And see this right here? This is a trap door. And apparently they go up on the ladder, and the kids go in there and if there’s a fire there’s no way they’re getting out of this building. Extension cords everywhere. … Look at this. They actually had a mattress up inside here. I mean this place is clean in comparison to how we had first seen it.

Jenine: (yelling) why couldn’t we have had more time?! (more yelling)

Inspector V: We’ve had no involvement other than we came here to make sure nobody in this building gets hurt.
Taylor: Who’s we?
Inspector V: the building dept and the fire dept and the city of Providence.
Taylor: because we spoke to somebody the building inspector this morning, who told us that they were coming at 11 to lock us out.
Inspector V: well we’re the building dept, we’re here at 11 and we’re not locking anybody out.

{music cue}

The buildings where these artists had been living were in fact two historic mill buildings, the oldest ones in that neighborhood. But Providence is filled with buildings like this. In a city whose downtown is only six blocks long, there are almost two hundred and fifty old mills all together.

As early as 1988, people in Providence have been renovating mill buildings, transforming them from factories, into offices or retail space, or more recently, into low-income housing, small business incubators, and even one elementary school. Different groups have been reusing these buildings in all kinds of interesting ways for over fifteen years.

But this is not that story. This is the story of what’s happened in Providence over the last four years, with artists, developers, neighborhood residents and the city, hashing out what to do with these old buildings. Debating if, and if so, how, they should be reused. The consequences of this debate go straight to the heart of how the city is changing.

{music - fade}

{Atlantic Mills}

{sounds of flea market outside. Music, voices, bags rustling}

It’s Sunday afternoon in Olneyville, We’re a few blocks from the Oak & Troy St. mills, and what you hear around you are the sounds of the Big Top Flea Market at Atlantic Mills. It’s warm and sunny today, so the market is pretty crowded. Inside, a hundred vendors are selling perfume and incense, old records and electronics, shrink wrapped socks and Hanes underwear.

Atlantic Mills is a massive brick building - four stories tall and as long as a city block. It’s got two round staircase towers topped with red and white shingle domes, and they’re so tall, that standing at the foot of the building you have to crane your head all the way back to see to the top. At the bottom of each tower is a set of massive wooden doors with wrought iron hinges.

{sound of footsteps, door opening}

Amer: wow…this is amazing.

Greenwood: A very elegant double curving staircase here. Each staircase going up the outside wall, meeting in the middle and swinging out again.

With me now is Rick Greenwood, of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, a state wide historic preservation group. Rick is an industrial archeologist, which means he studies old industrial buildings like this one, to learn about the society that produced them. He points out a series of dull metal studs in the handrail.

Greenwood: Don’t forget these spikes stuck in the railing, so people wouldn’t be tempted to slide down. It’s a useful reminder that a lot of people who worked here were children. They put in the same hours as everyone else, but I guess they were still tempted to slide down at the end of day.

Originally Atlantic Mills was a giant textile factory. At its peak, the biggest in Providence. Now it’s home to furniture wholesaler, a carpet layer, a cell phone store, a smoke shop, a non-profit, and the studios of several local artists. This particular type of adaptive reuse, reusing the building in a piece meal way while keeping its structural integrity, is what you’ll find in many of the mills scattered around the city.


As Rick and I examine the staircase railings, we hear something above our heads.

Amer: ooh!

Greenwood: Yeah, there’s one of the tenants that’s keeping the place up.

A pigeon has found its way into the staircase tower, probably through one of the broken windows, and it seems to be stuck. Atlantic Mills is in pretty decent shape considering its about a hundred and forty years old, but there’s no question that the building has suffered a lot of wear and tear. Interior walls have gone up, modern light fixtures and a sprinkler system, but not much else has changed.

Part II: {Eagle Square and the FeldCo Fell Swoop}

Located just a few blocks away from Atlantic Mills, Eagle Square was a similar complex of mill buildings filled with a mix of small businesses and artists’ studios until 2000.

One of the artists’ spaces in Eagle Square was rented by Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman. In 1995 they were roommates at the Rhode Island School of Design, and, like most kids they went to school with, rented apartments on the city’s East Side. But they wanted something different. They wanted a space that was big and raw and empty, where they could be loud and make their art and music. So they went looking for a mill space, and found one at Eagle Square. They got a 6000 square foot space for about a thousand dollars a month. And in a nod to Brian’s band Lightning Bolt, they named the space Fort Thunder.

{sample of Lightning Bolt}

This is Lightning Bolt playing at the Fort, and it should give you some idea why they didn’t want to live and practice their music in a residential neighborhood.

{end Lightning Bolt sample}

The space that Brian, Mat and their friends build gradually over the next few years had a kind of junkyard aesthetic. This is Brian Chippendale.

Chippendale: {track 22} We just focused on reusing stuff. I mean, we didn’t have any money, and if you built a room it was from whatever you could drag in off the street, pretty much. I mean, Mat Brinkman was definitely dragging in lots of toys and junk. And people would see our house and bring us junk and toys. And it was exciting. Like trap doors. And I just want to make as many tiny tunnels and hidden rooms as I can. It was just this totally thrilling, naïve time of doing whatever you want, building whatever you want.

At first Fort Thunder stayed pretty small, confined to the art school scene its members had come from.

Chippendale: {track 21, 00:18} And little by little, more people started moving in, we got more roommates, we started having shows…

Soon the original four housemates of Fort Thunder had become eleven. And Brian estimates that at its high point more than a hundred artists were living and working in their building and the rest of the Square.

By 2000, Fort Thunder and its residents had gotten quite a bit national and international attention. Lightning Bolt was touring, garnering popular and critical acclaim. So was Forcefield, a music and performance collective featuring Mat Brinkman and several other housemates. Bands from all over the world played shows there, and in the underground art and music world, Fort Thunder was becoming an important hub.

{music cue}

But even in the national and international spotlight, Fort Thunder retained a dimension that was profoundly local. It was inspirational for younger artists in the city, as a model for an aesthetic and a way of life, and as a way of reusing mills for live-work space. Even though there had been artists in the city’s mills for a long time, there had never been a strange, dynamic space like this one. Fort Thunder had created its own little universe, with its own rules and logic, secluded in these old buildings away from the rest of the world. This is Brian Chippendale again.

{music continues}

Chippendale: {track 50, 00:40} We would just look out our back window and be like, all this mill. This could all be…it’s like we have a city that could grow here of this type of stuff. I mean that’s what we would just stand on the roof and dream about those mills back there. If what we were doing grew and grew and grew, it would just be this magical place on earth or something.

This community grew totally outside the bounds of the law. Fort Thunder intentionally tried to stay under the radar. It was illegal for them to live there. Eagle Square was zoned for manufacturing, the buildings weren’t up to fire code, and everything they were doing, from building wooden lofts, to having shows with hundreds of people, would have made matters worse in the eyes of the fire marshal. So they tried to keep things quiet. Despite their underground renown, most of Providence had no idea they were there.

{music out cue}


Walking past Eagle Square early on a typical weekday morning in 1999, the area would have seemed abandoned. This was probably how it looked to Barry Feldman and Gene Beaudoin whey they saw it for the first time.

Together, Barry and Gene are lead partners in FeldCo Development Corporation, a Long Island based real estate developer that partners with Shaw’s Supermarkets to build what they call “supermarket anchored shopping plazas.” They saw Eagle Square as a possible opening in the market, so Feldco bought the land, the buildings and the developing rights, planning to do their normal, suburban style development. They started meeting with city officials in the mayor’s office and the Planning Department, and as they did, one question jumped off the page. What about the mills? This is Gene Beaudoin.

Beaudoin: (Track 8, 00:30) We were told at the time that they would look into it whether or not any of the mill buildings could be razed, because some of them would need to be razed or all of them would need to be razed to make room for development and parking to support the development. And the word came back from the Director of Economic Development and Planning that the mills were of no historic interest whatsoever. So, being from out of town, we took that as the mission statement of the city of Providence, that the mills actually had no value, no intrinsic or redeeming value, and that they were candidates to be torn down.

{music cue}

At the time, most people in Providence weren’t concerned with the historic value of old mill buildings. And the Cianci administration had been criticized for failing to extend the so-called Renaissance into the neighborhoods. So the mayor’s office was excited at the prospect of new development, and so was the head of city planning.

{music out cue}

Josephine DiRuzzo is City Councilwoman for the district that includes Olneyville.

DiRuzzo: (track 23) I was delighted to know that some developers were interested in developing in that particular area. (track36) There hasn’t been redevelopment in this area for so many years that people are thirsting for it. And actually, I was thirsting for it as well. (Track 16, 1:30) The original proposal was to demolish everything. And at first look you took a look at those buildings and you’d say, it’s so blighted, there’s so much restoration that needed, that there’s never going to be enough money to restore these buildings. And I looked at it and I paused and said, well maybe the best thing to do is knock down all the buildings and start rebuilding.

Before they could get the final go-ahead, FeldCo would have to present their project at a public hearing of the City Plan Commission, which reviews all major land developments in the city. So a hearing was scheduled for November of 2000, and word started to spread about the project. Here’s Brian Chippendale.

Chippendale: {track 51} One of our reactions was we were going to fight it. We thought we should hide out about it because we were living illegally and we didn’t want to draw attention to the space, but at some point it was like it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re going to get evicted either way. We should stand up and say something.

Others were also unhappy about the proposal. Catherine Horsey is the Director of the Providence Preservation Society. She says it was the worst kind of urban design you could possibly imagine.

Horsey: (track 5, 00:24) Eagle square is located in a pivotal location, which is the intersection of lots of different streets. So lots of people pass by these buildings every single day. The proposal for the new construction was bad for, let me count the ways. Number one, it turned its back on the street. So if you were walking down the street you would see nothing. You’d see a blank wall. Maybe a few dumpsters.

But because of the city’s excitement about the project, many public officials, as well as the developers, didn’t realize there would be such a public outcry against it. Here’s Gene Beaudoin.

Beaudoin: {track 19, 00:30} Going into that first public meeting, we were told by planning staff and by the department that there was no opposition to this project, and that it was going to be uniformly accepted. Obviously we walked into city hall to a group of 300 young people who were upset as to the direction of the project and we were very surprised by it.

{tape from Eagle Square Hearings fade in under Beaudoin– sound of crowd and commotion, someone speaking}

Unidentified Anti-development Speaker: (“Stop Feldco” CD Track 3) I think that existing structures at Eagle Square are for more valuable to the future of Providence than anything else you could build there.

{loud cheering and applause}

A lot of people criticized the project for poor design and being just plain ugly. But some neighborhood residents thought getting rid of the mills was a good idea. At the time, Eagle Square resident Michael Townsend was teaching a class at RISD. He and his students surveyed people in the area around Eagle Square to see what they thought of the mills. This is Michael and his partner, Adriana Young.

{track 94, :29}
Townsend: We began to understand that these buildings were viewed as just rat traps.
Young: That’s what most people would say. That if we just tear them down we won’t have as many rats.
Townsend: Or prostitutes or homeless people or ganglords. They were being demonized.

Even the Providence Preservation Society was hearing something similar. Here’s director Catherine Horsey again.

Horsey: (track 6, 4:03) I had a member who called and said, “Why are you even bothering? They’re ugly buildings, they’re firetraps, they’re eyesores. We should just get rid of them all. Why do you care?”

Despite the culture of preservation in Providence, dating back to the preservation of houses on Benefit Street, few had thought of industrial buildings as being among those worth saving. This was one of the problems that Catherine Horsey and others faced, as they tried to explain why the Feldco proposal didn’t make sense.

Horsey: (Track 4, 3:06) Many people think of preservation as being wealthy peoples’ houses. We believe you don’t just preserve the history of the wealthy white people. You have to preserve the whole history of the city. And Providence wouldn’t even be here without the industrial heritage that we have here. There were a whole bunch of companies here that were the largest in the world. And we don’t want to lose sight of that.

Slowly a coalition of people grew around the issue of Eagle Square. It was a group made up of artists, preservationists, neighborhood groups, and people that Catherine Horsey calls “closet urban planners.” They had a variety of goals, but all were dissatisfied with the project as it currently stood.

Raphael Lyon was another Fort Thunder resident.

Lyon: {track 13, 1:26} Having been in this situation where what I feel was probably the most positive living situations that I’ve ever seen, much less lived in, what I saw coming down the pipe was in every single way, the opposite of that experience. On one hand you have this heterogeneity of artists and a lot of real organic culture and real community. And what I’ve seen coming down the pipe was a kind of corporate footprint in the middle of my neighborhood.

{music cue}

People were also angry about how artists in particular were being treated. Arts and culture were supposedly integral to the city’s Renaissance. But here was the city saying it valued its artists, while simultaneously helping to destroy one of its most important artistic communities.

But some city officials argued that removing the artists from these buildings was for their own good. Patricia McLaughlin was Mayor Cianci’s Director of Administration and his point person on urban redevelopment during the Eagle Square debate.

McLaughlin: {track 13, 1:26} And the building inspector had evicted a group of artists, and they were furious because I had been the point person on development in the arts. And they said how can you say you’re in favor of arts and then relocate us? And I said, you know why? God forbid you're in a space that has no fire safety, no building safety, that building could cave in on you at any time, it could burn on you at any time, your work's in there, you're in there, you're living there, it's unsafe conditions. We've got to be about finding affordable solutions for you to live in proper conditions, not like that…So when it came down to Fort Thunder and having those conversations, I went through Fort Thunder. It was not a pleasant living condition. And again it was a situation where they were being taken advantage of.

Because there were no legal protections in place for the mills, there was nothing to prevent Feldco from demolishing the ones at Eagle Square, and nothing to give the City Plan Commission specific or easy direction on how settle the matter. So when the commission did vote, they deadlocked. Three in favor, and three opposed.

There were several months of intense negotiations and another public hearing, but finally they hammered out a compromise. It was a long ways away from the big box development Feldco had originally proposed. The developer agreed to preserve four of the existing mills, and fill them with a mix of retail, condos, artists’ studios, and light office space. In addition, any new buildings would have to be built in a style similar to the existing mills, and would be subject to review by the state preservation agency.

{music cue}

{Aftermath & Significance}

However, ten of the original fourteen buildings would be torn down, to make way for the Shaw’s supermarket. Among them, half of the building which contained Fort Thunder. This is FeldCo’s Gene Beaudoin.

Beaudoin: (track 36) The old flea market building, which was also called the American Wool and Dying Building, half of the building was not structurally sound. So that half of that building was torn down. And in fact, we still remain with problems with the structural integrity of that building.

{music cue violin}

There were those that remained disappointed by the results of the compromise. Even with the changes, the mills were still an endangered species in the eyes of many, and Eagle Square would be added to the list of mills destroyed by fire or demolition. Plus, Fort Thunder was ultimately evicted. A blow, not only to the people who lived there, but to the entire arts community.

{music continues}

Today, most people feel that even though many of the buildings were torn down, the end result was a good compromise, which reflected the community’s views. Catherine Horsey from Preservation Society feels good about the end result.

Horsey: {track 5, 4:00} for us was a successful negotiation. Because for us we came out with a compromise. But we didn’t preserve every one of the buildings.

{music out cue}

The Providence Preservation Society set about cataloguing each of the city’s two hundred and thirty mills, compiling a detailed account of each building’s location, history, architectural details and ownership.

Based on this information, the city created an unprecedented landmark designation for the mills, which guaranteed stricter protection. They also initiated a series of redevelopment incentives, including historic tax credits, and a zoning exemption that would allow developers to build housing units in an industrial zone.

Eagle Square was also a watershed moment for Feldco. The suburban strip mall developers now had a major adaptive reuse project in their portfolio.

{Track 64}
Amer: would you ever consider doing projects again that involved historic mill buildings?
Beaudoin: Absolutely. There’s no question. From what we’ve now learned, why throw that over the side?

{music cue}

The consequences of Eagle Square go way beyond the specifics of this particular project. It was truly a watershed moment for the city. Eagle Square galvanized the city, and got the community to participate directly in the development process.

The result was the mainstreaming of mill redevelopment in Providence. Before Eagle Square, people barely thought about mill preservation as an option. Now, between tax incentives, landmark designation and general public awareness, adaptive reuse was established as a major priority.

{music out cue}

{HALF WAY BREAK – 30 sec music}

PART 3: {Does a RISING SUN tide lift all boats?}

Eagle Square wasn’t the end of the debate about mill redevelopment, not by a long shot. In fact, it planted quite a few seeds that later sprang up with surprising results. One of these was Bill Struever.

Bill’s daughter Sarah was a student at RISD during the Eagle Square controversy, and was friends with some of the artists who opposed the development. Bill himself had gone to school in Providence in the late ‘70s, and his landlord at the time was Harry Bilodeau. The very same Harry Bilodeau who was now on the City Plan Commission, voting about Eagle Square. One a trip to Providence to see his daughter, Bill stopped by to see his old landlord, who told him about everything that was happening. This is Bill Struever.

BStruever: He said, boy we had this really tough vote on this mill project, they’re going to tear down all these mill buildings. I gotta postpone for further study. Why don’t you take a drive by?

Bill Struever’s Baltimore based company, Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse, have been in business for twenty five years renovating industrial property, turning old factories into small business incubators, technology centers, office buildings, artists’ studios, retail, and residential space. So far, they’ve renovated more than eight million square feet of old industrial space, and have another two million square feet in the works.

So not only did Struever Brothers have clear experience doing exactly the type of adaptive reuse that many people wanted FeldCo to do. Struever Brothers also espoused an approach to development that sounded very similar to some of the anti-strip-mall rhetoric being heard at those public hearings. In Harry Bilodeau’s mind, if anyone was going to come up with an alternative vision to Feldco’s proposal, it was Bill Struever.

BStruever: Harry was able to get the mayor and his people to essentially invite us in and give an independent opinion, based on all the adaptive reuse of old industrial buildings that we’ve done over the years, whether there was a way to save the buildings at Eagle Square. And we did come back and said, yeah, we think you could do a supermarket, and you could save the overwhelming majority. And you’d have to do structured parking and hide it this way, and you’d have to fit the supermarket into one of the old buildings this way.

But Feldco owned the development rights, so there wasn’t much anyone could do.

But there were still all those other mills in Providence to consider. Bill’s daughter was testifying at one of the last Eagle Square public hearings when a man named John Blacher approached her. He said, “Your dad can't do Eagle Square, but maybe he would be interested in our buildings up the street.”

{music cue}

These buildings up the street, which the Blacher family had owned since the 1950s, were the National Providence and Worsted Mills, a 13-acre complex dating back to 1887. The complex had just lost its major tenant, a jewelry company that was moving out to the suburbs. The Blachers were facing issues of fire safety, environmental remediation, all the things that make it difficult to maintain economic viability in these buildings. So they were looking to sell.

BStruever: We looked at the buildings, loved the buildings. We loved the Woonasquatucket River, we loved Olneyville Square, the energy, the immigrant diversity. So we saw a variety of things that provided an opportunity to do something.

So Struever Brother, Eccles & Rouse bought the Blacher Brother’s property and renamed it Rising Sun Mills. Then they partnered with Providence based Armory Revival Company, best known for renovating houses in the West End, to act as co-developer and property manager.

Their plan was to renovate Rising Sun just like all the other mills they had done in Baltimore. Mixed use, with commercial, retail and residential components. In addition, Bill’s daughter Sarah would work to master-lease some of the buildings for a small business incubator, and maybe live-work space for artists. And, in keeping with their beliefs about good urban development and the benefits of adaptive reuse, none of the buildings at Rising Sun would be demolished.

BStruever: (70:00) The starting point of Rising Sun was ten miles behind Eagle Square. We're not going to tear down anything! Nothing! And we said instead of putting a whole bunch of parking lots by the river, let's have the bike path and the greenway. And let's work with artists… {music out cue} We have endeavored to from the beginning, in the context of a practical, market driven, economically viable project, to begin with a clear statement of willingness to be at the table with all these issues the neighborhood has.

When Struever Brothers came to Providence, people saw them as possible heroes. The phrase “enlightened developer” was used more than once to describe their approach. So when they started out with their proposal to renovate Rising Sun, they felt they had an airtight plan.

{Public Hearing}

Track 1, {murmuring, pre-meeting sounds}

January 2003. A crowd of about sixty people is packed into the Planning Department’s conference room. There are several projects on agenda for tonight’s meeting of the City Plan Commission, but almost everyone is here to talk about Rising Sun. By in large, it’s the same crowd of people who were present at the Eagle Square hearings.

BStruever: {Track 6, 1:01} Great. I’ll just give a little quick overview of our plans for Rising Sun Mills and a little bit about what we’re thinking about for the neighborhood around it. {sound continues under narration}

Bill Struever goes into more detail about their renovation plans, which include 150 loft style apartments priced between six hundred and fourteen hundred dollars a month, and one hundred thousand square feet of commercial space, some of which would go towards the small business incubator. This is Bill’s daughter Sara Struever, who was heading up that portion of the project

SStruever: (Track 11, 2:49) We’re talking about having it be a space that like my dad says is a gathering space for ideas and people that are asking challenging hard questions about cities, about the environment, about communities. We want it to be a convergence space.

The partners continue to run through all the reasons they think the project will be great and sustainable. Positive growth. Job creation. Extending the bike path.

But not everyone at tonight’s meeting sees Rising Sun as a win-win situation. Among the attendees are the guys from Fort Thunder and a lot of other artists.

(Track 15, 3:11)
Chair: ok, we’ll go back to the list now. Brian…is it Chippendale?

Chippendale: Hi I’m Brian Chippendale. I’m a resident of Olneyville. I was evicted from Eagle Square mill and it’s taken me what feels like a year at least to get back on track. Cause I lost my studio. I get sort of worked up about these things. When we talked to Mark, he was talking about the base rate for the artist incubator space will be nine dollars a square foot. I currently have a five dollar per square foot rate, and it’s a lot. I’m concerned that other mill owners in the area are going to see this as a trend, and they’re going to raise their rates accordingly. The mill spaces are disappearing. And I’m concerned that cheap mill space is disappearing as well.

Dupre: Hi, I’m BJ Dupre, I’m the third partner here at the Armory Revival Company. If I could just speak to a couple things around the mills. You can look at some of the other mill complexes such as Atlantic Mills. They’re renting spaces at the low dollar and the only reason they’re able to do that, is that they bought their mill for virtually nothing, and they continue to put band aids on it. If indeed the mills are going to be preserved, one of things you need to do, is we’re going in and it’s all new roofs, it’s all new windows, it’s all new heating systems, new sprinkler systems. To do all these things, we’re not magicians.

Adriana Young, who you might remember earlier talking about Eagle Square, is also at the meeting tonight. She’s here in her capacity as the Executive Director of English for Action, an activist ESOL group based in Olneyville.

Young: From what I can tell of your plan, and if you want to keep true to you word to have the community as the true driving force of your project, no one has mentioned the immigrant community, and this is really an immigrant neighborhood. Over seventy percent of the people who live there are Latino. Most of them do not speak English. Most of them work as small manufacturers in these mills buildings. And for a lot of them their primary concern is affordable housing and having a decent place to raise their families. This plan does not encompass any of their immediate needs. It encompasses the not so immediate needs of a higher income community that is not Olneyville. And as your moral obligation as privileged people in this society, when you’re investing that much money into a neighborhood, you have to think about how dramatically this is going to impact many, many families.

{music cue}

With Rising Sun, the nature of the debate changed. Now that mill adaptation was recognized as a shared goal, it wasn’t just about saving the buildings anymore. What some people saw as investment and revitalization, others saw as gentrification.

Most people agree that Olneyville, which is home to dozens of mills, is also the poorest neighborhood in the city, the one that faces the most challenges, and has suffered the most disinvestment. For example, Providence is going through an affordable housing crisis, but Olneyville is especially hard hit. Last year the Olneyville Housing Corporation built thirty-two units of affordable rental housing in the core of the neighborhood. And were completely overwhelmed, when seven hundred families applied for those thirty-two spaces. Now, some people are afraid that projects like Rising Sun could put even more pressure on their rents.

{end music cue}

Liandra Martinez is a concerned Olneyville resident who lives a few blocks away from Rising Sun.

Martinez: {track 10, 3:45) it just feels like a winged elephant. And it’s just hovering on top of our heads. Cause they have so much power. So much money is being invested in the city. The city doesn’t want to see them go. And as far as Olneyville, the potential for a major crisis is right there. And Rising Sun is the Pandora’s box of it all.

Compared to other loft-style developments in Providence, the Rising Sun units are estimated to be cheaper. According to Mark Van Noppen of Armory Revival, these units will serve a group that’s often left out of the gentrification debate, namely, the middle class.

Van Noppen: (track 63) Again and again it seems in cities that there’s a lot of room for conversation about yuppies and wealthy and the very poor, but there’s almost no conversation about the middle class. There is a lot more conversation today about the middle class than there has been, but it’s grossly neglected.
Amer: and what do you think those conversations should sound like, around the middle class?
Van Noppen: well they should sound a lot about housing that’s priced in the middle of the market for normal working people. Like a hygienist in a dentist’s office or a librarian or a firefighter. It’s just middle class America.

Neighborhood organizers and artists point out that Olneyville isn’t exactly middle class. The median family income is only 19,000 dollars a year. And even though artists are often in the lowest income brackets in the city, because they are often the first people to move back into urban fringe areas, they are often referred to as “urban pioneers,” or more bluntly, the “first wave of gentrification.” Mark Van Noppen says he doesn’t think artists take enough responsibility for their role in the process.

Van Noppen: (Track 12) They don’t want to blame themselves for changing a neighborhood. They want to blame some bad guys. It’s common knowledge, you know…the artists move in, the wannabes move in and then the yuppies move in. You know. It’s like ancient history at this point.

Amer: so do you see yourself in that chain of events that you just described? So if they’re the artists are you the yuppies?

Van Noppen: (silence) Well…no. I don’t see myself as a yuppie at all. I know it’s easy for you to point your finger at me and say that. I live what, four blocks from there? It’s not like I’m following artists into an area…It’s enhanced by the artists, but we’re not moving there because we’re wannabes that want to be around artists.

Mark himself was once an artist. After graduating from Brown in the early eighties, he decided to stay in Providence and pursue his photography. But he was also motivated to stay by the conditions in the neighborhood, which were pretty bad, and which he wanted to help change. When he and his partners got their start buying and renovating houses in the Armory District, there were almost as many abandoned houses and vacant lots as their were occupied homes. It was so bad, Mark said, that arson was like a sport. On the fourth of July, fire fighters from all over New England would come to that part of Providence to fight house fires, because according to Mark, people didn’t have firework displays. They just went out and burned a couple houses.

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Many people credit Mark and his partners with almost single handedly rebuilding the Armory neighborhood. At this point they’ve basically gone block-by-block, acquiring property, renovating homes, and then selling them to owner occupants. But other people see their efforts to reinvest as gentrification. But Mark Van Noppen says that simply revitalizing abandoned property doesn’t amount to gentrification.

MVN: (Track 63) A certified financial planner told you that the property values were tumbling so quickly that if you expected to have anything to retire on you needed you sell your house now and get out. And so what’s that called? That’s called disinvestment. And it’s what people in the surrounding neighborhoods are terrified of. What’s happening in Providence is that for fifty years was that cycle of disinvestment occurred. And in Olneyville it just bottomed out. How much further is it going to go? I guess it could become entirely vacant.

But whether you see it as gentrification or neighborhood reinvestment, the sense is that no matter what, Olneyville is going to change. Pat McGuigan is director of the Providence Plan, a public private partnership that studies urban problems and how to fix them.

PM: (Track 105, 00:16) Change is the only thing you can count on. There's no non-change agenda that makes any sense to me. Let's maintain the status quo in Olneyville. No! The status quo sucks! Seriously, I mean what are we talking about here? So the issue is we want good change to happen, we need change to happen. There’s no place I know of that stays the same. Olneyville isn't going to stay the same. It wouldn't and it shouldn't. The question is, is it going to be better?

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{sound of paper rustling}

{track 3}
Jerzyk: You should have an agenda packet, which has in it some facts about Rising Sun, some info from the Providence city council and then the actual tax stabilization that was submitted to the city council last month.

That’s Matthew Jerzyk of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice. He’s part of a coalition of affordable housing advocates, neighborhood groups, minority contractors, and organized labor they’re calling Providence Works! And they’re meeting today to discuss the Rising Sun tax stabilization ordinances.

A tax stabilization freezes property taxes at their current, pre-development rate for a certain period of time, usually about ten years. The Rising Sun developers say that this is especially important to their project, because the housing piece wasn’t certain, and the banks wouldn’t support the financing of the new commercial space in Rising Sun because there’s so little job growth in the city.

The goal of Providence Works! is to get the City Council to amend the tax stabilization plan, as it currently stands, so that in order to for it to pass, the developers will have to commit to conditions the coalition feels will benefit the neighborhood.

In addition to provisions for affordable housing, over the course of the meeting they set goals for responsible contracting, and for the percentage of construction jobs that should go to women and minority owned businesses.

{Track 8, 3:45}
Jerzyk: Can we win that?
Brenda: Oh you didn’t ask me that question! About whether or not we can win…
{everyone laughing}


Providence Works! has pulled out all the stops organizing for tonight’s public meeting on the tax stabilization, and it’s paid off. There are over two hundred people here, and the room is filled to capacity.

Jerzyk: We think, and we is this broad coalition in this room…groups like ACORN…where you at? Carpenters where you at? {applause and cheering after each one} groups like St. Theresa’s Church, like Youth Build. This is Olneyville! You are in Olneyville right now.

When the finance committee meets again a month later, they vote to approve the tax stabilization. However, the new plan reflects many of the changes Providence Works! had been advocating for.

{sound of bulldozers moving, construction noises}

In the meantime, construction has already begun at Rising Sun. Ethan Coliace of Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse is showing me around the construction site. We’re walking across an old supply duct that’s fifteen or twenty feet in the air.

EC: We’re probably going to take the corrugated tin off, making this a bit lighter, putting in some new windows. Just think of a sky bridge downtown for instance.

EC: Let me see if we can get through here…oh boy.

{sound of moving a plastic flap aside, noise and rumble gets louder}

(Track 31, 18:40)
{hammering, glass breaking, bulldozers, great sound}

In the back of the property, we see one of the distinctive architectural features of the mills: the old smokestack. It’s several stories high and visible from blocks away. Right now workers on scaffolding are redoing the grout work between the bricks. Pretty soon, they’ll paint the words Rising Sun all along it, in big white block letters that look like old fashioned mill signage.

EC: (track 31, 22:30) It’s a real beacon for the property. It lends a beautiful sense of place, a uniqueness. You’ll be able to see it from lots of different parts of the city and say, that’s where I live.

{construction sounds fade out}

Part 4: {Wait and See What Develops}

Construction at Rising Sun had been underway for just a few months when the eviction notices came in for the people at Oak & Troy. And for some of these artists, their first instinct was to point their finger at Rising Sun, somehow believing the development had indirectly caused the eviction.

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In fact, the clearest cause for the evictions was the Station Night Club fire. After the Station fire, Rhode Island became obsessed with fire safety, and the grandfather clauses that had once exempted many older buildings were phased out. The fire marshal declared the mills at Oak & Troy St. an emergency case unfit for any type of occupancy, and that was that.

After being evicted, some of the Oak & Troy St. artists say that they will continue to move from illegal mill space to illegal mill space, if the other alternative is moving into a house. But others are getting tired of moving, and are trying to figure out a way to end that cycle. For these people, buying and redeveloping mill property seems like the only logical option.

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Small groups of people who used to live in Oak & Troy have been meeting with the city to figure out a way to purchase and renovate a building of their own. As they’re doing it, they’re looking to other groups that have gone through a similar process, who have been pioneering models of mill redevelopment on a smaller scale. These are people who didn’t set out to be developers, who are artists or community activists.

One project they’re looking at is Monohasset Mills, a development in progress, which has converted an old mill into artists live-work space. It’s one of the best examples of these smaller, artist run approaches to development because it embodies so many of its successes - and its problems.


{construction noises}

I went to visit Monohasset Mills last June, when Phase 1 of rehab construction was nearly complete. At the time of my visit, construction was also under way across the street at Eagle Square. Dave Stem is one of the Monohasset Mill partners, as well as the construction manager for the project. As Dave walked me inside one of the new units, recently sold to a graphic designer, he pointed to the freshly laid wooden floor. The wood was mismatched, as if it came from several different places. This is Dave Stem.

Stem: (track 3, 1:00) We actually went over there and salvaged 16,000 sq ft of flooring that we’ve been reusing in this space. (Track 2 :55) We basically tore up all the floor in Fort Thunder and are reusing it over here also.

This is in addition to railing from the old Charles Street mills, and copper doors from the old Brown University gym. Both buildings were demolished, but Dave and his team salvaged the parts.

Stem: some underground missions some above ground missions. {laughing}

The four Monohasset partners are all artists. When Eagle Square hit, they were all renting space in Monohassett. They say they were horrified by what was happening across the street, and wanted to do something to respond to what they refer to as the “displacement” of the artists from Eagle Square. They wanted to offer some sort of stability or alternative, and ensure a place for artists in that neighborhood. So when they found out their own building was up for sale, they realized they had a unique opportunity. With the help of a low interest loan from the city, the Monohasset partners culled together $625,000 to purchase the building. Now, four years after starting the project, the Phase 1 units, half of them subsidized, have all been sold. What began as an idealistic dream, has become one of the most widely cited examples of successful mill adaptation, and the first one carried out by artists.

Despite the project’s success, the Monohasset partners have had to make some compromises.
Clay Rockefeller is one of Dave’s partners.

Rockefeller: {Track 7, 2:32) I can say that I felt like a hypocrite at points. And that sucked.

Clay says their effort was to try to create affordable spaces in the building, which, he says, they have done in some cases. But they had to take a ten-year loan in order to finance the project, which meant they had to sell the units to get a return on their investment, and that drove up the price.

Rockefeller: And this is from our lack of experience that led us to make these decisions. And also the fact that the four of us didn’t know each other prior to this project. And so we didn’t exactly want to be in bed with each other for an undetermined amount of time.

Rockefeller: {Track 7, 4:26} I came into this project with a very clear vision of what I wanted to see happen. With subsidized rental space, like, really mixed use space. Some live, some live-work for own, some rented, some rented for non-profit space, a performance space. I wanted spaces where anything goes.

Amer: how in a practical sense does the project in how it’s moving forward, differ from what that vision was?

Rockefeller: See, the thing is that it doesn’t necessarily. And that’s the weird part about it. The numbers are bigger …the price of each unit…And that’s been hard for us to swallow. And it’s hard for me to have these conversations with people being like, wow, these spaces are great, I wish they were affordable for me.

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Even with the success of Monohasset or other artists, low-income working artists don’t see purchasing property as a viable option. Brian Chippendale says he had also been meeting with different people in the city, talking about the possibility of buying a building, but that he just doesn’t think it would work for him.

Chippendale: After Fort Thunder we were like, we gotta buy property. I got that space on Troy St. to save money…I spend my whole day working on art. And it brings in what meager funds I have to move into a new studio. So the idea of me trying to do all that stuff too is totally absurd. I’m not going to do it. I mean the only time I’ll have to buy a building is if I save up money and buy a building in the natural sense. It’s going to take a long time and maybe I’ll be shuffled out of three or four more studios before then.

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Thom Deller is the newly appointed Director of Planning and Development under Mayor Cicilline. He’s interested in city sponsored, artist targeted renovation projects, but he wants to avoid the pitfalls of the past, when city planning was too reactionary. The mill preservation program put forth after Eagle Square is the perfect example of this, he says. Deller says he remembers talking to the planning department from Lowell, Massachusetts, another post-industrial town known for saving their mills.

Deller: They went out and looked at the mills and said, which ones are special and should be kept regardless? And which ones don’t make any sense and we should let them go? And which ones should we say, we’d like to keep these and before you can tear them down you have to get our permission. And my memory is that something like 15-20% of the mills in Lowell were designated as mills that had to be saved. And they let everything else go. And I think what we’ve done here in Providence, is that we’ve said, we’re not going to make a decision about what’s important, we’re just going to say we should save everything. And if you want to tear it down you have to come in and tell us. And I think that’s a bad approach.

Even with the new protections and regulations in place, a number of mills have been destroyed to make way for new construction, including the old Gorham Silver mills.

Deller: So since that time we tore down Gorham, and I was gone from ‘99 till this year, they tore down the old American Touristor site, there was some stuff knocked down with Eagle Square development, there was the old Centerdale Worsted Mill on Bosworth Street in Olneyville knocked down, and I’m sure there’s others that I’m missing. Oh, the mills for Home Depot were knocked down. So did we really achieve anything? At this point I think at this point we’ve created an over regulatory process that doesn’t really encourage people to renovate the mills.

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Although the question of mills is bigger than just the artists, the artists in particular now find themselves in a funny position. After all, they were the ones who initiated much of the debate. But between the cost of rehabbing and the trauma of evictions, they’re now asking themselves if it still makes sense for them to be in these buildings.

BC: I think if artists were smart, and I’m not this smart yet, they would recognize that there are other industrial buildings besides mills. I think the trend is going to be away from these historic places. It’s time for artists to realize that we belong in old gas stations and old K-Marts and old Ames. That’s where we belong at this point. It used to be that these were the crap buildings of the city, and suddenly they’re the prized possessions of the city. Then it’s obviously not where we should be.

Whether or not artists continue to live in mill buildings, or opt out for old K-Marts, the questions they’ve raised, along with developers, politicians, and other city residents, have gone a long way towards identifying what challenges still remain, and what’s still at stake, as the landscape of the city continues to change.

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