Downtown Providence is Moving Up

by David Foucher
EDGE Publisher
Friday Sep 9, 2005
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PROVIDENCE, RI - It’s called “Downcity” – a seven to eight square block section of downtown Providence that once represented a vibrant economy for one of the richest places in America back in the late 1800s, but that in decades to follow fell into abandonment and disrepair. Ten years ago these magnificent mercantile buildings stood dilapidated and largely vacant, as if a neutron bomb had been lobbed into the streets; but the gay community nevertheless adopted Downcity as home. With a massive revitalization effort into its 10th year, Providence has become a viable, upscale gay destination.

“It started with the Rhode Island School of Design,” explains Ari Heckman, a member of Cornish Associates, which has been an instrumental developer in the revitalization. “They deliberately moved part of their operation to the other side of the river here to help revitalize the area. Since then, it’s been a huge collaborative effort.”

Cornish has opened five residential buildings along Westminster Street, offering 197 loft rentals and a handful of newly-renovated commercial space to those who want to live and work in the area. Rents are affordable – from $850 for a traditional studio loft to $3300 for a 3,000 square foot duplex loft with a private bedroom overlooking the Providence skyline. The largest building, called Peerless, features a seven-story inner atrium, underground parking, and a spacious urban roof garden. It opened in June, and is already half rented, despite final detail construction still in development along its halls.

“We’ve got five of these buildings,” explains Francis Scire, also of Cornish. “They’re already 97% rented, except Peerless – and we know those lofts will go fast. We built these lofts so that they could be converted to condos in the future, so they’re beautifully appointed.”

In fact, most lofts have modern stainless-steel appliances in the kitchens, stone-topped island counters, and the unmistakable architectural flair of early century New England.

“People want to live here,” Scire asserts, gesturing to the traffic on the sidewalk outside the Tazza Café, situated on the ground floor of the Alice Building at 236 Westminster. “Look out there - it’s happening. This is where people come to have coffee now. This is where people come to go out at night.”

To support Downcity’s new life, local property owners have dedicated resources for a daily safety patrol and cleaning crew. A new parking garage is breaking ground this year. Commercial space is being upgraded to support high-end retailers such as Design Within Reach, which recently established a ground-floor showroom in the district. Scire has developed a co-op art gallery behind Tazza, and upscale hair salons, bookstores and restaurants are beginning to take residence.

The work required an investment of $105 million for Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr., who initiated the Westminster Street project and fought for years against then-mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr., to push the effort forward.

“It was a huge investment for [Buff],” Scire confirms. “And for most of the people involved in this project, including him, it’s not about financial return. People want to be a part of this. People have caught the vision.”

When Cianci was sentenced to prison in 2002 on charges of curruption and David. N. Cicilline took office, the friction eased. Cicilline is the United States’ first openly gay mayor of a state capital, and the economic redevelopment of Downcity coincides geographically with Providence’s burgeoning gay nightlife.

“The gay community has been here all along,” Scire confirms. “They’ve been our early adopters. You can rent a loft here for the same price as a closet in Boston, and it takes a half hour to get back and forth.”

In the cycle of urban renewal, the gay population is well-respected for its ability to assist developers in gaining critical mass, and despite the seemingly inevitable escalation in the cost to do business, the Providence community appears to be – at least for now - supportive of the gay enterprises that inhabit these streets.

“A significant population of our residencies is gay males,” states Heckman. “The gay community is often on the forefront of adopting hip new places to live.”

That reality might be a significant driving force behind the embracing warmth of this community, but it’s difficult to ignore the growing vibrancy of Downcity.

As Scire puts it: “We’re just getting started.”


On the web:

Westminster Street Lofts:

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his husband and daughter in Dedham MA.


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