While students on College Hill may pay little attention to the backdrop of constant construction in downtown Providence, some can remember when the cityscape was devoid of the several high-rises that have cropped up in recent months.
Many of these projects are luxury condominiums and mixed-use spaces, including One Ten Westminster, the Westin Providence and Waterplace.
One Ten Westminster is a 35-story high-rise that, upon its completion, will become Providence’s tallest building and, arguably, its only skyscraper at 520 feet tall.
The building, which is being developed by BlueChip Properties, will house luxury condominiums and a hotel and feature such amenities as a rooftop garden and a full spa, according to the company’s Web site. The project is scheduled for completion in 2007.
Competing with One Ten will be the Westin Providence, an extension of the existing Westin Hotel. In addition to parking and retail space, the lower 16 floors will include hotel rooms adjoining the current hotel. The upper floors will house luxury condominiums.
Waterplace, another high-rise luxury condominium project, is also scheduled for completion in 2007. The two-towered complex will house 193 luxury condominiums, 158 parking spaces and retail around the perimeter of the building, which is adjacent to Waterplace Park.
The revitalization of a dying city
It was not too long ago that many considered Providence to be a city with an uncertain future, said Thom Deller, director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development.
Almost two decades later, the city has become one of the most promising real estate markets in the Northeast, thanks to a dramatic turnaround led by growth in the downtown area, Deller said.
Deller added that the turnaround can be traced back about 15 years ago, when the bridge covering the Providence River was removed and the riverfront was revitalized as the centerpiece of a new vision for Providence.
With the destruction of the bridge came efforts to develop the land alongside the river as a park, encouraging foot traffic downtown. The result, Waterplace Park, has become an integral part of new development in the city. The 1999 opening of Providence Place Mall, which brought thousands of new jobs and visitors to the city, was another important step in Providence’s recovery.
Though downtown’s revitalization and beautification was ongoing throughout the 1990s, no new high-rises were being constructed in the city, Deller said.
The drought of new construction came to an end with the groundbreaking of the new GTECH headquarters in 2004. A subsidiary of the Italian lottery giant Lottomatica, GETCH moved its headquarters from West Greenwich, R.I. to Providence, bringing with it a new $80-million building and 500 employees. The building will also generate $20 million in tax revenue over the next 20 years, according to GTECH’s Web site.
The GTECH building overlooks Waterplace Park and served as the impetus for other downtown construction projects, Deller said.
“Providence has really come a long way in the last 15 to 20 years,” said Nicholas Iselin, director of development and construction for the Boston-based Intercontinental group, which is building Waterplace. “We wanted to take advantage of a great opportunity that presented itself (in Waterplace Park).”
The park is an important draw for any business to the city, Iselin said, adding that recent beautification efforts and new infrastructure such as broader streets make Providence very attractive to developers.
Ralph Izzi, marketing communications director for the Procaccianti Group, a Cranston-based real estate development company that owns the Westin Providence, echoed Iselin’s feelings, and both cited tax breaks for development as an incentive for building in Providence.
Ari Heckman, director of marketing and retail leasing for Cornish Associates, a development group instrumental in the rejuvenation of downtown Providence, also cited Providence’s architectural history as one of its main draws.
“There are all of these historic buildings downtown that are just sitting there. In cities of comparable size, like Worcester (Mass.), these historical buildings don’t exist … because of some pretty serious urban renewal efforts,” Heckman said. “Fortunately, that did not happen in Providence.”
Maintaining the market
While investors are optimistic, the constructions of these luxury units, coupled with the construction of new luxury units such as the Westminster Lofts and the Jefferson condominiums behind Providence Place, threaten to overwhelm the condominium market.
Despite a recent downturn in housing prices and demand, Iselin said there is plenty of market demand for condominiums in the $300,000 to $2.5 million range, the anticipated cost of the new luxury units.
“Looking at what has happened (in the past few years), people are moving (to Providence) from the Boston area, Connecticut and New York,” Deller said. “I am sure the developers are convinced they will be able to move (their condominiums).”
“People love the Providence atmosphere, the location and the relatively low cost of living,” Iselin said. “I am convinced that we will be able to sell all of our units.”
Developers are looking for a combination of urban professionals and “upper middle-class empty-nesters” to move into the luxury condos from the suburbs, Iselin said.
“We know that the housing market is fluctuating and that some people have been talking about a decreased demand for housing, and that is bad news, but I am confident that the Providence market will more than absorb these units,” Heckman said, though he noted that the market for medium-cost condos for the middle class remains untapped and could be very profitable in the future.
Though condos have been the main focus of building in the last few years, that might not always be the case. The Procaccianti Group is in the early planning phase of a 22-story office building to be built in place of the old Providence Police and Fire Station in LaSalle Square.
In addition, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, a Baltimore-based company, is planning on developing Dynamo House, located at the old Narragansett power station in the Jewelry District, into a mixed-use commercial, hotel and residential space. It will also be the home of the new Heritage Harbor Museum.
“It is hard to predict what will happen, given the current economic climate,” Deller said.