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Downtown Providence of today vastly different from city of early '90s

Wave of development, taken for granted by many students, is result of revitalization over last decades

Providence Today: First in a series
Though some Brown students may question Providence's status as a veritable metropolis in comparison to their homes - whether New York, London, Tokyo or Islamabad - they seem to agree about one thing: they like it here.

In a Herald poll conducted at the beginning of the semester, almost 75 percent of students claimed to like or love the city of Providence, compared to just 2.3 percent who said they hate it.

Today, downtown Providence is experiencing a flurry of development. A tower of luxury condominiums is under construction on Westminster Street, just down the block from where Rhode Island School of Design students moved into brand-new residence halls in the fall. Empty space in existing buildings downtown is being converted into lofts, buoyed by economic incentive from a generous tax credit for development in historic buildings. The world headquarters for lottery operator GTECH is being erected in front of the Providence Place Mall - itself a recent addition to the cityscape - and construction is underway for two more condominium towers on the other side of Riverwalk. Construction is also planned for the relocation of Interstate 195, which will open up prime waterfront space in about two years.

Many students, living in Providence only as long as they attend the University, have a hard time imagining the Renaissance City any other way. Indeed, development has been going on in the city for longer than the four years of an undergraduate education. But the city has undergone major changes since the early 1990s, before the days of the mall, when the river was still covered by a four-lane highway and downtown was deserted after dark.

"In 1992, it was scary to stand on Westminster Street at 10 p.m. - cars would go by with four or five scary youths," said Rich Lupo, owner of Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel and director of the Providence Scrabble Club, which for some years held its meetings in the Blue Room at Faunce House.

The arts and revitalization

Lupo has been in the live music business in Providence since 1974. He rented space at 93 Westminster St. - which has since been purchased by local developer Buff Chase of Cornish Associates and today is in the heart of a downtown historic and arts district - between 1993 and 2003 and, before that, occupied space down the block between 1975 and 1988. Lupo currently shares space at the Strand with nightclub Diesel. He said real estate development in Providence has always played a big role in the livelihood of his business.

He emphasized the link between arts and entertainment to the overall development of a city, expressing frustration over complaints he has received about the nature of his clientele and certain drunken, late-night incidents that occur in the city around 2 a.m., when most clubs and bars must close for the night.

"Real estate developers feel that their property values will maintain their highest values if there isn't a kid peeing on their doorstep," Lupo said, adding that extending the 2 a.m. curfew by an hour would solve some late-night problems.

"There's a constituency (of people) that doesn't want partiers downtown, (but) you need a lot of people for safety," Lupo said. "It's got nothing to do with the pieces of art strewn along the waterfront. There are 5,000 20-year-olds downtown on a Friday (night) - they're largely the same as they were in 1960 and 1980. They're not murderers," he said.

Lupo formerly rented property in the Down City arts district that was part of a plan for the city drawn up in 1991 during the administration of Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. When established, the district received national acclaim for being the first of its kind in any American city. The district has since been expanded to Olneyville, but Lupo expressed skepticism about its effectiveness.

"I think the arts should develop on their own and not be implanted by developers," said Lupo, who relocated to the Strand when it became clear to him that the Westminster Street project was "really key to Buff's scheme of things and the development of the rest of the city."

"What I've learned in the last 30 years is how related real estate and music are - who would've thought?" Lupo said. In fact, brand-new condos are currently being renovated for rent in the top floors of the Strand, above Lupo's and Diesel.

Tax credits were important to Stanley Weiss, owner and founder of the Hotel Providence on Westminster Street. Weiss started out in real estate on the East Side in the 1970s, renovating several buildings along Pitman and Gano streets and the entire University Heights shopping and apartment complex. He said the Hotel Providence could never have been started without the benefits of the tax credit for historic buildings.

Weiss is also one of the developers who, in Lupo's words, "doesn't want partiers downtown."

"There are certain things that have to be corrected, and one of them is the clubs at night. Those big clubs like Diesel - you know, they have to get rid of that," Weiss said.

"At two o'clock in the morning, the city is crazy," he said. "You have such drunks coming out, going into cars and driving away - they're so loaded ... and they literally piss all over the city. You have a whole 25 policemen for the evening and thousands of marauders coming out - the city knows it's in trouble, and it has to correct that," Weiss said. "It's in the middle of a cleansing."

Weiss mentioned Lupo's as one type of "good nightlife" because it closes by 10:30 on weekend nights, though these restrictions are the very ones Lupo has mentioned in the past as limiting his establishment.

Weiss added that the University seems to him to be the only local university that has not invested in downtown Providence real estate, expressing disdain for members of the University community who do not look beyond College Hill.

"Brown has never made a public investment in downtown. ... They've turned their backs. It's amazing," Weiss said. "I wish (President) Ruth Simmons would just forget about all the black stuff for a minute and think about growing the University," he added, citing several properties on Westminster that the University could potentially be interested in.

Revitalization through the 1990s

WaterFire - the festival that takes place along the Providence River every other Saturday night between the spring and fall - may seem to many Brown students a longstanding, albeit quirky, Providence tradition. The festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2005 and would not have been possible without the major construction in the early 1990s that removed a bridge - listed in Guinness World Records as the world's widest - and relocated the raised railroad tracks which ran between City Hall and the State House.

Billed as a transportation project, the uncovering of the river was funded largely by the federal and state government but left Providence residents with a revamped downtown that barely resembled its previous self.

"The struggle through the '80s and early '90s was to try to figure out how to make things happen - how to make anything happen," said Thomas Deller, director of planning for the city, who came to Providence in 1989. Until the late 1980s, Westminster Street, from Dorrance to Empire streets, was a pedestrian mall created in 1969 as part of an effort to save city merchants from suburbanization and one-stop shopping malls.

Providence Place Mall was a similar attempt at urban revitalization - but that attempt, unlike the pedestrian mall, was successful, Deller said.

"The mall really changed the way people thought about Providence - I think leaders really did a great job preserving the historic character (of the city) and did things that would bring people into the city," he said. "People get very annoyed when I say this, but in many ways we have to acknowledge that some people think of us as a suburb of Boston: it's cheaper to live here, city life with great venues," Deller added.

A development boom

By 2000, according to Deller, Providence had become a hot spot for development.

"We're probably in the biggest development boom that a city has seen since the '20s," Deller said. Of the $3 billion currently going toward Providence development projects, over $950 million is downtown.

"We're in a situation now where developers look at Providence very differently: (as) a place to make money," Deller said. "In the long run the things that will determine the growth and success (of Providence) are what policy decisions are made to effect potential to bring jobs into the state."

Deller cited the tax credit for developments in historic buildings, which spurred much of the development in downtown Providence, as one such decision.

Deller acknowledged the concerns of club owners like Lupo, conceding that a decision regarding closing times is "a policy discussion that's going to have to involve lots and lots of people." He mentioned that most other communities in Rhode Island have laws requiring bars and clubs to close at 1 a.m., which often results in an influx of partiers into the city between 1 and 2 a.m.

"We have to figure out a way that the two can coexist," Deller said. "You have to have art life, you have to have clubs. ... The ultimate question is, 'How do you balance all of those things?'"

Kelo v. New London

One recent Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New London, could have huge implications for Providence's future.

In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that local governments can force property owners to sell their property to make way for private economic development, if the local government believes the development would benefit the public. A controversial 5-4 ruling, which then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor voted against, it markedly increases a local government's power to use eminent domain for urban revitalization.

The decision has particular meaning for economically under-performing cities in the Northeast - the development program in question in the case was the plan of New London, Conn., to turn 90 acres of waterfront land into facilities to service a $300 million research center built by pharmaceuticals company Pfizer.

For the time being, the state of Connecticut has frozen new developments enabled by the ruling until provisions are drawn up that better protect homeowners. Rhode Island was also one of the seven states to introduce legislation to limit eminent domain following the Supreme Court's ruling, but it remains unclear how the decision might affect the future of development in Providence and the rest of the state.



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