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Dan Lawlor: Is Downtown Becoming Wayland Square?

Monday, February 18, 2013


Dan Lawlor reminisces about the old Downtown Providence and offers advice for the city's current and future transformation.

I don't want to romanticize the old downtown - it was uneasy and could be rough. However, at least during the day, it was a place my late grandmother felt comfortable visiting for a hamburger. I don't know how welcome she'd feel in some of the new places opening up.

Local artists and musicians gave downtown an identity after the big department stores closed. Regular residents supported the few businesses that survived during those interim years. As things start to improve downtown, it would be a tragedy if the spaces that empowered and inspired local artists are knocked down for more parking lots, and food affordable (and welcoming) to most of the public disappeared.

I write as a lover of downtown. I remember the old Arcade, the Safari Club, the Travelers Aid building, Lupo's, Buck a Book, the round top gas station, and the downtown McDonald's. I remember being haggled by folks desperate for cash, and occasionally being bothered by some idiot drunks outside a bar. I remember meeting folks with countless bad luck stories and being a little bit nervous trying to grab a bite at night. I remember an odd establishment that had "Italian-Indian-American" Food. The first variant of Cuban Revolution was in a delightfully cramped space, where you could hear the guitarist Nino Moran play on weekends. Tazza used to have bright red walls and kooky open mic nights, the Black Rep Theater Co hosted Sound Session back in its heyday, and AS220 was one storefront, not three buildings. The Cortellessa building once had store fronts and apartments, and wasn't a burnt out empty shell. Not all of the old downtown was safe, or decent - but, at least during the day, there were affordable places for people to grab a bite.

A Better Version of Downtown

By most accounts, Wayland Square is a nice neighborhood spot in the city's East Side. It has a large condo tower, several bookstores, a bank, coffeeshops and restaurants. It's pleasant. As much as I like it, affordability isn't the first word I would use to describe it. Downtown should not aim to become Wayland Square West, but should become a better version of downtown. A lot of good has happened in the last ten years, but with a few missteps, the quirky charm of Providence at its best will fade.

The creative place-making in Providence of the early 2000s - open mic nights, street music, cheap rents, artist lofts - is turning a bit more polished. The new Cuban Revolution and the remodeled Tazza are very different places from their earlier incarnations. Saki's has updated from a great dive bar to a stylized diner (the food's still good). The old building housing New Japan, Cuban, and Talk of the Town, alongside the old McDonald's, were knocked down- for a hotel condo that was never built. Both sites are now parking lots owned by Civic Center Parking Associates. Adjacent to the CCPA lot are two mixed-use buildings owned by AS220 (The Dreyfus Hotel and the Merchantile Block). AS220's work is connected to the best of place-making in Providence -finding economically sustainable ways to support non-profits, taxpaying businesses, and artists in a mixed use space.

Unfortunately, not all organizations are aiming for sustainable place. The ill-maintained Parkade Garage was destroyed and is now a parking lot. The site of the old Travelers' Aid Building is now a bocce court and downtown parking lot. Buck a Book is now a parking lot. The Franciscan priests closed shop. The Arcade owners forced out over half a dozen merchants a few years back, and now are in the process of bringing in more polished sets to replace them. Whose downtown is this?

The Key is Balance

Key aspects of the arts economy have faded: The Custom House Tavern, Perishable Theater (thankfully many performance groups connected with it still have a home through AS220), The Agenda Magazine, and, why not, 38 Studios. What is filling the void? 

The proposal to turn the Superman Building into a condo tower leaves me surprised -didn't we already see numerous condo towers constructed in the last ten years? What's the occupancy rate at the Waterplace Towers? Did 110 Westminster ever find the financing it needed? A mixed use facility would seem ideal - ensuring a balance of, perhaps, private business, state offices, academic research, apartments and conference space. Too many eggs in one basket is a bad idea. Five years from now, Downtown should still have the Dorrance and Eddie & Son. Each serves a role.

Columnists past and present in the last ten years have written of the city's transformation, from Bob Kerr deriding a Disney World Providence to Ian Donnis writing "Beneath a thin veneer, Providence is a poor, violent city," to Providence Monthly's infamous exploration of the city's (large) seedier aspects in "Strip Club Confidential." David Brussat once wrote, "The more that a downtown's buildings have been replaced by parking lots, the easier it is to find parking -- and the harder it is to find a reason to park." We're losing too many downtown spaces in the name of progress - or, worse yet, promised progress.

The major problems Providence has with lack of jobs, poverty, poor schools, racism, overcrowded buses, domestic and street violence are still here. Developing the city in such a way that those problems are out of site, out of mind for the more well-connected of us doesn't solve those problems - and won't protect downtown from falling victim to a development bubble, again. A mixed use economy needs to be downtown's focus - to overbank on one industry will not help the city grow in the future, and threatens to leave out people today.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the parking lots belonging to Civic Center Parking Associates as being property of AS220. As David Dvorchak of AS220 wrote, "We remain committed to the revitalization and enlivening of downtown Providence, not the proliferation of parking lots."


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