Downtown is a neighborhood. That’s the first thing you need to understand. It’s a neighborhood: both in the official sense – capital ‘D’ Downtown is one of the 25 official neighborhoods recognized by the City of Providence; and the unofficial sense – little ‘d’ downtown is a place where people live, work and play.
Talk to anyone who is actively engaged in Downtown – whether a property owner/developer like Evan Granoff, who owns the Arcade, or simply an advocate like Frank LaTorre, Director of Public Space for the Downtown Improvement District (you know, those guys in the yellow jackets who clean up the streets and water the flowers) – and they will repeat those three words like a mantra: live, work, play. They are the key to a vital, thriving city center. Sure, taxes, regulations, zoning, infrastructure, and myriad other nuts and bolts factor heavily into the life (or lack thereof) of any downtown, but ultimately if people want to live, work and play in that area, everything else can be sorted out. As one office tenant, Alec Beckett of the Union Street advertising firm Nail, points out, “Obviously cost per square foot, parking availability, etc. are important considerations. But they are often given too much weight versus some of the harder to quantify factors that I think matter more: Does the neighborhood have a soul? Does it have energy? Is it interesting?”
Before we assess Downtown, we need to establish what we’re talking about when we say that word. As LaTorre sees it, the entity we know as Downtown should have three parts: Downcity (essentially Westminster Street and the surrounding blocks west of Dorrance), Capital Center (the area encompassing the mall, Waterplace Park, the train station, etc.) and the Jewelry District.
The Jewelry District is a key addition. Until very recently, no one seemed quite sure whether to consider it part of Downtown or its own separate fiefdom. The dividing line of I-195 made it easy to view them as separate entities – in fact, for a time the Jewelry District was officially a part of Upper South Providence, only to be reintegrated into Downtown after the highway came down. Now there seems to be agreement that Downtown and the Jewelry District should be a contiguous neighborhood, not just geographically, but culturally and functionally. Remove the highway and with it goes not only a physical boundary, but a mental one too. “The key is to treat the three parts of Downtown as a whole to make decisions on where density should be greatest, to what scale, and what areas should be left open for green public spaces,” LaTorre offers.
Of course, there are several smaller parts of this Downtown we’re building, each with its own unique character. There is the Financial District (basically the area between Dorrance Street and the Providence River with most of the city’s skyscrapers), which boasts several of the largest banks and corporations in the state as tenants, but is a bit less active at the street level, especially after dark, than Downcity. The recent closing of DownCity restaurant at 50 Weybosset didn’t help matters there. However, there is some positive news too. Last year, the grand space formerly known as the Federal Reserve reopened as the Dorrance. By putting a full-service restaurant into what was previously only a venue for private events and weddings, visitors and residents now have the chance to interact with and enjoy one of the most beautiful and unique commercial spaces in the city. The Procaccianti Group is about to reactivate another key space at One Custom House, former home of the dearly departed Custom House Tavern. Four of the five floors in the historic building are now leased, with Fifty Two Restaurant and Lounge set to open on the vital ground level this summer. Perhaps most important, the Arcade, too, is poised to come back on line.
The Dorrance recently opened in the former Federal Reserve space (Photo: Jonathan Beller)
There is LaSalle Square, where a new traffic circulator project will improve the flow around the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and Hasbro is expanding into the former Blue Cross building, relocating employees from its Pawtucket headquarters, and aiming to create up to 284 new jobs.
There are the three interlocking parts of Greater Kennedy Plaza: the bus station, the skating rink and Burnside Park. It’s about to see an influx from a $200,000 grant the city received as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” initiative. This will fund partnerships with arts organizations like FirstWorks, Trinity Rep, Festival Ballet and WaterFire “to bring cool programming Downtown,” as Deb Dormody, Program Manager for Greater Kennedy Plaza, puts it. There is also a component of the grant allowing RISD and the Steel Yard to focus on the design, efficiency and user-friendliness of the space. Both RIPTA and City Hall’s Department of Art, Culture + Tourism are involved as well, meaning the necessary players to implement actual change will be at the table. It all adds up to a central transportation hub for the entire state that is cleaner, safer, more efficient, and a destination in its own right.
Even in a small city like Providence, Downtown is not simply one entity with a uniform set of assets, needs and uses – it is a series of moving parts, each with its own job, but dependent on the rest to be a fully functional engine for the city.
Making Noise Downtown
Downtown has been steadily improving for several years now, but it’s been more of a slow, quiet build than a sudden burst. The Renaissance era flourish of the ‘90s and early ‘00s gave way to a transitional phase that disillusioned some while inspiring others. The arts and culture scene was dealt a series of blows when several Downtown and Jewelry District music clubs – including Lupo’s, the Met Café, the Safari Lounge, the Century Lounge, the Call and the Green Room – closed in what seemed like rapid succession. Beloved dives and haunts like Talk of the Town and New Japan were displaced too. At the same time, high-end apartment and condo projects seemed to be springing up, creating an easy correlation in the minds of disgruntled musicians and artists. The bereaved – this writer admittedly included – sneered as the housing market began to collapse and luxury condos sat unsold in nearly every building taller than a few stories. Was Downtown for us anymore? And if not, who was it for? The young professionals from Boston certainly weren’t flocking south to snatch up our comparatively cheap real estate.
While the sound of rock ‘n roll may have been conspicuously absent from Downtown, its DIY spirit remained in different forms. Restaurants and cafes sprang to life. Unique retailers followed. People began spending time Downtown for new reasons and in new places. While marquee rock shows became rare occurrences, it was suddenly possible to sit outside and watch a movie with a couple of hundred other people on a warm summer night, check out a farmer’s market on a Friday afternoon or shop for locally made arts and crafts. A weeklong “genre-defying music festival” was created, and rocked the city for eight years.
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