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PBN: Some of Providence’s poorest neighborhoods are attracting developers. Residents want a say in what happens next

Published on May 24, 2017

By Mary MacDonald

Doug Victor, a 32-year resident of the Elmwood neighborhood in South Providence, wants to encourage economic development there that will help create jobs and services for local people.

But he and other residents are wary of development launched with little public engagement, citing plans for a relocated state parole office in an adjoining neighborhood.

“Four zip codes, and it wasn’t vetted in the community,” Victor said. “We found out about it after it was already authorized by the state.”

Now, as ground-up construction and redevelopment reach across Interstate 95 from the downtown to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the new investments are eliciting mixed feelings.

In recent months, proposals for two new hotels, a medical-services center at the former Flynn Elementary School and new-housing development have emerged in South Providence. A long-vacant theater, the Bomes Theater, is being positioned for new uses in Elmwood.

And Room & Works Providence, a former industrial mill, newly converted to market-rate apartments and shared work space, has evolved into a new microneighborhood in West Elmwood.

They bring the potential for jobs, newly renovated apartments and redevelopment of vacant or underused spaces, along with investment of millions of dollars in the neighborhoods.

But many neighborhood activists and residents, and their elected advocates, worry stereotypical patterns of development will re-emerge – without community involvement – that concentrate on services and facilities for the poor, disabled and addicted.

Similar to the concerns about the impact on the neighborhood of the parole office, a proposal to convert the former St. Joseph Hospital into apartments and services for the homeless has also angered longtime residents.

In some cases, they worry about gentrification, and being forced from apartments and houses they can afford.

Others don’t want the community to be known as the social-services capital of Rhode Island. They are advocating for mixed-use opportunities that won’t push out existing businesses.

Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, a representative of Elmwood and South Elmwood on the Providence City Council, summed up the feelings in the communities: “Our neighborhood is a poor neighborhood,” she said. “We want respect. We want someone to listen to us.”

On a recent Saturday morning, more than 100 residents of South Providence turned out for a brainstorming session hosted by the city’s planning department. The audience of varying ethnic backgrounds, races and ages, including crawling babies, presented South Providence as one of the city’s most diverse sections.

The session focused on the future of Broad Street, a commercial thoroughfare that runs through South Providence. Long a haven for small and independent businesses, the street nevertheless has pockets of boarded-up buildings.

Several historic landmarks in the community, including the Bomes Theater and the Broad Street Synagogue, remain vacant.

Residents and business owners told city officials what they don’t want: more housing, temporary or otherwise, focused exclusively on the homeless or mentally ill, or development of fast-food restaurants or discount grocery stores.

Their wish list resembled those of many other neighborhoods: more mixed-use commercial spaces, particularly new, affordable apartments; a full-service grocery store; performing arts and community meeting spaces; and more business development.

Victor, who was in the audience, a few weeks later said he wants developers to simply talk more to neighborhood representatives about their projects: “What are the social, economic and environmental gains for that neighborhood?”

HIGHWAY HOTELS

Two new hotels west of Interstate 95, including one in the upper South Providence neighborhood, have been proposed in recent months and appear to be heading for final approval.

Both would be constructed over parking lots, and have been advanced by development teams in concert with national hotel chains.

The 91-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites is proposed for a site at 371 Pine St., beside the service road that runs parallel to the highway, and next to Crossroads Rhode Island.

Another plan in the Federal Hill neighborhood would place a 76-room Best Western Glo on a cleared site at 322 Washington St., which also runs along the service road.

Both have received some pushback from neighborhood residents, for varying reasons. Opposition to Best Western Glo and the Holiday Inn have centered on design issues.

The Best Western will face the highway, while the Holiday Inn will face Pine Street, its landscaping and parking area positioned between Crossroads and the new facility.

Victor said the imagery matters.

“What’s happening there along that service road? Is there going to be a wall of buildings facing the downtown, [with] their backs to South Providence? Is it going to bring any revenue to South Providence, or are they going to zip into there, and zip out?” he said.

In a letter, Kari N. Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, challenged the developers to devise a design that exceeds what she described as “nondescript, suburban style.”

“Why does Providence get less?” she said. “We can start right now and insist that these hotels …are great, new buildings. … Or, we can give in to our low self-esteem and settle for the cheapest of these brands’ prototype designs in our desperation for development.”

Jay Patel, of Sarchi Group, the Massachusetts-based developer of the six-story Best Western Glo, said in a recent interview that he had revised the design of the building to better reflect neighbor concerns. The midpriced hotel is being marketed to millennials and business travelers.

The Holiday Inn Express is being advanced by the Rhode Island-based Hotel Associates LLC. The five-story structure will be within walking distance of downtown Providence and its attractions. The development team planned to speak with neighborhood residents about its plans.

RENEWED ACTIVISM

Dwayne Keys is the chairman of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, which formed in December 2015 and recently expanded to include both upper and lower South Providence.

A native of Delaware, Keys came to the city 18 years ago to attend Johnson & Wales University, and settled in South Providence. As a community activist, he identified a mix of concerns within the neighborhoods.

People want jobs and greater access to services. But when development is proposed, it rarely has the kind of economic or market analysis that takes the community needs into account, he said. Many residents are still unsure of what role they play in community development.

The neighborhood association, which now has more than 25 active members, recently scheduled a meeting with city officials to discuss how development proceeds in the city and what kind of influence the community should expect to have.

The city seems to want to encourage economic development, but the process should take into account what neighborhoods need too, he said.

In 2004, when Crossroads Rhode Island purchased and moved into the old neighborhood YMCA from a downtown location, many residents were caught unaware, Keys said.

Partly because of its proximity to the facility, the hotel development proposed by Holiday Inn Express has raised suspicion among some neighborhood residents. Why would a national hotel company agree to develop a site adjacent to an overnight shelter?

Crossroads Rhode Island has said, repeatedly, that the organization is not moving.

“People have thought, with that hotel going up, we would be moving,” said Crossroads President Karen A. Santilli. “It’s certainly not true.”

In a recent interview, she said the speculation made her realize that many people don’t understand who Crossroads is serving at its 160 Broad St. center.

Yes, it operates an overnight shelter, but most of the people who visit the site are living in the apartments in the tower structure, or receiving support services at the center. Most of them are from Providence. “We have 200 people who live in this community, who vote,” she said.

Crossroads is often unfairly blamed for the behavior of people, or for trash that is strewn, in the parking lot beside it, Santilli said. The parking lot, as well as an unoccupied office structure, would be converted to the Holiday Inn Express.

She supports the plan. “They are taking [the place] of an abandoned structure and an abandoned parking lot that’s become a dumping ground.”

Of the hotel project, Keys said some residents are concerned that the higher-end development will push residents out of the community.

“This project would increase the property values,” he said. “Will existing residents be able to stay here, in terms of rent, or property taxes if they own their own homes?”

Even before the recent commercial interest, property values in the neighborhoods south and west of I-95 were rising, according to information released by Vision Government Solutions, a company that conducted the 2015 citywide revaluation.

Property values in Wards 8, 9, 10 and 11, which include South Providence, the West Side and Washington Park, rose by 8-17 percent from the last revaluation, in 2012, according to the summary. That generally outpaced Providence as a whole, which rose 9.5 percent.

The affordability issue is a tremendous concern in the neighborhoods, Keys said. “That’s why our neighbors have said it’s almost as if our neighborhood is under siege.”

INVESTMENT NEEDED

Despite the recent increase in valuation, residents along Broad Street are among the poorest in the state.

The area has the highest concentration of social-service locations in the city, according to the planning department.

Of the seven homeless shelters for individuals in Rhode Island, three are in the 02907 zip code, which includes Greater South Providence.

The community has a large foreign-born population, and many residents speak a language other than English. Almost one-third of the population lives in poverty, which is double the rate of other communities in the city.

The median household income is about half of that of metro Providence.

And yet, despite all this, residents point out that Broad Street has attracted a series of small businesses, many operated by immigrants. They cater to the needs of the community. There are auto-repair shops, restaurants, clothing stores – all operated by small-business owners.

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza opened the March community conversation about Broad Street with a quick reminder about the city’s planning process. He emphasized his expectation that Providence is committed to a process that engages residents.

He cited his efforts to gain a community consensus on the rehabilitation of the 6-10 Connector, and new programming for Kennedy Plaza, as examples.

“We’re here once again, on Upper Broad Street, for this same process. To have a similar conversation about the community we want to see,” he said, addressing the morning crowd at the Southside Cultural Center.

In an interview following the meeting, Elorza said the message he got from the session was that people want to have a say in the future of their neighborhoods.

“They want to see more investment in their neighborhoods. They’re not anti-development,” he said. “But they want to proactively craft a vision for this neighborhood and they feel that hasn’t happened, at least up until this point.”

The area is seeing more development activity, Elorza said, citing the two hotel developments. In addition, the city-owned Bomes Theater could be a catalyst. The city has a structural engineer examining the building, to determine how much of it can be salvaged for redevelopment.

In mid-April, Elorza announced additional investments in cultural, artistic and tourism efforts in the area along Broad Street. This will include $4.3 million more in state and city funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, placemaking and cultural-tourism initiatives aimed at increasing experiential travel to the area, which is a central location for Latino restaurants and retail shops.

When city planners asked residents to come up with concrete suggestions for future development, brainstorming tables came up with similar lists.

Wanted: Rental housing; business incubators; a community kitchen; beautification effort.

On the list of negatives to avoid, one table highlighted: “Development without a long-term vision.”

ST. JOSEPH HOSPITAL

Of all the recent development proposals that have caused concern in the community, none has had more impact than the recent purchase of the largely vacated St. Joseph Hospital, by former Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.

He angered many residents with his plans, announced at a press conference, to redevelop the site to include 140 microapartment units for homeless residents.

Opponents say the community is not opposed to providing shelter for people who need it, but it does not want to be taking in more than its fair burden.

Paolino, who introduced his vision for transforming the nine-story St. Joseph building into modern apartments for the homeless to much derision, has not backed away from the idea.

He does concede he erred by not speaking first with people in the community. But the need is there, he argued.

“Providence and Rhode Island have a growing homelessness problem,” he said. “I am from the school of thought where we should find solutions to the problem.”

His purchase of the property in Elmwood, along with several adjoining sites, came after he had discussions with service-agency heads, as chairman of the Downtown Improvement District, who told him the problem was a lack of housing.

On Dec. 28, Paolino purchased the hospital building from Prospect Charter Care SJHSRI LLC, along with its 2.34-acre surrounding site. The purchase price was $99,000, according to city real estate records. A Paolino entity, Urban Land Development Co. LLC, acquired another 28 properties from Prospect on surrounding streets on the same date, mostly small, surface parking lots. The combined 3 acres was sold for another $1,000, according to city title records.

The properties purchased by Paolino had a combined assessed value of $60.9 million, according to Providence tax-assessor records. However, all of the associated lots and undeveloped sites purchased on Dec. 28 were classified by the city tax collector’s office as tax exempt, according to a note from City Collector John A. Murphy.

A tax-stabilization agreement between the city and Prospect CharterCare, which was approved in 2014 after the local CharterCare system partnered with the for-profit Prospect Medical Holdings Inc., covered the hospital property, as well as the surrounding sites. It provided for phased-in property taxes to begin that fiscal year, initially at $600,000 and reaching a minimum of $2.5 million annually by 2019.

The press conference Paolino scheduled to announce his plans was beset by angry protests. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo was there, but exited without speaking.

Paolino is now trying to retrace a path toward reaching consensus on how to develop the site. His renderings of interior rooms show modern, compact microunits.

Paolino envisions modern, efficient housing for homeless individuals, coupled with social services within the building that can help them maintain stable lives.

“If we are going to take care of this problem, I want to work with the housing nonprofits that are already in the Elmwood neighborhood,” he said.

'ABOUT DEMAND'

Some developments have moved forward with neighborhood blessing and input. Activists such as Keys cite the planned redevelopment of the former Flynn Elementary School, on Blackstone Street. The site has been cleared for development, and the Providence Redevelopment Authority has negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement with The Aspen Group of North Reading, Mass.

The company plans to purchase the site for $2.1 million, and work with local architect Vision 3 Architects on a $30 million to $40 million development, according to Brian Kelleher, a partner in The Aspent Group.

The project would include 100,000 square feet of commercial space between two buildings. An exterior patio and green space were designed to benefit the community, according to Keys.

The company specializes in medical facilities and offices, and most recently completed the WaterFire Arts Center, on Valley Street in Providence, as well as Amos House on Friendship Street.

The likely tenants will include medical and professional offices, and perhaps research, Kelleher said. The site is in the heart of the hospital district, which is primarily what drove Kelleher’s interest, he said.

“It has two major hospitals, essentially right next door. In many municipalities, those can create demand. This is about demand. You’re trying to find a segment of the market that’s exhibiting demand,” he said.

The company worked with neighborhood groups and had several discussions, Kelleher said. As a result, it plans to try to hide the parking lot behind the buildings, and will include a public space that is inviting and will draw people into the site.

“This is [a site] that has more of a nearby neighborhood,” he said. “It seemed like it was the right thing to do, to engage the neighborhood. Usually, at the end of the day, you end up with a better product when you have an engaged process.”

In Elmwood, the Montessori Community School of Rhode Island recently renovated a historic schoolhouse building at 73 Stanwood St., then created a new addition that attached the structure to a renovated industrial garage.

In the West Elmwood area, the renovation of a former industrial mill, the Klein Building, on Cromwell Street, has resulted in Room & Works. The project includes 52 modern apartments, shared work space and a soon-to-open commercial kitchen that will be operated as an incubator space for food entrepreneurs.

Federico Manaigo, the New York-based developer, said the development team was primarily attracted to the neighborhood by the advantages of the historic mill building and the extended site.

“You obviously have to be bullish, in the sense that you have to take a long view of the area, that it will gentrify and improve, like the West End has done in general.”

What has been discouraging, he admitted, is the feeling among some in Providence that it’s OK to put city problems in one area.

“We like this area a lot,” he said.

Part of his optimism comes from seeing similar patterns play out in other communities with the same pluses. “There are places … in Brooklyn, I could have taken you 10 years ago and you wouldn’t want to get out of the car. Now, you can’t find a one-bedroom for under $2,200 a month. You have to look at the greater picture, and the building was a big part of it.”

Courtesy of Providence Business News