Tensions remain hot on west side development

City watch
By IAN DONNIS  |  May 10, 2006

Critics have suspected for several years that a string of development on Providence’s West Side — radiating from the back of the Providence Place Mall and continuing toward Olneyville Square — was nothing less than the cutting edge of gentrification. Such fears were only confirmed recently when a leasing agent for Rising Sun Mills, a loft-style apartment complex on Valley Street, harshly described an “us vs. them” atmosphere in a surreptitiously recorded videotape.

Although Rising Sun’s developers, the Armory Revival Company of Providence and Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore, disassociated themselves from the comments made by Karen Shugrue (who resigned her sales job with Armory Revival), the remarks brought a divisive debate into the open. When the videotapes were posted on the www.rifuture.org blog, the two artists who recorded the remarks were hailed as heroes by members of the local indie community and bitterly condemned by self-described residents of Rising Sun.

Last Thursday, May 4, in an attempt to address some of the related concerns, Bill Struever of Struever Brothers met at Rising Sun with some Olneyville artists, including Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt, and other interested parties. Although both sides cite the need for more dialogue and a more inclusive approach to development, it remains to be seen what will happen with the matter at hand — a building near Olneyville Square utilized by Chippendale and some other artists, which Struever Brothers has an option to buy.

Struever, who left a huddle with Mayor David N. Cicilline to get to the meeting with the artists, says Struever Brothers — which is pursuing the American Locomotive mixed-use development in the shadow of the mall — wants to try to address community concerns. “We believe there needs to be a more organized planning process of the Valley neighborhood that involves all of the stakeholders in an effective way, in a constructive dialogue about the challenges, the opportunities, and the concerns, so that people aren’t being surprised and feeling that they don’t have a voice,” Struever says.

But Laura Mullen, the artists’ affordable housing liaison for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, is skeptical about such talk, both when it comes to the Olneyville building under discussion and the larger questions of who benefits from development in Providence, and how it takes place. Mullen, who participated in the May 4 meeting and has taken part in other discussions with Struever Brothers and Armory Revival, says Olneyville “is struggling to maintain its cohesiveness and I would hope that those guys would be a willing participant in that struggle.”

Plans for the Olneyville building remain up in the air; Struever says his company may or may not go ahead with a purchase.

Part of the broader difficulty stems from Cicilline administration’s enthusiasm for development, in part since cash-poor Providence needs to build its tax base. There could come a time, though, when the indie artists who lend the city considerable cachet (like Chippendale, who has been bounced out of a string of homes) find that Providence is no longer a hospitable environment.

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