Class warfare in Olneyville

By IAN DONNIS  |  May 24, 2006

A broader housing crisis
The tensions around West Side development — and a vanishing paucity of affordable housing — reflect a worsening statewide housing crisis. As the HousingWorks RI coalition (www.housingworksri.org) reported last week, a household with $75,000 in income is currently able to buy a median-priced single-family home in only three communities — Pawtucket, Providence, and Central Falls. Such limited access helps to explain why housing targeted to a higher income level than the norm in Olneyville, one of the poorest parts of the city, has struck such a sharp nerve among the indie-minded artists and many low-and-moderate income Latinos who call the area home. Norman Ospina, co-chair of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, calls the trend “cultural imperialism.”

The developers, of course, see things quite differently, touting their efforts as things that will enhance Providence. Bill Struever, for example, a Brown graduate whose firm has won plaudits for its adaptive reuse of historic structures, says the company hopes to play a role in creating “a mixed-use, mixed-income lively and diverse neighborhood that preserves its historic buildings, preserves its historic traditions, and captures the spirit of Olneyville and its residents.” Citing the area’s diversity as a strong asset, he says development will result in jobs for local residents, increase public access to the Woonasquatucket River, and other improvements.

Like other critics, though, Jo Dery, one of the artists who made the Rising Sun videotapes, remains convinced that the ongoing wave of West Side development will “not only divide our communities, but displace the residents.”

Addressing the City Plan Commission on April 27, when the panel made its first review of Struever Brothers’ American Locomotive project, Dery exclaimed, “I’m standing here, talking to you . . .  to ask you, who are you planning for — us or them? Because the last time I checked, we were us and they were them, from Baltimore, and now they’re telling me that I am them, and they are us. And it’s a complete reversal, and it’s really breaking my heart. It’s up to you guys. You’ve got to keep it in check.”

If critics expected the Plan Commission to put the brakes on a $333 million development in a city where Mayor David N. Cicilline has actively courted development — citing it as a vote of confidence in his administration and a source of much-needed investment — they were bound to be disappointed.

Although Struever Brothers was able to rebut critics’ previous remarks with the introduction of a five-page letter, the more than 100 people who turned out for the commission’s May 16 meeting at the Providence Public Safety Complex were taken by surprise when they were not allowed to comment. By the time when the commission approved the master plan, on a 4-1 vote — after backing some city recommendations on local hiring and similar needs — the project seemed like a done deal.

The west side land rush
There was a time, not that long ago, when the outer slope of Federal Hill basically marked the limits of West Side development. The lack of interest from private capital was just fine with the artists and musicians who populated Fort Thunder, the fabled arts collective that took root, creating a fertile scene with a far-flung reputation, in a forgotten mill building in Eagle Square. Yet even before the epic battle five years ago over Eagle Square’s eventual transformation into a hybrid strip mall, the surrounding area was subject to creeping interest.

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