Class warfare in Olneyville

By IAN DONNIS  |  May 24, 2006

Not one for small ideas, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. targeted forgotten parts of the city, including the nearby Promenade District, for redevelopment as part of his ambitious Three Cities plan in the late ’90s. A combination of factors after Eagle Square, including the introduction of the state historic tax credit, the doubling of statewide real estate prices over five years, and the improved ethical perception of Cicilline’s City Hall, combined to prime the pump of development. For his part, the mayor regularly trumpets how more than $2 billion in development is taking place across the city.

A chunk of this is in the western corridor extending from the rear of the Providence Place Mall through Olneyville Square. American Locomotive (ALCO), which involves new construction and the adaptive reuse of almost 30 historic structures, is described, in fact, as the biggest local development project since the creation of the mall.

Struever Brothers says ALCO — named for one of the industrial-age companies that used to occupy the site, “will link Providence’s West Side to its downtown, and Smith Hill to Federal Hill. The project, which spans 22.5 acres along Valley and Promenade streets, will transform the historic properties into 600 new condominiums, town houses, and loft apartments, as well as office and retail space. The idea is to create a new ‘18-hour community:’ a campus of properties where people can live, work, dine and play. Also planned are hotel accommodations, structured parking, and major public improvements to the Woonasquatucket River.” Residential units at ALCO — for which Struever is seeking $41 million in tax incentives from Providence and $59 million in state historic tax credits — will run between $300,000 and $450,000, while apartments will have monthly rents of $1200 to $1800.

As part of their efforts on the West Side, Struever Brothers and Armory Revival have energetically purchased options and land, including a string of Valley Street properties near Rising Sun. Armory Revival, for example, is developing 26 townhouses condos, selling for between $181,000 and $338,000, on the far side of nearby Donigian Park, and Struever Brothers has an option to buy the Artcraft Braid building, currently used by artists, although plans for the property remain uncertain.

All in all, the developers say, they are investing in a part of the city that desperately needs economic growth, helping to provide construction jobs, and taking pressure off the housing market by adding more mid-priced units. “With all this tax-credit driven housing production right now, there is an abundance of moderately priced housing and rents have declined and vacancy has gone up,” Mark Van Noppen, one of Armory Revival’s three principals, says in an e-mail interview. “While this doesn’t reach deeply into the very low-income shortage, it helps.”

Van Noppen, who moved to the Armory District in the early ’80s, says much of Armory Revival’s focus is moderately priced “workforce housing,” and that the company strives to build community, promote economic and cultural diversity, and contribute to the city’s tax base. “Over 90 percent of the units we have created have been in vacant buildings or in vacant lots,” he writes. “We aren’t displacing people. I have to ask what those who scream for affordable housing are doing to solve the problem.”

Will the Providence bubble burst?

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