Class warfare in Olneyville

By IAN DONNIS  |  May 24, 2006

With homelessness in Rhode Island continually reaching new highs in recent years, the persistence of high housing prices could exacerbate a situation likened by Godfrey to A Tale of Two Cities: more higher-end stuff is produced to satisfy the needs of Rhode Island transplants, while the conversion of apartments into condos continues unabated and low-wage workers are steadily priced out of the market.

Development and its discontents
In 2001, Bill Struever emerged as a potential white knight when he floated an alternative vision for Eagle Square that could have resulted in something more distinctive than Feldco Development’s hodgepodge strip mall. As the Phoenix reported at the time, Struever — who was named Marylander of the year for 2000 by the Sun of Baltimore — had earned a reputation as a dedicated volunteer and civic-minded developer who favors preserving old buildings and putting them to a new use, despite the higher cost, rather than razing them.

Now, though, at least for a cadre of impassioned critics on the West Side, Struever has become the face of unwelcome change. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the sheer amount of development being spearheaded by his company to the belief that Struever Brothers initially failed to consider residents’ concerns about the impact of the new growth. To these foes, Struever Brothers, which is pursuing large development projects in cities including West Warwick; Yonkers, New York; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Durham, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Wilmington, Delaware, resembles a moneymaking juggernaut above all else.

Struever, who has met with neighborhood advocates since the controversy erupted over the videotapes, describes his company as trying to do the right thing. Struever Brothers is committed to helping to deliver improvement, he says, on issues of concern to the community, like jobs, schools, and public safety. And while he faults the lack of a more organized process to foster dialogue, he concedes, “We certainly have not done as good a job as we can and we should in terms of communication and we are eager to establish a better process to work together.”

Among other efforts, Struever cites a $16 million investment to renovate a blighted mill at 60 Valley St. “that will be entirely focused on community needs including creating safe, affordable living and work space.” In what is believed to be the first such effort, Struever Brothers is also offering relocation assistance, through the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space, for the small businesses being displaced from the ALCO site.

Still, considering critics’ unresolved concerns, one has to wonder about the extent to which the fundamental issues will be addressed.

A case is point is affordable housing. After critics pointed out how Struever Brothers is seeking $100 million in tax breaks for American Locomotive, the firm agreed to make 20 percent of ALCO’s units affordable, as defined by Rhode Island Housing. While proponents say this will place the housing within the reach of nurses and other workers, critics point out how criteria for affordability is being based on the citywide average, not the $19,000 income of a typical resident in Olneyville. (Similarly, critics call Struever’s Puente project at 60 Valley St., well intentioned, but still more costly than the area norm.)

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