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Lofty Ambitions

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Journal photo / Sandor Bodo

Linda Carlson could live anywhere. And she has, San Francisco, St. Louis, outside of Dallas and Cambridge. Two years ago, she and her husband decided to move to Westminster Street in Providence.

Lofty ambitions

Hundreds of new condos and apartments are being built in downtown Providence. So who's moving in?

BY MICHAEL CORKERY

Journal Staff Writer - Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Web site beckons entrepreneurs and artisans to check out "what is rapidly becoming one of the most popular new areas for recreation, restaurants and urban living."

A young couple leans over a pool table. Another couple shares a tender moment in a park with antique street lights.

It's a sales pitch for the Rising Sun Mills, the big new commercial and residential development in the Valley section of Providence, on the edge of Olneyville.

Yes, Olneyville.

To many Rhode Islanders, this is a place known for New York System wieners, pawn shops, artist communes and rats; a broken industrial center, located at the bottom of Federal Hill.

According to census data, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence, if not all of Rhode Island.

Yet, the developers of the Rising Sun "loft community" have bet $45 million that they can turn a blighted corner of the city into the new thing in urban living.

Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse of Baltimore and the Armory Revival Co. of Providence are not alone.

A short walk from Rising Sun, there are more lofts near a new Shaws supermarket. Not far away, along the Woonasquatucket River and behind the mall, a Texas company has built 330 new apartments, called the Jefferson at Providence Place.

Downtown, more than 200 lofts have either been built or are under construction. On Fountain Street, next to exotic dancing at the Sportsman's Inn, a new condominium is selling for about $1 million.

City boosters see this development as nothing short of transformative; it will help revitalize depressed areas, boost the tax base, and lure employers out of the suburbs and into Providence.

The financing for these projects is backed by extensive market research, the developers say, and many of their construction bills are subsidized with tax breaks.

Now, who is going to live here?

MEET Kim Snow.

She's 29 and likes to change cities every three years. She's lived in Boston, New York City and, for the past year and a half, in a loft in downtown Providence.

She writes copy for an online marketing agency in Boston, but prefers to live in Providence and commute to work on the train.

"It has so much character, I really dig it," says Snow, about her Westminster Street loft.

When Snow arrived in town, people told her to live on the "Upper East Side," she says. But Snow fell in love with her loft, which she found listed on the Brown University Web site.

It's twice the size of the apartment she shared in New York, but half the price. [she pays $925 a month] "I saw the washer and dryer and said, 'I'm sold.' " She parks her car in the mall garage. Her biggest complaint is the lack of a grocery store downtown.

In her kitchen hangs a poster of Ozzy Osborne and her beloved disco ball. Her bedspread and the shag carpet in her living room are orange, the same color as her hair.

A native of Dudley, Mass., outside Worcester, Snow is drawn not only by the spaciousness of her loft, but by the "social diversity" of downtown Providence. She compares the scene to that of Dublin, Ireland. "There are many kinds of people."

Her bedroom overlooks Travelers Aid, a way station for the homeless, which is about to relocate to the other side of Interstate 95, away from downtown. "I didn't even notice them."

At one point, she keeps talking over the shouting that comes from the street. "Those are my neighbors," she says.

KIM SNOW might sound like a marketing pipe dream, but developers and city officials say this is no dream.

Downtown, the nearly 75 lofts built by Cornish Associates are almost fully occupied. Another 25 lofts that came on line recently in the Burgess, O'Gorman and Wilkinson buildings are about 85 percent occupied, says Michael Corso, general counsel for Cornish. These units rent for as much as $3,000 a month.

The biggest test for Westminster Street is the Peerless Building, which is turning a dusty, former department store and beer-soaked nightclub into 97 shiny new lofts, complete with underground parking and a towering glass atrium.

Construction started within hours of the last show at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel. The lofts are scheduled to open in early 2005.

"There will be critical mass once we complete the Peerless Building," Corso says.

A short walk from downtown, on the other side of the mall and I-95, is the Jefferson at Providence Place.

After a slow winter, renting at the Jefferson has picked up -- though not quite as quickly as the downtown lofts. As of last week, the complex was 60 percent full, says Dan Copeland, the regional property manager for JPI, which owns the Jefferson. "It's on target for where we thought we would be," he says.

Renting was slowed by the cold winter, a slump in the job market and low interest rates, which are attracting people to buy single-family homes, rather than rent, he says.

Monthly rents range from $1,100 for a studio to $2,300 for a two bedroom. There's a pool, movie theater and business center, as well as a parking garage. The first month's rent is free.

"We are averaging more than one new lease a day. Our occupancy will explode for June," Copeland says.

Real estate developers say they are optimistic, but not delusional. Consider Texas-based JPI, which operates in more than a dozen states. Typically, JPI researches a market for 7-12 years before deciding to invest, Copeland says. Providence was no different.

"The developers involved in these projects do their homework very carefully," says Mayor David N. Cicilline. "It's not a flash in the pan decision."

Many of these urban developments aim for two markets: young professional workers who are no longer tied to one employer and can chose to live in any city; and the so-called "empty-nesters," who are bored with the suburbs and are drawn to the urban vibe.

EDWARD SHAW and Robert Russell, best friends since Hope High School, have always had big dreams for their city.

Russell and Shaw, both 50, developed the Cosmopolitan, a 1915 building at the corner of Fountain and Mathewson streets.

They took the entire seventh floor for themselves and spared no expense. Just look at the size of their dining room table.

The black slab, resembling a runway, spans 20 feet. The table was custom-made in Miami, where both men now have houses. They used a crane to lift the table seven stories and through the window of their new "penthouse" on Fountain Street.

"We chose to live here to show people that this is the greatest city in America," says Shaw.

They have sold 4 out of the 10 luxury condos in the building; prices range from $500,000 to about $1 million. Those top units are still available, Shaw says. Each condo has two bedrooms and two baths.

"This is high-end luxury living. Providence has never had it before. We can't expect that people will embrace it right away," Russell says.

The building was cleared for occupancy in December; the first resident moved in last week. In keeping with the high-end style of the building, they said they wanted to be discreet; they declined to say much about the new resident. "We have mostly professional people and executives," Russell says.

Shaw raised two daughters in Warwick, but wanted to return to Providence when they grew up. Russell also wanted to live here.

"We looked around the East Side and there was nothing to our standards," he says. So the two friends teamed up and built the Cosmopolitan.

They occupy opposite sides of the penthouse -- Russell in one suite with two bedrooms; Shaw in the other, with three bedrooms. There are whirlpool jets in the bathtubs and flat screen televisions over the bathroom sinks.

Shaw punches a control pad that runs the sound system. Music pulses through the penthouse.

Limestone slabs cover some of floor; the rest is mahogany. There's a large bar at one end of room.

The gated parking lot is behind the Sportsman's Inn, a strip club. Other neighbors include Blue Cross & Blue Shield, The Providence Journal and a boarded-up McDonalds. The developers prefer to point out the proximity to the mall and train station.

Shaw built a business selling light fixtures. He has contracts with Target stores and at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Russell says he's in the steel business.

"There are a lot of tire kickers in this city. We are not tire kickers," Russell says. "We are just going to do it."

A HALF mile away, James DeRentis developed a cluster of store fronts and condos on a block along Westminster Street, across from Classical and Central high schools.

When he first moved in two years ago, DeRentis had to convince a local company to deliver there.

"They said: 'No one lives there. We don't have that as a residential address."'

"I'm here to tell you that people live here." DeRentis says he told the company.

Linda Carlson, 45, owns a fourth-floor loft in a nearby building, developed by the Armory Revival Co.

She and her husband, Mark, moved here from Cambridge. She works at home as a software consultant; he travels around the country in software sales. "I truly work in my bunny slippers," she says.

The Carlsons have lived in San Francisco, St. Louis and outside Dallas. About two years ago, they cashed in their Harvard Square place and bought a Providence loft -- with its soaring 21-foot ceiling, exposed brick and rooftop deck.

"We could have moved anywhere in the world," she says. Carlson likes being able to walk around the block for coffee at the White Electric cafe and volunteer in the neighborhood. The Carlsons have three cats and no children.

"People used to say, 'How is an upscale mall going to support itself,' " says Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, which pushes urban redevelopment.

"Now we have Rouse [a Baltimore company] buying the mall for half a billion dollars.

"The skeptics were wrong about the mall. And if there are skeptics about whether this revitalization can take hold, they are probably wrong about this," Wolfe says.

Given the problems in the Providence schools, urban living could be a tough sell for professionals with children. But city boosters say the influx of empty-nesters and young people will expand the tax base and create more demand for retail and entertainment.

It could even reverse the migration of jobs from the city to the suburbs, says B.J. Dupre, a principal at Armory Revival, the developer of the Rising Sun lofts, which will also house 240 high-tech jobs.

Companies will move their jobs here because there are now ample nice places for their employees to live, he says.

"It goes back and forth between the chicken and the egg," says Dupre. "Companies are less apt to relocate to Providence if there is no housing. People think, 'What is the point of moving if there is no place to work?' "

IT'S WEDNESDAY at about 8 p.m. on Westminster Street. A woman walks toward Travelers Aid, swearing aloud. A Hip Hop beat blasts from a fourth- floor loft. Friends laugh over beers and cigarettes, under the glowing orange lanterns of Tazza, a restaurant.

Kim Snow has spent more than a year living here. Although she usually leaves a city after three years, she might stick around for longer.

She's joined the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance to help spruce up the area. There's a bookstore moving into the first floor of her building. She's still waiting for a grocery store and more people to move in.

"It's like a cliffhanger," says Snow. "I can't wait to see what it's going to be like."

From The Providence Journal

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