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PROPOSAL: Dyer Block (Saki's)

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Saki's owner looks to go upscale in Downcity

Dionisios P. Sampalis has a $3-million plan to renovate his Weybosset Street building to include apartments, a new restaurant and possibly a penthouse suite.

BY GREGORY SMITH

Journal Staff Writer | Thursday, August 5, 2004

weybosset.jpg

PROVIDENCE - The oldest structure in Downcity, which houses Saki's Pizza House on Weybosset Street, would be rehabilitated and its upper floors converted to apartments in a project sponsored by the proprietor of Saki's.

The $3-million plan would upgrade Saki's from an unpretentious pizzeria that caters to a sometimes raucous late-night bar crowd to what proprietor Dionisios P. "Dennis" Sampalis describes as a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant comparable to Pizzeria Uno.

And it would represent another step in the reinvigoration of Downcity as a diversified neighborhood enlivened by residential and commercial uses.

The 15 apartments would augment the hundreds of residential units that have been built or are in the works in Downcity. Sampalis, a native of Greece who lives with his wife, Vasso, in Cranston, is thinking about living in a penthouse that might be constructed on top of the 19th-century building.

"The city's changing. I'm getting older and I want to spend more time with my family. I don't want to stay late at night [at Saki's] anymore," the 45-year-old Sampalis said this week. "Now we want to change our image. We're changing with the city."

For years, city officials considered Saki's to be a magnet for trouble because some people who spilled out of the bars in Providence and the nearby suburbs at closing time would congregate there. Violence and vandalism occurred nearby, and Saki's was held responsible.

The low wall of a large, neglected city planter on the sidewalk outside became a hangout for the homeless and petty criminals during day and night.

Despite Sampalis' protests that he was being unfairly blamed for the actions of people who drank too much somewhere else, the city eventually took away his so-called "overnight license." That forced him to close daily at 2 a.m. rather than his customary 3 a.m. or so.

"There were plenty of times I wanted to give up" because of the pressure from City Hall and the Police Department, said Sampalis, who will mark the 22nd anniversary of his business on Monday, Victory Day.

As recently as several years ago, former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. tried to have the Saki's building demolished or moved a short distance to make way for a performing-arts high school.

The plan for the school was shelved because of a lack of money.

Despite the pressures, Sampalis has thrived in business. He holds a Del's Lemonade franchise, which includes pushcarts and stores in Providence Place mall and in Cranston, and a Saki's Pizza House in Watch Hill, Westerly.

It was an irony of sorts that although Sampalis had to defend against the misbehavior of drunken people who might or might not have been his patrons, his Downcity pizzeria did not serve alcohol.

But his new restaurant will. Apparently encouraged by Sampalis' project, the city Board of Licenses recently granted him a full liquor license.

By having a false ceiling removed, Sampalis will be able to have a mezzanine built for a bar overlooking the diners.

"I want to bring in a different kind of crowd, an older crowd," Sampalis said, citing, for example, theater-goers at the Providence Performing Arts Center across the street.

His red-brick building, partly obscured by the 20th-century facade of Saki's and adjacent storefronts, is the Benjamin Dyer Block, which dates to 1820. Erected as four connected rowhouses, the original block stretches from Mathewson to Clemence streets.

The ground-floor occupants are Pizza Queen, Elite Sportswear, OPM smoke shop, University Tattoo and Saki's. Sampalis and his wife own only the eastern half of the block, housing Saki's, the tattoo parlor and the smoke shop, and that half would be refurbished.

In addition to a bank loan and his own money, Sampalis is counting on other financing sources available for historic preservation.

Part of his financing package would be a loan from the Downcity Fund, administered by the Providence Preservation Society Revolving Loan Fund, for improvements to the outside of the building.

Money also would be raised from the award of state and federal historic-rehabilitation tax credits that Sampalis could sell at a discount to investors who want to reduce their income taxes.

And the cost would be easier to bear, Sampalis figures, if he can obtain a property tax break from the city. Tax breaks are available for Downcity projects and for those that preserve buildings with historic significance.

The upper stories of the four-story building have been vacant for 40 years, except for one fixture: Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which has made a home there for 35 years.

To create the 15 apartments, some interior demolition has already begun, although five of the units would occupy the space still used by the dance studio. The studio has six years left on its lease and Sampalis made it clear that for the time being, he won't press the owner to go.

At about 650 square feet each, the one-bedroom apartments would be on the small side and would rent for $1,000 to $1,200 a month -- ideal for students, single people and empty-nesters, said Americo Mallozzi, one of the project architects.

As part of the historically faithful renovation, the preserved moldings, wainscoting, beamed ceilings and other touches will give the units plenty of character, said architect Andrew Ellis.

The Saki's project was discussed this week by the Downcity District Design Review Committee, a city government board, which gave it preliminary approval.

"I think it looks great," said committee chairman Guy Abelson.

Downcity advocates say Weybosset Street is on the upswing, with buildings being renovated to the east, toward Dorrance Street, with the design of the Saki's project, and, in between, with plans proceeding for a mixed-use project by developer Arnold B. "Buff" Chace.

Chace plans a parking garage, commercial storefronts and upper-floor residences on the block occupied until last month by Crossroads Rhode Island, formerly known as the Travelers Aid Society of Rhode Island.

"If we can get Saki's done, it would be great for the PPAC neighborhood," said Clark Schoettle, executive director of the Revolving Loan Fund. "It would really pick things up."

Said architect Ellis, "The street's coming together piece by piece by piece."

From The Providence Journal

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The building where Saki's is has been by Weybosset St. favorite - bay windows and good ornamental detail. I just never cared for the storefront tenants. Good to see this building go a bit more upscale. Next time a take in a show at PPAC I'll check it out. Although, Mr. Sampalis should consider changing the name of his establishment. He may take his restaruant more upscale, but citizens would still associate the "Saki's" name with the rough crowd.

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I had no idea there were 2 floors at the top which had been empty for that long. $1,200 for 650'? Well I'll miss that large pepperoni for $10 with the big shaker of crushed red pepper close at hand - that's for sure. G0D DA/\/\N gentrification! :rofl:

{Angel love?! OMG I almost fell out of my chair. :silly: Did Cotuit leave and put Mickey Mouse in charge?!}

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The building where Saki's is has been by Weybosset St. favorite - bay windows and good ornamental detail. I just never cared for the storefront tenants. Good to see this building go a bit more upscale. Next time a take in a show at PPAC I'll check it out. Although, Mr. Sampalis should consider changing the name of his establishment. He may take his restaruant more upscale, but citizens would still associate the "Saki's" name with the rough crowd.

The building is actually a little more important than just being pretty, and particularly old. It was built by John Holden Greene, a RI born architect who eventually became very influential in the first half of the 19th century. He also built at least one other federal house in what is now downtown, which was moved to chestnut street from Weybosset and restored in the 1960s, as well as the First Unitarian Church on Benefit Street in 1816 for the oldest unitarian congregation in the US, founded in 1720. He also built a nearly identical church (episcopal) in Savannah, GA a few years later. The Dyer block (saki's) was a federal row house, and therefore important for 2 other reasons: 1) it's one of the few remaining artifacts from a time period before downtown developed into a retail district (the custom house is another, and the downcity diner building, aka Second Universalist Church was a 3rd), and 2) it is the only row house that John Holden Greene ever built. The whole upscale trend of the city recently doesn't always sit well with me, but I'm glad some ideas are being thrown around about how to keep this building in use, because it's a very important one.

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hmm

you make this bldg sound like the parthenon

i actually dont mind it, but in 100 years will this be practical?

the cost to continually upgrade mediocre 19th century construction would render this bldg a money pit and therefore useless in the long run

would it be seen as historic? did anything of consequence ever happen there? no... can "old vs. historic" be debated? just because something is old, does that make it historic?

generally speaking, the only thing original about this building might be the ornament adorning its facades, other than that its a brick box, with bay windows, hallways, rooms, and retail on the first floor, sounds like a lot of other bldgs in downcity. a box is a box is a box no matter what wrapping paper and color bows you put on it...

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btw sorry if that sounded harsh, i was just talking about this subject with a friend and wanted to bring it up

your points actually seem very valid and are worth consideration

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i actually dont mind it, but in 100 years will this be practical?

the cost to continually upgrade mediocre 19th century construction would render this bldg a money pit and therefore useless in the long run

Tell that to Europeans, who have entire, vibrant districts made up of buildings that make anything in Providence look like new construction. If a building is given even a basic level of routine maintainence, the cost of the occasional upgrade will virtually always be less than that of building from scratch.

would it be seen as historic? did anything of consequence ever happen there? no... can "old vs. historic" be debated? just because something is old, does that make it historic?

Not everything old is historic, but in this particular case I would argue that the building does indeed qualify. as was mentioned above, it is one of very few extant artifacts of downtown's earliest years. In a city that claims to value its history and architecture as much as Providence, that should count for something, regardless of whether "George Washington slept here."

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Agreed, this building is validly historic. It's prominent in any photo of Weybosset you can find going well back into the 19th century.

Does anyone know what the status of the renovations are for this building? It doesn't look like anything has been done of late...

- Garris

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Tell that to Europeans, who have entire, vibrant districts made up of buildings that make anything in Providence look like new construction. If a building is given even a basic level of routine maintainence, the cost of the occasional upgrade will virtually always be less than that of building from scratch.

Not everything old is historic, but in this particular case I would argue that the building does indeed qualify. as was mentioned above, it is one of very few extant artifacts of downtown's earliest years. In a city that claims to value its history and architecture as much as Providence, that should count for something, regardless of whether "George Washington slept here."

First, this isnt Europe. That is a whole separate conglomeration of cultures. Its not fair to compare the two. Compare Providence to regional cities or cities of similar statures in the U.S. then you have an oranges vs oranges discussion as opposed to apples vs oranges.

Upgrades depend on appreciation or speculation of appreciation. appreciation can come with new buildings or highly upgraded buildings that intice a new tax base to the area. a lot of these "historic" or "old" structures are not economically feasible to upgrade on their own without credits of some sort. the appreciation of the area could be greatly sped up by adding new construction amongst the old and hoping that people take more chances on refurbishing the old structures. and make no mistake, it is taking chances. if they go belly up, so does the building/businesses included and sometimes for long periods of time, which brings us to the maintenance of the building.

the question is -IF- routine maintenance is done and thats always a BIG "IF" in the long term. basic maintenance will not take care of hundreds of years old structures. there is much more to it that that. these arent homes in edgewood. these are mostly 2-7 story brick and wooden frame [?] structures in an urban setting that seems to get a lot of wear and tear [not sure of the percentage of wooden structures in providence, but im pretty sure its one of the highest in the country] not to mention all the safety ordinance upgrades that are needed and that costs big $$$$

but yes i said the points are valid. the comment just made me want to bring this subject up.

the building being in old photos of weybosset does nothing for me because of what i see as a bland average building of its era... if it made more of a statement then maybe id change my tune, but it is better than some other buildings in the same boat.

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First, this isnt Europe. That is a whole separate conglomeration of cultures. Its not fair to compare the two. Compare Providence to regional cities or cities of similar statures in the U.S. then you have an oranges vs oranges discussion as opposed to apples vs oranges.

You do make some valid points, but I disagree that my comparison was apples vs. oranges. From the outset American architecture has had very close ties to contemporary architecture in Europe. There is very little physical, structural difference between a 200-year-old building in Providence vs. one in a similar midsized European city. My point was that if they can make the numbers work with buildings that are much older than ours, and therefore in need of much more substantial upgrades, we should have no trouble here. Being old doesn't inherently make a building historic, but it doesn't make it useless either.

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I see what youre saying, but with the construction and building materials environment becoming more and more costly each year, i do not think it is always feasible and/or prudent.

assuming providence as a city stands for hundreds and thousands or more years, what are we to do with this properties? what will come of older structures? its an interesting thing to ponder because everyone thought this world would look like the jetsons at one point. what would the perception be now????

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assuming providence as a city stands for hundreds and thousands or more years, what are we to do with this properties? what will come of older structures? its an interesting thing to ponder because everyone thought this world would look like the jetsons at one point. what would the perception be now????

That's the key issue, and a fascinating one to ponder. At some point, America went out of "Space-Age" mode, and having one's own Main St look like The World Of Tomorrow that you could see at a place like Epcott Center or a World's Fair no longer became desirable.

I think Jack Gold of the Providence Preservation Society, on several occasions, has talked of the fact that not every old building is worth saving. That's it's always a balance between the history of a building, it's appearance, its condition, its economic viability, and the value and appearance of the structure that's going to replace it. For example, the PPS very much agreed with demolishing the old bank building there for 110 Westminster.

The buildings set to be demolished on Washington St for Sierra Suites, while certainly old and certainly adding to the character of the area, were absolutely not shoe ins to be preserved for all eternity. Thus, the argument more focused around saying, "Ok, if you are going to knock down these old and character filled, yet not the most beautiful or structurally sound, buildings in exchange for a Sierra Suites, we need a much better design than the one you proposed." And that's what we're getting.

Would Saki's be a candidate to demolish in exchange for a really excellent, landmark 10 story building? Perhaps. Would it be worth losing for a garden variety Brooks or CVS? Absolutely not...

- Garris

PS: Again, what's up with this building? Is any work being done?

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