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Buff Chace has Downcity jumping

BY MICHAEL CORKERY Journal Staff Writer | February 27, 2005

After the doctor called with the bad news, Arnold "Buff" Chace Jr. was baffled. Just 50 years old, and active, the downtown developer had a serious health problem.

But then, after some research and a visit to a different doctor, Chace became convinced of the true source of his illness: Vincent A. Cianci Jr., the Providence mayor.

While trying to revive Providence's old downtown, Chace had waded deep into the world of Providence politics.

One day, the mayor was praising his downtown development plans, and the next, he was sabotaging them. At meetings, Chace would try to raise issues of civic improvement, and Cianci would make fun of him, he says.

Chace says he believes the stress of dealing with Cianci turned his system highly acidic and made him sick. Back in December 1998, Chace said, "Buddy was the biggest battle I had."

Now 57, and healthy again, Chace says he has learned many things while working in Providence. Among them, he says, is a belief that "your enemy is your best teacher."

CHACE DID NOT start out as a developer, but he was raised in a family of landowners, preservationists and privilege.

The Chaces owned the Berkshire Hathaway textile business, which was bought 40 years ago by the now legendary Warren Buffet.

Buff Chace said that his father, Arnold B. Chace, sold off his stake in Berkshire Hathaway to Buffet, while his uncle Malcolm Chace held onto his shares and remained involved in the company.

Berkshire Hathaway went on to become one of the most profitable companies in the world, making Malcolm Chace and his children very wealthy.

Arnold B. Chace's "progeny didn't benefit from the greatest investment record in the 20th century."

Buff's side of the family focused on land. A submariner during World War II, Buff's father held land on Cape Cod and timberlands in the Carolinas.

Buff grew up in Providence, on the city's East Side, and went away to boarding school at St. Paul's School, in Concord, N.H. After high school, he worked for a year on a ship carrying mail between Asia and San Francisco.

He enrolled in the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and studied to become a writer.

Instead, he became a filmmaker in Cambridge, Mass., making documentaries about folk singers and the anti-war movement. He also became interested in Buddhism.

Chace returned to Providence in 1985, when his father became ill. His family asked him to figure out how to redevelop a shopping center they owned in Mashpee, Mass., on Cape Cod.

He read about the work of planner and architect Andres Duany, who designed Seaside, a showcase community in the Florida Panhandle. Chace invited Duany to Mashpee, and held brain-storming sessions with residents and town officials to hear their ideas for the development.

The result was Mashpee Commons -- a New England-style village with small shops and residential units -- similar in feeling to what Chace is trying to create on Westminster Street in Providence.

Both developments seek to create compact, walkable areas with a sense of place. Duany, and others who think the way he does, focus on streets and neighborhoods, not simply impressive structures.

Chace said that Duany convinced him developers can have a positive impact on the community -- by focusing not on short-term profit, but on projects with a civic value.

"It took a long time, getting comfortable calling myself a developer," Chace recalled.

"Rather than making [developers] schmucks, we should be trying to make it an attractive profession," he said.

CHACE SAID he first saw the potential of downtown Providence on a spring morning in 1991.

Actually, he said, it was his eight year-old daughter Sarah who saw it first.

Chace read in the morning newspaper that an entire block of buildings behind City Hall was up for auction.

Curious, he climbed into his Volkswagen bus and drove from his East Side home, with Sarah and her twin brother, Ben. Chace and the twins walked around the cluster of dilapidated buildings.

"Can you believe someone could buy this whole city block [at] a fire sale?," Chace asked.

Well, Chace remembers his daughter telling him, why don't you do something about it?

The challenge did not come out of nowhere. A preservationist streak runs through the Chace family.

Buff's aunt Beatrice Chace was instrumental in preventing Colonial homes on College Hill's Benefit Street from being torn down.

As a young person, "I remember seeing those houses restored. They were influential on me," Chace recalled.

The notion of contributing to the civic good was a family virtue, Chace said. His own name, Buff, is short for Buffum; he's a descendent of Elizabeth Buffum Chace, the 19th-century abolitionist and suffragette, a bust of whom is displayed in the State House.

For his part, Buff Chace decided to make his mark by improving Downcity. But first, he had to figure out how to take the leap from saving the old buildings to making them profitable.

"The banks are not going to lend you money unless there is some profit," he said.

He got financial help from his cousin Malcolm "Kim" Chace, and his wife, Liz Chace, who became part owners of many of his Downcity developments.

He would also need support from the city's foundations, the state and the city. And he hoped to get the backing of the mayor, the persona whom many associated with the city's rebirth.

EASIER SAID than done. Chace says that Cianci seemed to enjoy playing him like a "marionette."

Up and down. Up and down. Just when he thought the mayor approved of an idea, Cianci would turn and give him a yank.

Chace remembers one meeting with Trinity Repertory Company's then-director, Oskar Eustis, other civic leaders, and Cianci.

"He was ruthless in castigating me," Chace recalled of the mayor. "He was withering in his abuse."

"That was his modus operandi. He would go and praise you, but secretly, if you were actually getting any traction, he would be planting the seeds to prevent you from being successful, because if you were successful you were competing for the limelight with him."

The animosity, at times, was personal. Chace remembers trying to discuss an issue with the mayor during a luncheon at Capriccio restaurant.

Instead of listening, Cianci turned to a member of his adminstration and called Chace a member of the "lucky sperm club." It was loud enough for Chace to hear.

"He had a chip on his shoulder," Chace said. Yet, at the same time, Chace said, "he was so bright. He could grasp an idea and articulate it better than I could."

As time went on, Chace grew increasingly frustrated. He thought about running for mayor, but realized he would lose.

"You couldn't go and scream at him, because you know what would happen. I basically internalized this conflict."

Chace says he dealt with Cianci "the old WASP way. . . . grin and bear it."

In 1998, the doctors found and treated a superficial tumor on Chace's bladder. To prevent a recurrence, Chace was convinced he needed to turn his system "more alkaline."

He started drinking more water, eating mostly a vegetarian diet and working on finding ways to deal with stress. "I had to learn how to process adversity differently," he said.

ONE TEST came from Rich Lupo, owner of the popular rock club, Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, on Westminster Street.

Lupo had a multi-year lease with Chace on the first floor of the former Peerless department store. He wanted to stay there. "It was my livelihood," said Lupo.

But Chace, who bought the building for development, had other plans. He wanted to turn the upper floors into apartments. The rock club had to go, he said.

Chace offered Lupo money to relocate. Lupo turned him down, saying it was not enough.

In November of 1999, Chace terminated his lease with Lupo and went to District Court to evict him.

"He would do anything possible to get rid of my club," recalled Lupo. "Judge that as you will. He really had to have his way, and I suspect he always had."

At about the same time, Lupo attended a fundraiser for Cianci on Federal Hill. Lupo said the mayor pulled him aside to tell him about a meeting he'd had with Chace and a group of civic leaders.

"Mayor Cianci came up to me and said 'the blue-bloods are going to offer you money, and you better take it,' " said Lupo. "He said, sooner or later, they are gonna get you."

In April 2001, a judge ruled that Lupo could keep his club in the Peerless building.

Chace came back and offered more money. Lupo said he took the offer and moved his club to The Strand, on Washington Street. Lupo would not disclose the sum. "It was a fair offer," he said. "I would have preferred not to go."

Today, Lupo says he hopes Chace's "downtown projects work out, for everyone's sake." But he hasn't gotten over having had to move his club. "[Chace] has little regard for other people's property rights," he said. "This is the true sense of entitlement."

THE LEGAL SYSTEM in 2002 did make things easier for Chace.

Cianci was convicted of corruption, in U.S. District Court, and sentenced to prison. The next year, David N. Cicilline, who had been a big supporter of Chace's projects as a state representative, took office as mayor.

"In terms of a collaborative environment, it's night and day," Chace says.

Chace is also now getting praise from public places. "There is no question, Buff loves the city and is committed to it," said state Rep. Paul E. Moura, a Providence Democrat. "He deserves a lot of credit."

The Deputy House Whip, who works for an arm of the Laborers' union, said Chace and his development team won his support for a state historic tax credit, which passed in 2001.

"It's one of the best things I've done since I've been in the legislature," said Moura.

Thomas E. Deller, who served as director of planning and development under Cianci, and now, Cicilline, said that Chace took a chance on a Downcity that few developers would.

"He cares about it," said Deller. "I know, it seems kind of corny to say that someone cares about it."

Chace said he hopes his work will invite more developers to invest in Providence. "We are trying to represent the new way of doing business," he said.

Chace said it could take a long time before his projects succeed financially. He's worried, but he's no longer worried sick.

"I'm 57 years old. I would hope that, before I die, this thing was proven. It could be sooner than that. I hope that I see it."

Digital Extra: View an interactive map of planned developments and existing buildings in downtown Providence, at: ProJo

From The Providence Journal

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Chace is restoring the fabric of Westminster Street

BY GREGORY SMITH Journal Staff Writer | February 27, 2005

PROVIDENCE -- In the years following the Civil War, a muscular kind of commerce flexed itself on the west side of the Moshassuck River.

The merchants and traders who settled there considered the world to be their customer. Swelled by the profits of the Industrial Revolution, Providence became one of the richest places in America.

And a downtown was born.

Banks, insurance companies and related businesses clustered in the Financial District. A couple of blocks away, along the Westminster Street spine, retailing and personal-services businesses formed a distinct nerve center.

By the late 20th century, however, much of the wealth had drained away. One by one the city's stores, service businesses and professional offices headed for the green of suburbia.

But many of the flamboyant structures that were built in the era of outlandish prosperity still stood.

Capitalizing on that heritage, developers and civic leaders have been gradually rebuilding seven to eight square blocks in the long-suffering older part of Providence's downtown with a mix of institutional, residential, retail, and arts and entertainment uses.

"You can start seeing it now," developer Arnold B. "Buff" Chace said of the most recent progress on Westminster. "You walk down there at night, and you see the lights on above. You see the stores open, and you see the people in the street."

Chace is reconfiguring these buildings for residential lofts, while carefully restoring their architectural charms. He is luring new retailers with generous lease deals, and laying plans to build a parking garage between Weybosset and Westminster, sandwiched by condominiums and, perhaps, an artsy movie theater.

"Here was this beautiful shopping street which had been the pride of Providence," Chace said of Westminster. "The urban fabric existed; just the use had disappeared."

With the help of substantial public subsidies, Chace is overseeing a $105-million investment plan for Downcity, much of which is already realized. The strategy is to repopulate Downcity by creating apartments and condominiums, to attract retail with the new city dwellers, and to build on the district's existing arts and cultural assets to make it more of a destination.

Westminster, once the home of the Shepard Company, Peerless and Gladdings department stores, the Tilden-Thurber jewelry emporium and the more mundane W.T. Grant and Woolworth stores, now hasDesign Within Reach, a San Francisco-based seller of modern furniture, seen as a hot player in the retail world.

DOWNCITY'S best selling point, experts say, remains what it has always been: one of the richest arrays of 19th- and early 20th-century mercantile buildings in the United States. Providence's entire old downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.

To underscore the identity of the former retail district, boosters appropriated an old expression and renamed it Downcity in the 1990s.

Many cities have used arts and entertainment as a theme, as Providence is doing. Examples include Pittsburgh, which turned a red-light district into a thriving center of arts and cultural attractions, and Reno, Nev., which revived a neglected section and now proclaims, "Reno is ARTown."

According to Michael D. Beyard, a senior resident fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank called the Urban Land Institute, there is a national consensus about the best ways to revive moribund downtowns.

Make a strong public investment in infrastructure such as parks and sidewalks; create as many residential spaces as possible; use the residential base as a magnet for retail that, in turn, will draw additional people; and make the area clean and safe, among other steps.

This weekend, Downcity is beginning the process of shaking off its reputation as a somewhat grimy and, at times, unsafe place. Acting collectively, Downcity property owners are now sending out a seven-day-a-week safety patrol and cleaning crews.

With the encouragement of the Providence Foundation -- a consortium of 115 corporations and institutions of higher education and medicine devoted to municipal betterment -- a sense of togetherness has been percolating.

The foundation created the Downtown Merchants Association and the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, aiming to nurture a community of interest among businesspeople and among residents, respectively.

Working cooperatively, the businesspeople and residents have gained a voice in municipal decisions affecting Downcity. And the alliance organized a crime watch.

National trends and changing demographics are running in Downcity's favor. There is an appetite for urban living, especially for loft apartments and especially among the growing number of singles, childless couples and empty nesters who have the time and money to enjoy city amenities, according to Beyard.

And some chain retailers, he said, now covet Main Street locations that used to be shunned in favor of malls.

EARLIER ATTEMPTS to revive downtown had mixed results.

In 1964, the city turned Westminster into a pedestrian mall at a time when that concept was thought to be a tonic for anemic downtowns nationwide. Activity never perked up, so it was reopened to traffic in 1989.

In 1990, according to the Providence Foundation, there was about 2 million square feet of unused building space within the bounds of Dorrance, Pine, Empire and Fountain streets -- Downcity. With fresh activity and some demolition and new construction, the vacant space has shrunk to about 300,000 square feet.

There was progress before and after: Providence Performing Arts Center on Weybosset was spared demolition and regilded; Johnson & Wales University located its main campus in Downcity; the Shepard Building was taken over by the University of Rhode Island; and the Rhode Island School of Design expanded into the turn-of-the-19th-century Mason and Fletcher Buildings on Weybosset, across from the Johnson & Wales main campus.

More recently, the social-service agency Crossroads Rhode Island (formerly Travelers Aid Society of Rhode Island) relocated from the former W.T. Grant building in Downcity to more agreeable quarters by Route 95 at the edge of downtown, financed by a capital campaign led by the corporate community.

Crossroads took with it a sometimes troublesome clientele that Downcity boosters thought was a deterrent to redevelopment. Besides giving Crossroads a larger and more useful facility in the former main YMCA building on Broad Street, the move opened its former site between Weybosset and Westminster for the proposed Chace parking garage.

RIGHT NOW, Chace's workers are swarming throughout a complex of five or six buildings on Westminster, depending on how the common walls are counted, that used to house Peerless and Woolworth.

It is probably the largest Downcity structure available for residential reuse, and the workers are converting it into 97 apartments to be ready for occupancy in May.

Peerless Lofts, as it will be called, will have a rooftop terrace, an atrium, ground-floor retail space and 68 parking stalls in an underground garage.

The boutique Hotel Providence just opened at Westminster and Mathewson streets in two connected buildings, one of which was a 19th-century hotel, and two fine-dining restaurants, L'Epicureo and Gracie's, are leaving safe perches on restaurant row on Federal Hill to try their luck with larger spaces in the turnaround neighborhood.

L'Epicureo is in the hotel; Gracie's will be in the Harkness Building on Washington Street, across from Trinity Repertory Company's Lederer Theater.

Ninety-three of the 99 apartments Chace has created so far are leased and occupied by Boston commuters, as well as retirees, students and others at monthly rents ranging from $500 to $2,500.

And Downcity seems to be setting an example for the Financial District, where:

The former Peoples Savings Bank on Kennedy Plaza is being rehabilitated for luxury residential condominiums.

The Rhode Island School of Design is renovating the 12-story Rhode Island Hospital Trust Building at 15 Westminster St. into 10 stories of student apartments. There are plans for a RISD library at the ground level.

A 32-story condominium tower was proposed last week on Westminster Street by the Arcade. The $90-million project would have 130 units ranging in price from $500,000 to $2.5 million.

When Peerless Lofts is done, Chace intends to turn his attention to the former Crossroads site, where he plans to develop the garage and up to 48 residential condominiums. If a movie theater is included, the number of condominiums would be reduced.

Beyond that, Chace hopes other developers will follow, and he is eager to offer advice if they do.

DOWNCITY'S challenges, Chace acknowledged, are still considerable. He said the district needs, among other things, large amounts of money to do more residential conversions, more parking spaces, at least in the daytime, and more attractions to bring out pedestrians.

If momentum is lost, he warned, the whole effort could backslide.

A potential apartment renter made that plain at a Christmastime open house for the five residential sites Chace has rehabilitated or is still working on along Westminster.

The man came out of the Wilkinson Building on Westminster Street, where a new apartment rents for as much as $1,575 per month, and spied a bar with a dingy facade.

"Right down the block from the lovely Safari Lounge," he said to his wife. And he wrinkled his nose.

It's not for everyone, Chace said of the new neighborhood he champions. His company let three women out of their leases because they said they were intimidated by the area.

As his leasing agents put it, "It's not your grandmother's downtown."

CHACE finds his inspiration in the traditional New England village, where people lived, worked and played in the same area.

Tutored by planning consultant Andres Duany, perhaps the best-known apostle of New Urbanism, as the application of the village center concept is known, Chace is not content with creating a self-sufficient yet insular neighborhood.

He is moving steadily toward his goal -- what has become a community goal -- of making Downcity a destination for suburbanites, convention-goers and tourists.

Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. had the area designated as the Arts and Entertainment District. But it never took off as intended as a live/work enclave for artists.

Although artists are still offered sales and income tax breaks to locate there, they can afford to rent few places in the district. Chace estimates that 20 percent of his tenants nevertheless are artists.

The district has two major performing-arts venues, Providence Performing Arts Center and Lederer Theater, and three minor venues, AS220 and Perishable Theatre, both on Empire Street, and Providence Black Repertory Company, on Westminster Street.

And an old bank building on Empire Street is being rehabilitated as the Pell-Chafee Performing Arts Center, to serve as a home for a degree-granting fine-arts program for the Brown Trinity Consortium.

Chace would like to produce another destination point that would help to keep Downcity lively all day and night.

He and his staff have solicited proprietors of large commercial-art galleries, have talked to RISD about opening a contemporary visual-arts center and are considering a preliminary proposal for a movie theater at the former Crossroads site that would show independent, foreign and art films.

For the moment, he said, the best possibility seems to be a cluster of furniture, home goods and high-design retailers anchored by Design Within Reach.

Reeling in Design Within Reach "tells me that you're now on the radar screen for the new type of specialty retailers that are looking for hip, edgy urban locations," said Beyard.

Chace's development company, Cornish Associates, is working to persuade a home-goods wholesaler/retailer that is moving its entire operation from New York City to Providence to open a Downcity store. Other prospects, Cornish staffers say, are a shoe store and a gourmet grocer.

Cornish also is competing with a mall to land a high-profile national tenant for the ground floor of Peerless Lofts, according to Chace, who would not identify the tenant.

"I'm very bullish . . . on Providence," said Beyard, who casually toured downtown a couple of years ago. He warned that recovery always takes longer than the decline.

"Just don't be too impatient," he said. "Keep plugging away."

From The Providence Journal

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How downcity lost promised movie theater

BY GREGORY SMITH Journal Staff Writer | February 27, 2005

PROVIDENCE -- Whatever happened to the Downcity Cinema?

Any money still to be gotten for the cinema is gone, lost for all practical purposes when developer J. Daniel Lugosch III sold Providence Place mall.

Back in 1996, city leaders and Downcity advocates made a deal with Lugosch's partnership to develop a Downcity movie theater in cooperation with local corporations, including the Providence Journal Co. Lugosch was to contribute half the equity, up to $2.5 million.

It was the number one concession Lugosch's partnership made to the city in return for a property tax break worth an estimated $140 million. The Downcity Cinema was supposed to draw crowds into the old downtown, which was being eclipsed by the mall.

If Lugosch failed to follow through, his partnership would have to pay the city $2.5 million to be spent for other Downcity purposes. But the Downcity Cinema was not built and the penalty was not paid.

Eleven months ago the Lugosch partnership, Providence Place Group, sold the mall and Lugosch left Rhode Island.

Lugosch did not return recent telephone calls, but people involved in the cinema saga said that the developer contends that he spent a lot of money on plans for the Downcity Cinema and held up his end of the bargain.

The $4.8-million Downcity Cinema was supposed to be built on a Journal parking lot at Washington and Mathewson streets by the end of 1998. Its reluctant operator was to have been Hoyts, which would also operate a 16-screen complex in the mall.

However, developer Arnold B. "Buff" Chace lobbied then-Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. and civic leaders in favor of a Sundance cinema complex elsewhere in Downcity.

Cianci and the leaders ultimately concluded that actor Robert Redford's Sundance enterprise had more pizzazz and prestige and would provide a bigger boost.

Lugosch was asked to contribute to a Sundance project, to be built on Union Street. He agreed and offered $1 million, Cianci said at the time. Not long after, Sundance's financing partner, General Cinema, went bankrupt and the alternative project collapsed.

Cianci did not enforce the mall tax agreement after the Sundance collapse, or negotiate the payment of a cash sum by the Lugosch partnership. Patricia A. McLaughlin, Cianci's top aide for downtown development, said recently that it would have been "a judgment call" whether there was a default.

"He didn't really walk away," McLaughlin said. "The community chose a different track."

From The Providence Journal

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"Although artists are still offered sales and income tax breaks to locate there, they can afford to rent few places in the district. Chace estimates that 20 percent of his tenants nevertheless are artists."

What income tax breaks are offered for artists? I'll be heading downtown into Peerless ( freelance film production, graphic design etc )

Somehow I don't think I count :whistling:

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Ninety-three of the 99 apartments Chace has created so far are leased and occupied by Boston commuters, as well as retirees, students and others...

Was anyone else amazed at this figure? I guess the whole "single Boston commuters priced out of their market" theory of Providence development holds water after all. It still kind of blows my mind.

The analogy timewise I use in my own mind is commuting from Yorktown or Newburgh, NY into NYC, or commuting into Phily from Northern New Jersey, or commuting to New Haven from New London, or commuting to Minneapolis/St. Paul from Rochester, MN.

Most single people would never do these commutes, and those that do are usually married people looking to do it for another reason (keeping their kids in a particular school system, for low home prices, for being close to relatives, or for a particular faith community, etc.).

Are there really no other affordable, desirable places for young singles who work in Boston between here and there? I mean, I think it's great that the effect on Providence is so positive, but I just don't know the metro Boston area well enough to intuitively understand this.

- Garris

PS: Those articles (and the digital interactive map from Projo that we should crib and put somewhere here on UrbanPlanet) were fantastic. Great reading!

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The analogy timewise I use in my own mind is commuting...


It's also parts of Queens to Midtown or Downtown Manhattan, or Staten Island to the Upper East and West Sides, timewise.

Are there really no other affordable, desirable places for young singles who work in Boston between here and there?  I mean, I think it's great that the effect on Providence is so positive, but I just don't know the metro Boston area well enough to intuitively understand this.


Nothing so walkable, and urban, and cultural, and nightlife-ful as Providence. If you want to live in a city other than Boston for financial purposes look at your choices. Worcester, New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester, Portsmouth, Portland. The only one that really compares to Providence is Portland, and it's probably half again (if not twice) as far away from Boston as Providence is. You could live in Lynn or Waltham and have an urban-ish lifestyle and still be close enough to Boston to have that as your social homebase, but those areas are not really all that much cheaper than Somerville or Dorchester. Providence is much like Boston, at a third to half the price, and the commute isn't terribly taxing.

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