THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Can You Gentrify a Vacant Lot?

The Jewelry District and the myth of the American urban utopia

by Colin Kent-Daggett

Illustration by Jeff Katz

published September 24, 2018


During a Providence Ordinance Committee hearing this July, opponents of the proposed 46-story Fane Tower framed the project as a referendum on the city’s future: would the City Council cave to the whims of a wealthy New Yorker and sacrifice Providence’s skyline, along with a $15 million tax credit? Or would it hold out for a developer willing to respect the existing 100-foot height restriction and ongoing park and pedestrian projects along the Providence River?

Few groups are as opposed to Fane Tower as the Jewelry District Association (JDA). Though the neighborhood—nestled between Johnson & Wales to the north and I-195 to the south—has few residents, the JDA’s members are knowledgeable, passionate, and devoted to a well-planned future. The Jewelry District Association’s brochure describes its members’ utopic vision for their neighborhood: “a rich future in a walkable, bikeable, livable environment that’s welcoming for business and residents alike.” This mission statement represents the unified vision of planning professionals and scholars of an ideal city. After decades of prioritizing cars, sprawl, and suburbia, American architects and planners have recently rediscovered what many of the world’s most romanticized cities have long known—that an active, inviting street makes for a better community—and, with no hint of irony, coined it New Urbanism.

What city planners and the JDA agree upon are obviously worthy goals for a community—knowledge, education, and innovation. More tangibly, walkability, bikeability, mixed-use developments, and riverside parks promote healthy and socially cohesive neighborhoods. The JDA, like any neighborhood association, is right to pressure the city for investments in sustainable, thoughtful, and cohesive additions to its community.

But the aspect rarely considered in debates about Fane Tower, and New Urbanist projects more broadly, is whether the rebranding and rapid redevelopment of one walkable, bikeable neighborhood is a positive for Providence as a whole. A broader investigation into investments in the Jewelry District and the history of the city suggests that the new Jewelry District is an extension of, rather than a cure to, the redlining, urban renewal, and deference to moneyed developers that gutted the neighborhood in the first place.

 

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In the context of this new vision for American cities, the 2007 relocation of I-195 to the Fox Point hurricane barrier is akin to a modern miracle: huge swaths of completely vacant land, close to the city center. In the Jewelry District, Providence has the opportunity to develop an addition to its downtown core from scratch, and the city is keen to “leverage all that [it] can and all that [it has] to offer to collectively move Providence forward,” according to Mayor Jorge Elorza in a September press conference.

The walk along Dyer Street from Downtown to the JDA’s September meeting at South Street Landing showcased the incredible transformation taking place in the Jewelry District. The I-195 Redevelopment Commission, responsible for the “sale, marketing, and oversight” of the new land, boasts about the variety of current projects, as a neighborhood that was recently a moonscape of surface parking lots is brimming with construction projects: South Street Landing, a 270,000 square foot office and academic center; the 120,000 square foot Innovation Center, which will house Brown’s School of Professional Studies and the Cambridge Innovation Center; the Johnson & Wales Science and Innovation Center; Chestnut Commons, a mixed-use development with 91 “upscale, urban [as opposed to…?] residential units;” River House, the 174-unit luxury housing development marketed to students; and, of course, Fane Tower.

Though not visible from Dyer Street, a survey of the funding behind these projects reveals that there is big money behind walkability and mixed-use design. Fane Tower, the potential recipient of a $15 million tax-credit, was proposed by the New York City-based Fane Organization; South Street Landing was developed by CV Properties LLC, a Boston-based commercial real estate firm; the Innovation Center is managed by Wexford Science & Technology, a Baltimore-based firm that develops “Knowledge Communities” and received a $18.8 million tax incentive; River House is funded by GMH Capital Partners, a Pennsylvania-based real estate firm with $8 billion of assets and an $8 million tax credit. In all, these developments represent a massive state and private investment into the new Jewelry District—as the “Innovation & Design District” and Providence’s neighborhood of the future.

Notably, Fane Tower is the only one of these projects not encouraged by the Jewelry District Association. Olin Thompson, a member of the JDA and a Jewelry District resident since 2007, told the College Hill Independent that he and other members support large investments “for the right projects.” But while Thompson asserts that “Fane Tower is out of step with this community and the rest of the city,” a second look at current projects in the Jewelry District shows Fane Tower as just a particularly egregious (and unattractive) example of an otherwise-supported trend: tax credits to wealthy developers and institutions who follow the New Urbanist requirements laid out by the Jewelry District and the I-195 Commission.

 

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For most of Providence, a model neighborhood is out of reach due to the ruthlessness of previous eras of urban planning. In urban communities of color throughout America, the 20th century brought successive waves of segregation, divestment, and displacement.  In Providence, a 1939 Residential Security map rated Wayland Square as the only green zone within 3 miles of the city center, while the majority of Southside and Westside were yellow, or “definitely declining.” The rating system—called redlining—incorporated housing stock, sales, and “the threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population,” and was used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to determine mortgage availability. Redlining resulted in an artificial suppression of wealth and stability for a generation of communities of color and impeded long-term investments into their surroundings. In the 1940s and 50s, “slum” clearance and urban renewal came to Providence. Traditionally African American neighborhoods such as Lippitt Hill (now “University Heights”) and West Elmwood were deemed “blighted” and subsequently razed. Finally, the construction of I-195 in the 1950s and ’60s destroyed hundreds of homes and separated the Jewelry District, the Southside, and any neighborhood West of downtown from the city center.

The Jewelry District’s industrial past might appear to disqualify it from this history of persecution and dislocation. But excluding its near-vacancy, the neighborhood’s recent history follows the script of gentrification and displacement. The Jewelry District endured rapid divestment after the collapse of the jewelry industry in the 1970s, followed by the characteristic “pioneers” of gentrifying areas. Bunny Harvey, a painter and professor, bought a loft on Chestnut Street in 1985 to use as her studio when the Jewelry District was still, in her words, “a wasteland.” But like gentrifying neighborhoods around the country, others eventually caught on to the prospect of low rents and open space. According to Frank Muhly, Harvey’s husband, these pioneers—primarily artists, activists, and architects—met for coffee in the refurbished Imperial Knife Company. By the time Harvey and Muhly lived in the space full-time in 2011, a community had emerged. Since then, Thompson described “an influx of successful (as opposed to struggling) artists and an increased demand for residential space” in the wake of “excellent investments in rehab and recently new construction.” And in response to this residential demand has come the Innovation & Design District, luxury student housing, and Fane Tower.

For those not sold on the idea that historical processes of residential displacement can also apply to vacant land in a formerly industrial neighborhood, a look back further into the past may suffice––to when the Jewelry District was not always full of jewelry. Before its industrialization, it was a dense, residential community, primarily home to immigrants. Irish, Poles, and Eastern European Jews moved to the Jewelry District in successive waves before they were displaced by mills producing the textiles, jewelry, and other goods that made Rhode Island prosper. What is now Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, for example, housed the Little Nemo costume jewelry company until the late 1970s and seven individual homes from the earliest maps of Providence through the early 20th century. The Jewelry District is currently in the midst of a similar reinvention, this time being remade in service of tech and biomedical research rather than industry.

 

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The Jewelry District is one of several examples of this accelerated redevelopment and rebranding in Rhode Island. Providence’s own nickname—the “Creative Capital”—was born out of a $100,000 rebranding campaign in 2009, per the Wall Street Journal. Before that came “the Renaissance City” after Providence’s economic resurrection in the 70’s and 80’s. Or take the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, itself built in 1972, where targeted investment turned a declining corner of downtown into a tidy strip of hotels, restaurants, and corporate events when the Convention Center and Omni Hotel were completed in 1993. All of these efforts resulted in Providence being named the only American city in the Wall Street Journal’s “Top Ten Up-and-Coming Travel Destinations in the World,” according to the Convention Center website. The ‘redevelopment’ of Lippitt Hill into University Heights was a similarly calculated effort. Across these various projects, the focus of local government on creating an image of Providence as a modern city worthy of tech and real estate attention becomes clear.

Providence is not alone in its push to attract capital and cater to wealthy investors, and it may not have much choice. As detailed in author and activist Peter Moskowitz’s new book How to Kill a City, Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York City have all prioritized the development of restrictively expensive, if well-designed, housing and amenities for their well-to-do populations. Moskowitz attributes this shift to an evaporation of a city’s tax base itself due to deindustrialization and white flight. With little industry and fewer middle-class taxpayers, contemporary American cities have been forced to generate income in other ways. Thomas Deller, the Director of Planning and Economic Development in Central Falls, told the Independent that, “Rhode Island’s economics are so bad that if we don’t give tax incentives we get zero development, and if there’s zero development it gets worse.” The solution, according to Deller, lies in more profound economic restructuring.

That restructuring has to start with giving people more stability in their homes. By denying low-income communities of color access to the stability, financial equity, and generational wealth of homeownership, government and real estate developers partnered to create neighborhoods with little control over their surroundings. An organic grocery store or hip coffee shop—both standard markers of a gentrifying community—would be less problematic if their neighbors weren’t acutely susceptible to fluctuations in the housing market. Rent control, vouchers, and public housing projects are all potential remedies that have been largely ignored in favor of building at any cost.

 

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In the meantime, cities continue to change under the weight of reinvestment. Though different circumstances have pushed Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, and other changing cities to the brink of economic collapse, the effects are largely the same: unchecked investment in luxury housing and amenities that are inaccessible to an area’s most vulnerable residents. The zero-sum reality of investment and land-use means that a luxury apartment building in the Jewelry District negates the possibility of a housing project, a community center, a shelter, or a school. When this choice is repeated citywide, South Providence, West Elmwood, and other neighborhoods on the outside of the new I-195 are never included in the city’s “Renaissance,” its “Creative” reawakening, or its newest “Innovation and Design” phase. When they are included, the city’s well-to-do­—backed by an extreme wealth gap—drive marginalized residents out of their homes.

Whether displacement and rent increases are inevitable consequences of otherwise beneficial economic improvement is beside the point; Providence officials first need to recognize that the principles underpinning the redevelopment of I-195 and the Jewelry District are not the keys to the urban utopia they are imagined to be. Like other chapters in the history of American urban planning, New Urbanism has its flaws. And while bike lanes and parks are, in many ways, better than suburban sprawl, their benefits rarely reach the Providence residents who have suffered time and again from redlining, ‘slum’ clearance, and freeway construction. This broader approach to city planning and economic development is potentially challenging for both planners and residents: it requires accepting that Fane Tower is out of touch not because of its design or its height but because it is luxury, and gifting tax credits to the rich inevitably means not focusing on those most in need of resources. As garish as the proposed Fane Tower is, it is not all that different from other projects in the Jewelry District and projects across the country in its catering to the wealthy.

Jewelry District residents, for their part, welcome the renewed attention to their neighborhood. Muhly told the Independent about the need for more retail and how his neighbors are “desperate for a Whole Foods.” Again, Muhly, Thompson, and the JDA can hardly be blamed for wanting retail and grocery options in their price range as well as for parks, bike paths, and pedestrian safety. The issue lies not with them but with the city and state institutions and agencies content to pour resources into projects of limited benefit in pursuit of a New Urbanist, revenue-generating utopia. While Rhode Island and the City of Providence are certainly strapped for cash, their desperation for tax revenue should not hide the fact that the walkable, bikeable, livable Jewelry District of the future will not be accessible to all.

No part of the neighborhood’s revival exemplifies these divergent outcomes better than the relocation of I-195. For Jewelry District residents like Thompson, the move meant finally becoming “part of the city” after decades of being walled off—the pivotal event in the neighborhood’s redevelopment. But for their neighbors in South Providence, the wall and its noise, pollution, and displacement only moved closer. Rather than relieve Providence from the wrongs of previous urban planners, the redevelopment of the Jewelry District has burdened the same communities with the consequences of another romanticized phase of American urban planning.

 

COLIN KENT-DAGGET B’19.5 heard that Philly is still pretty cheap.