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Author Archive | Bret Ancowitz

Retail Update: Mall CVS Open

As I’m sure many walking or driving by have noticed, the sidewalk fronting mall CVS has opened at the Francis St/Memorial Blvd intersection. All of the J&W students who will be living at Capitol Cove will now have all of their pharmaceutical needs met.

Also, while not directly Providence related, I thought I’d mention that we’re far from the only place having significant retail turnover and, in fact, we may be having less than some other places. My wife and friends in the Boston metro report lots of changes in Brookline and Cambridge. In fact, my wife was in Brookline last night and found that two of her favorite establishments there have closed in the last few weeks alone…

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Some *Positive* PVD Press!

We’ve been getting really pummeled in the national media of late. It seems every state (well, except for California) has had a newpaper write an article with the tone of, “You think our economy is bad, take a look at Rhode Island’s! Just look at their unemployment rate! They have no industries at all. Just some schools! Whew, good thing there’s someone else out there more miserable than we are!”

Well, some positive, “Isn’t Providence a cool place to visit” articles have recently and quietly been sneaking out, and the Mayor’s Office “City News” weekly email (which is actually an interesting read, click the link to subscribe) had mentioned two such articles. It’s always interesting to see which attractions, shops, and restaurants the out of town press enjoys. The two articles are:

It’s nice to have a break from all the negativity, at least until Twin River probably declares Chapter 11

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It’s Official: Universities Target 195 Land

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We all knew this was coming eventually, but Brown and Johnson and Wales have now officially made their play for their piece of the coming 195 land. The Projo has the details about House Majority Whip Peter F. Kilmartin’s (D-Pawtucket) legislation authorizing the state DOT to sell the two universities 6 of the 19 acres of the 195 land at “market prices.” The rub is that the deal would bypass the public bidding process typical of state land sales. J&W wants about 2 acres for a new hospitality school and dorms and Brown wants the rest for new several biotech centers to compliment the medical school, which will be relocated there to renovated space.

The argument being made is that if such a move is made now (before, actually, the state’s plan for the 195 plan has been released) that it’ll allow Brown, J&W, and the city to all team up, do some planning, and create a strong neighborhood product to sell to private industry. The key quote from Richard Spies, Brown’s vice president for planning, is:

“This allows other private investors to make plans knowing that at least two anchor tenants are in place,” he said. “It gives the state and the city the best overall chance of success by getting us as quickly as possible to critical mass.”

I strongly recommend reading the Projo article for all the details.

The key questions for all of you reading are:

  1. Do you support any university involvement on the 195 land at all?
  2. If so, do you support this plan? If not, how should the universities be involved?
  3. Is Richard Spies right, that having the universities as “anchor tenants” makes this an easier sell to industry?

My opinion is that if done right (something Providence doesn’t have a great track record doing), Spies could be correct. This means that before Brown and J&W are allow to buy this land that they should present the public with a plan for how they will turn this area into a vibrant, compelling, 24 hour a day mixed use neighborhood. Not just a promise, but renderings, architecture, buildings, retail, amenities, interaction with transit, the works… And why no public bidding process?

Basically, I want the plan to be in place before the action is taken rather than the old RI way of acting first with promises, hoping everyone will plan and do the right thing, then holding no one accountable when nothing happens as desired. My yell-able phrase for this now is, “Before a plan, no land!”…

Sound off in the comments section!

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Rethinking the Mall

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Rhode Island Mall photo from www.artinruins.com

The above is a title of an article by the always interesting Allison Arieff in her NY Times blog in which Arieff attends the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers Convention in Las Vegas to judge a competition examining future concepts for the shopping mall. She writes that most of the discussion and focus, however, seemed to be yearning for the days of old:

…most talk at ICSC was of how business as usual could resume once “things came back…”

Despite near-non-existent consumer spending, the declining popularity of shopping as America’s favorite pastime and the chilling effect foreclosed homes in housing developments are surely having on nearby malls, most entries in the ICSC competition responded less to the future of the shopping mall than to the glory days to which we’ve recently bid adieu. I was struck by how little attention entrants paid to things like sustainable architecture, alternative transit or changing consumer attitudes about consumption.

Architectural visions tended toward iconic futurist forms – domes or similarly curvy buildings that felt right in line with World’s Fairs past. Distressing to think that in 2059, we’ll finally get to live as the Jetsons did back in 1962.

All is apparently not lost, however. Arieff reviews other entries that were more urban friendly. It’s a good read. Take a look here.

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AP Picks Up Capitol Cove Story

Capitol Cove

As found on a Pennsylvania TV station’s website, it looks like the Associated Press has picked up on the condos-to-dorm tale of Capitol Cove. They have in the article some similar examples from around the country as well.

My favorite quote from the article comes from a J&W resident advisor, herself a student:

We want the students to treat it more as if it was their home than just a dorm room

Yeah, good luck with that. Ask their parents how well their own homes were treated…

With similarly rose colored glasses, Roth of Capitol Cove hopes no one will notice:

Roth said he intends to retake Capitol Cove in three years… and resell to private buyers, hoping… that young professionals won’t be turned off by living in former student housing.

You gotta love those dumb young professionals! There to save a housing project every time. Maybe if they cut the previous asking prices by a third to half of the 350 – 550K they initially wanted, they’ll have hope of filling some of the middle-class housing potential that truly exists downtown…

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FAA Preliminarily Approves T.F. Green Runway

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Photo (cc) thisisbossi from flickr.com

As Ted Nesi reports in the PBN, the FAA has given its preliminary blessing to a TF Green runway expansion plan that involves lengthening its main runway southward. The final decision comes in about a year and construction, which would hopefully be done by 2013, could allow non-stop West Coast and European flights.

It’s funny how such plans, which previously seemed to be a measured and logical strategy to many while generating lots of political resistance in Warwick, suddenly now have a feeling of economic urgency and inevitabiliy. The first thing I thought while reading was, “Wow, can we start construction tomorrow?” Great Recessions have a way of changing how one views such plans…

Laurie White of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce sums it all up best in the article when she says:

In today’s challenging economy, it is more important than ever that we continue to develop and support the state’s transportation infrastructure that is so critically important to continued growth

To see all of the details of what’s required in the way of home acquisitions, roadway alterations, and upcoming planning, click here to see the PBN article.

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Retail Update: Snookers & More…

Snookers: I’m not sure how “old news” this is, but Snookers sports bar is listed to be “coming soon” at about 44 Ashburton Street on the other side of the 95 overpass from Kelly’s Car Wash. It’ll be right next to the, um, antique store and near the, um, Subway, and the, um, Marriott hotel and the, um, Mathematics Society, making for one interesting group of neighbors coexisting there.

Smith Hill Laundromat: Many people have fantasized (well, at least a few people have) about how cool a business could go into the former auto repair space that defines the corner of the retail square at the intersection of Smith St. and Chalkstone Ave. across from NY System Hotdogs. Well, in the category of “better than nothing,” a laundromat is replacing the closed mattress store. To its credit, it’s always good when neighborhoods get new service businesses and they’re nicely redoing the facade with floor to ceiling windows that I’m sure will be well lit, giving a much better sense of life to that normally sleepy corner.

Butterfield: Having finished their move from downtown, Butterfield has opened in Wayland Square.

East Side Creamery: This ice cream shop has opened in the closed Knight Art Gallery space in the newly vibrant Ives Street retail area on the East Side and was packed when my wife and I were recently there. Of note, this is the second art gallery to close on the East Side this year (the Ruggieri space also closed in Wayland Square).

Beadworks: They are, interestingly enough, moving from Thayer Street (previously announced) to 16 Bassett Street in the Jewelry District.

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Brown Medical School to Relocate to Jewelry District

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Brown University seems to have finally chosen the future location of its Medical School. Currently shoehorned into its BioMed Building, the University initially decided that despite the 100 million dollar gift from Warren Alpert, our Great Recession made building a new structure adjacent to Rhode Island Hospital impossible and the call was made to renovate one of its recently purchased Jewelry District buildings.

According to a Providence Journal article, that structure is going to be the one at 222 Richmond Street. That would put it fairly close to the future park slated for the 195 land, and nearby as well to what I and some others would like to see as a future “Chestnut Square,” a hypothetical retail and commercial center that could serve as J&W’s Thayer Street…

This location may be a better one for local urbanism, as almost anything new that would have been built on the ocean of asphalt parking that is the Rhode Island Hospital campus would have been all but invisible to the cityscape. Hopefully Brown will renovate the structure and the surrounding neighborhood with an eye towards making it a more vital, 24-hour a day place. Putting the Medical School there automatically will bring hundreds of students and faculty at all hours where there were none before. One can wish that there will be new places nearby for them to eat, shop, dryclean, and live…

cac1All of the details are in the ProJo article here.

In other Brown news, the new Creative Arts Council (CAC) Building just broke ground adjacent to Angell Street on College Hill. The Providence Business News has coverage here. We discussed renders of the building several months ago in this post.

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Watch and Learn? New Haven’s Renaissance, Reviewed

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An absolute must read article for anyone who cares about rebuilding our cities can be found in this month’s Yale Alumni Magazine. The balanced piece reviews the birth, agonizing death, and then the recent rebirth of an urban New Haven, CT. While we all often focus deservedly on Providence’s downtown renaissance, many here don’t realize that a comparable downtown rebirth that has certainly happened faster and perhaps more successfully has taken place 90 minutes South on I95. I was a student in New Haven during some of its darkest days in the early to mid-90’s, and I’m always utterly shocked by how different it feels every time I go back.

One day, an urban planning student will be able to build an entire thesis comparing and contrasting Providence’s and New Haven’s urban revitalizations as, on the surface, the two cities’ efforts could not have been more different. We focused on creating dramatic public spaces (Waterplace Park, Capitol Center) populated by skyline altering hotels, luxury condos, and businesses, perhaps at the expense of having created some empty, sterile streetscapes. NH’s did the exact opposite, with a laser-like focus on downtown residential and streetscape development. While their skyline hasn’t changed in 30 years, they instead focused on enhancing their city’s walkability and on creating warm, accessible, and vibrant neighborhoods chocked full of hip new retail, restaurants (120+ downtown!), affordable housing, and urban amenities, all supercharged by Yale’s revolutionary program to pay its employees to live in the city. We built a successful downtown mall, NH closed their failing one and refashioned it into apartments and a community college. We upgraded our aging downtown sports arena, while NH tore their’s down. We (RISD excepted) have had our large institutions play peripheral roles in our largely government driven renaissance, while NH’s wouldn’t have happened without Yale’s overwhelming and enthusiastic leadership. We resisted focusing and branding different neighborhoods of our city, while NH has embraced that approach…

Even in the downturn, 6,000 new non-student residents (and growing) are living in downtown New Haven and this quote from their Mayor is one I think we would envy:

“[New Haven] will confront something I don’t think we would have imagined confronting 15 years ago: that the central business district is basically filled.” That prospect has city planners looking for new building sites…

it’s a great read that has to give hope to all urbanists. The article is here.

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Opinion: Hopefully Recession Kills “Signless Retail” Trend

loiefullerafterLook hard… Can you tell what’s in the building in the photo to the left? What it’s used for? Well, if you’re a regular reader to this blog, you actually probably do know, in fact, that it houses Louie Fuller, one of the most popular new restaurants to open in the city in years. But you know that, like you know about this blog, because you’re in the know… You follow trends, you know what’s what, you’re following chatter on the web and in outlets such as the Providence Phoenix… You don’t really need something as blunt as, oh, a sign on a building, let alone any kind of outward indication of a business’ function, to know what’s going on… You’re in the know!

Such is what I consider to be one of the more pompous and annoying urban retail trends to mark our recently departed economic bubble, and I’m very hopeful that the recession will start to convince business owners of the importance of people actually knowing they exist. As long as its done with some restraint, our streetscapes can only benefit.

What’s your candidate for “Business Most in Need of a Good Sign?” Do you think this trend of minimal signage will wane in the recession?

Comment by clicking above or read more by clicking below…

Continue Reading →

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European Suburbs Grow Smart, US Snoozes…

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Well, that’s essentially the theme of this NY Times article titled “Europe Imagines Suburbs Without a Car.” While trying to make the content “fair and balanced” in a Fox News-ish sort of way, it’s impossible to escape the tone and tenor of the article suggesting that the Europeans are waaay ahead of us on this. They have a deeper commitment and projects on the ground.

While not a deep examination of the problems here in the US with suburban smart growth, the article does do a good job introducing some of the challenges facing American advocates (restrictive zoning, lenders worried about the true market rates of such homes, public inertia, etc). With Duval Patrick in MA having already suggested that future development should be clustered in high pedestrian and mass transit areas, it’s time for RI and all other neighboring states to push on this as well…

I personally believe that for such an effort to work here, advocates need to drop the idea of advocating that Americans give up their cars for mass transit, which to me screams “Oooh! Lets start a culture war!” and seems doomed to fail. I think the goal needs to be minimalizing auto use and making mass transit rational and convenient for more people (which is where Duval Patrick is right that future schools, retail, workplaces, etc should be clustered around transit nodes, not in the middle of nowhere). For those looking for who in RI to support on such suburban sustainability issues, the Scott Wolf led GrowSmartRI is a great place to start.

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Retail Update: Asian Palace Opens on North Main


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Speaking of the “Retail to Restaurant” trend we were all debating, the newest example is located nearby on North Main Street (1184, across from East Side Urgent Care). This is where the long closed (and cutely named) Off Track Bedding outlet (whose empty storefront was captured by Google Streetview above) has been replaced by Asian Palace, which opened this past Friday. Should the photo above scare you, I’ll add that they’ve substantially gutted and updated the building.

Their menu is what I personally refer to “RI Pan-Asian 2.0.” What seems to distinguish Asian Palace, as far as I can see, is their hours. They’re open to 11 PM Mon-Thurs, and until 1 AM on Friday and Saturday, much later than almost every other ethnic dining option I can think of, Asian or otherwise, in the entire metro. This will likely work well for them given their close location to Miriam Hospital and its continuous stream of workers around the clock.

So, a question: Does anyone know if this pan-Asian default for restaurants is a RI only trend? If so, why? When I go home to NY, I don’t find this… The restaurants there, both in the city and suburbs, are solo-cuisine for the most part. Same thing in my recent travels around the US. Why only here?

To read more about the menu type and my very brief review, click below:

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Oh T.F. Green, How I Miss Thee…

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Photo from the RI Secretary of State’s website

I just returned from a brief trip this past weekend and noticed with a bit of sadness that this was the fourth straight flight I’ve taken from Boston’s Logan and not from T.F. Green. The last Green flight I did was December of 2007. Now, granted, two of these flights were international, which changes things a bit, but two were domestic.

When searching for flights of late, I’ve just noticed that Green’s offerings just don’t have the hours I want. They’ve tended to be super early in the AM or smack in the middle of the workday, certainly not afterwards. Also, logan isn’t the nightmare to get into and out of that it used to be and, if you do economy parking there, you don’t need a loan to pay the bill. Given a choice, say, between a 6:25 AM flight out of TFG or a 3 PM flight out of Logan at near equal prices, I’ve chose the later, especially given that the Boston option lets me work a half day and not need a complete day off…

Don’t get me wrong… I want to fly Green, and searching for PVD options is the first thing I do, but it hasn’t worked of late. Has anyone else noticed this in their own trip planning?

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Angell Street has Lanes!?!?

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Much to my shock, newly painted lane markers have popped up around the East Side, most notably on Waterman and Angell Streets. In many areas, actual lanes and parking areas of the streets are now clearly demarcated.

This has the potential to end the fun but often dangerous third-world style driving game of “create your own lane” that has often defined East Side driving, especially as cars on Angell race to be the first ones through the lights before getting to the bottleneck of parents’ SUV’s parked in front of the Wheeler School picking up and dropping off kids.

In other areas, it looks like white painted crosswalks are coming to some heavily used pedestrian intersections and others that should be more heavily used than at present. Saddly, it doesn’t look like any of Wayland Square’s nearly 100% faded white crosswalks are slated to be done as yet…

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People Not Moving…

The New York Times has a thought provoking article about how the image to the left is becoming a rare site in the US, as the numbers of people moving fall to absolute numbers not seen since WWII (when the country had 100 million fewer people).

Sadly, it seems of the people who are moving, about 2 million have moved away from cities and towards the suburbs, a reversal of recent trends of the last two decades. It’s also one that is about 180 degrees away from that which many believe the nation needs to succeed (more density, more shared services, more mass transit, etc).

It’s an interesting read. Click here for the full article.

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Thayer Transformed?

Thayer Street

Photo by Bret Ancowitz, garrisphoto.com

The Brown Daily Herald has a great article charting the recent and upcoming changes to Thayer Street. The take home message is that it’s not hard to imagine a time when almost the entire street may be home to dining establishments with little retail save for the Bookstore (whose redo is awesome) and a national chain here or there (CVS, Urban Outfitters). It could essentially be the Brown University Food Court.

Does this herald the future of all neighborhood “Main Streets?” That no retail can survive, only restaurants and bank ATM’s?

Here’s the rundown of the Thayer revolving door:

Already closed in the last year or two:

  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • La Femme Boutique
  • Spike’s Hotdogs
  • Geoff’s
  • Yang’s Fabrics
  • Roba Dolce
  • Blaze

Closing Soon:

  • Morrison Office Supply
  • Beadworks (they are moving to a yet to be publicized location away from Thayer)

Recently Opened:

  • Marley’s (in Blaze space)

Opening Soon:

  • Shark Sushi Bar and Grill (in the DD, La Femme space, sadly with real shark in a tank… Ugh…)
  • Baja’s (in the Spike’s space, Tex Mex by the Shanghi/Xtreme folks)
  • Better Burger Company (by the Paragon folks, in the Yangs and office supply space combined)
  • Geoff’s Space (unannounced occupant soon)
  • Roba Dolce Space (unannounced occupant soon)

I strongly recommend reading the article, which is chocked full of great and telling quotes. The scariest one, in reference to the unannounced upcoming occupant of the Roba Dolce space, is the following:

“People are saying that the concept that’s going there is something that doesn’t really belong on Thayer Street,” DeMartino said, adding that he could not be more specific. “The only thing that we know for sure is that it’s a national company.”

Any guesses?

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Anyone Know How/Why/Logic of Route 146?

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146 sign photo from northeastroads.com

I was driving on Route 146 to North Providence the other day and got to thinking about this road… Exactly how did it come to exist in its current form?? What is the history? And exactly why:

  • Does it have access off of I-95 North, but not South?
  • Does it have access to I-95 South, but not North?
  • What human being could have planned its Charles St and Branch Ave exits?

A Google search didn’t illuminate much. Wikipedia had little to add.

Does anyone know the history of this highway and why it is the way it is?

ALSO: Happy Passover (chag pesach sameach) to all Jewish readers of Greater City Providence!

Next year in Jerusalem (or Providence)!

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HubArts Wonders Why Boston Fests Suck/Pawtucket Rocks

12On the heals of the announcement of the August 28th kickoff of the 2009 Pawtucket Arts Festival , HubArts.com reviews “The Bucket’s” familiar roster of excellent arts and entertainment options as they ponder making a road trip south. In their blog post’s introduction, they contrast Pawtucket’s vibrancy with details of the woes of various festivals planned for our neighbor to the north (including the apparent scheduling of two major film fests at the same time… Eeek). You can read their post here. Pawtucket continues to do a great job in encouraging the arts (and in promoting their success), and they have hands down the best open studio events in the area, next scheduled for September 2009.

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