Greater City Providence

Thayer Transformed?

Thayer Street

Photo by Bret Ancowitz,

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?

Bret Ancowitz


  • My guess for national chain in the Roba Dolce space would be a “Chipotle”. they’ve been trying to open on Thayer for years.

  • But Chipolte (from what I’ve heard of it) would fit.

    What wouldn’t? Depends who’s opinion it is. There’s a Hooters rumor for Federal Hill…

  • Yeah, Chipotle would fit quite well, do I doubt that’s it. I’m thinking of something crass… Like a combo Taco Bell/KFC kind of thing…

  • The space isn’t really that big. My original guess was going to be something really crappy like 99. Perhaps that Scottish place Mac Donald’s.

  • As the kids say, don’t hate the player, hate the game. It’s hard for independent retail stores to compete against the big players. I suspect that people simply think that shopping on Thayer Street is just not as convenient or that they are less likely to find what they’re looking for there as opposed to South Attleboro or Warwick.

    Personally, my shopping preference is to stay as local and independent as possible. But maybe my preferences are in the minority. The merchants of Thayer Street or other similar streets need better organization and more self promotion to draw in the shoppers whose dollars are more likely to go to chain or online stores. What they can’t do try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Be proud of our urban location. We are located on the Green Line troller, within walking distance of x thousand residents, etc.

    FWIW – Not all news is bad on Thayer Street. The new Brown Bookstore is quite lovely.

  • I am a little surprised that Thayer Street is able to handle so many restaurants. I mean, certainly there will be a need for use variances for Yangs/Morrisons, and where are people going to park? While I believe there is plenty of on street parking, the fact remains that there are parking requirements that need to be met or given relief. I’m surprised that zoning continues to sign off on that…

  • One of the other problems is that the types of independent places that thrived near colleges (record stores and book stores) have been replaced by the internet and file sharing.

    Again, hate the system, I suppose.

  • I love thayer street for the diversity it has. Its a great place to grab some quick food thats great! I wish that it was able to incorporate more shopping though. Sure the ProvPlace mall is great, but not somewhere I want to go on a great day. If Thayer had more offerings, imagine the people that it would draw. Students with no cars are more likley to shop nearby, as well as local residents looking for unique and close to home goods. If Thayer could catch some more of that, it would be great.

    Also, marketing for Thayer sucks.
    I kind of think that marketing to students specifically in the Providence area sucks in general.

  • No offense Alissa but if students need “marketing” to get them to Thayer Street, they probably shouldn’t be in college. 🙂 I think Thayer doesn’t need to spend any time marketing themselves to students. I went to school on the other side of town 20 years ago and I knew ALL about Thayer street.

    Thayer street simply doesn’t have enough of many essential services any more. There are restaurants, the bookstore and banks. Oh and Urban Outfitters.

  • In my opinion, marketing is key. Most businesses spend 40-60% of their income on new marketing. Its an important strategy that enlightens the community about something. I dont see why its not important. Its all about getting the word out, showing people the best, and why they should come over there. Waste time? No way. Im not talking like a world wide ad campaign with Brad Pitt, Im saying its as simple and easy as setting up a facebok page devoted to showcasing the establishments on Thayer, or maybe listing some great student discounts that exist over there. Even having a twitter that randomly updates about something cool happening on the street.

    If you google Thayer st, you get loads of chincy little blurbs and tacky photos.
    Take for example Newbury st in Boston, they have a great clean site that lists some helpful information. Now thats strategic marketing.

    But I do agree with you on your last statement, it definitely does not have enough essential services any more.

  • Thayer needs marketing, but not to students. Every student I know knows about Thayer and think it’s a pretty cool place (granted, there’s nothing similar around PC). Thayer needs to market itself towards non-students.

    I think the problem, though, is not Thayer itself, but rather the other parts of the city that are coming to life. You’ve got the shops on Westminster, the stuff on Federal Hill (Broadway, Atwells, and Westminster), even the areas around PC are improving (look at that little strip on Smith St by Academy Ave).

    Can you really be upset with the fact that people are buying their stuff online? Thayer used to be bookstores and record shops, but they just can’t compete with the cheaper prices of the internet. Fewer people have the attention span to listen to a whole album. They want the songs they like. There aren’t enough serious music junkies to keep record stores in business.

  • It’s a huge problem for “real world” retail (or not a problem, depending on your point of view). I mean, what can survive on main street these days?

    I think the book stores (ALL of them) are the next to go. In 10 years, we’ll all be reminiscing about B&N and Borders the way we do about record and CD stores now… Everyone will have a Kindle/Reader thing, and that’ll knock ’em out. Even before the recession the Borders chain was on the brink…

    I really think two things are going to happen:

    – Main street will become increasingly food and drink based a la Thayer (if the recession doesn’t kill that)…
    – Main street will be almost exclusively services that aren’t online (ATM’s, cleaners, drug stores, post offices, etc)
    – Main street will be only able to offer broader retail if the *physical act of walking around and shopping there* is compelling… Think of Newport; Newburyport, MA; Fifth Avenue, NYC; etc… This is where I think Providence’s quirky “a store here, a store there,” “kinda’ neighborhoods” will hurt us… There’s barely enough of Thayer to constitute an “experience,” same with Federal Hill and Westminster… Wayland and Wickenden want to be destination experiences, but I think there just isn’t enough “there, there” to either one to do that… Hope Street Shops aspires to that as well, but they’re even farther away…

  • I think an idea would be an internet search engine for Providence retail businesses. When I do my shopping online, I have certain search criteria that I look for, and this allows me to find what I want very quickly. Etsy has the “shop local” function on its website. So a similar function for local retail in a Providence-centered search engine would allow shoppers to hunt efficiently for their purchasers and support local businesses or, even better, locally made items sold at local businesses.

  • The Thayer Street problem is endemic to all college towns. College students in general (even Brownies), aren’t very big spenders when it comes to retail items like clothes and music.

    Students are on a limited budget and prefer to spend their money on food rather than retail items. As counter intuitive as it sounds, retail might not be the best strategy for college areas.

  • I think Jack hit the nail right on the head. College students, especially during this recession (they’re having a hard time finding summer work), don’t spend a lot of money on things other than necessities or fun. Buying music and books to most college students is not fun.

    Bret: I disagree with you on 2 points. First, the books. While I don’t see smaller bookstores lasting, the majority of serious readers still prefer hard copies of books. I don’t see the death of the book around the corner just yet. There has yet to be an eReader device that really offers what most people want. Not to mention, they’re still not really affordable at $300-400.

    I also disagree with your view of Federal Hill. It’s the one part of the city that is a destination for many (besides the mall). When the people from the suburbs come into Providence for dinner, most end up on Atwells. While it’s arguable no longer just Little Italy, it is a destination for dining out in general. The 2 summers I spent up there, it was always packed with people from Friday night through Sunday afternoon. People who would go for walks up and down the street, stopping into some of the markets before and after dinner and dessert.

  • To Bret’s point about our retail zones not being big enough or diverse enough to be a big draw, I actually don’t have a problem seeing Thayer become little more than a foodcourt. Thayer should play to it’s strength, providing fuel to hungry students. Let us focus on bringing actual retail to our other retail districts.

    It’s notable that a bookstore, a record store, and a video rental store are all things that recently closed, those are all things I can get instantly on my iPhone or other device.

  • The Thayer Street problem is the problem of a retail environment that has evolved into hard-to-change automobile-dependency. Big box stores and supermarkets are where everyone lucky enough to have a car goes for groceries, toiletries, office supplies, hardware, clothing, etc. Only the carless and the chronically disorganized buy batteries at store24 or toilet paper at CVS.

    Sure things cost a little more at small neighborhood stores than at big boxes, but urban living is all about how life is cheaper (and greener) if a useful array of daily needs accessible by foot allows you to dispense with car ownership. Yet a decent little grocery store can not gain a foothold in any neighborhood where most shoppers will hop into their car to save 50 cents on a half gallon of milk. Classic Chicken and Egg.

    Thayer Street rents reflect the fact that it is a destination for hanging out and eating fun snacks. Policy changes that might address the concerns of people living nearby who can not afford to eat out for every meal are off the table. People satisfied with the auto-dependent lifestyle, blind to the problem, are firmly in charge.

  • Thayer Street, more than any other Providence retail district probably, has a built in car-less customer base. They don’t have to buy toilet paper and milk and eggs though, because they live in dorms.

    Bret could speak more to what Yale has done as far as encouraging staff to live near the school, but it is something that Brown and RISD could be working on too (see the Capitol Cove post). If the schools had programs to get more staff to live within walking distance of campus, then denied parking permits to people within a certain radius of campus, the schools would create more foot commuters. More people to buy essentials on their walk home.

    As a car-less person myself, I’m waiting with baited breath for Gourmet Heaven to open Downcity so I can do some shopping on my walk home. As it is now I get groceries from PeaPod as there are no grocery stores along my foot commute.

  • PC actually has a home ownership program for the Elmhurst neighborhood. The problem with the program, however, is it’s limited scope. It’s basically a couple blocks in an area that is predominately triple deckers rented by students. There are a handful of single family homes and there are strict restrictions on what qualifies a home to be purchased in the program.

    I bought my home outside the program because of the strict restrictions and not wanting to own a triple decker rented out to students. I wish the program included more of Elmhurst and was designed to get faculty and staff to walk to campus rather than drive. I also wish PC charged faculty and staff for parking rather than give them all a free parking pass (yes, they give out more passes than there are parking spaces, and yes, I do work there). However, the program is more designed to get faculty and staff to live in the student rental area rather than the greater Elmhurst area. It should be a radius around the campus rather than just a small 4 block area.

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

    Without a challenge to the holy writ known as “Highest and Best Use,” Yes.

    The efficiency and supposed non-politicized purity of allowing the market govern these affairs is convenient fiction. The bigger and wealthier a player you are, the more convenient it is.

    Zoning laws and other regulations limit the supply and use of neighborhood retail space. Yet city bureaucracies can get pretty nimble when a big box store comes to town. And it ain’t the free market providing the auto-related infrastructure that makes the big boxes possible. Oh wait, I take that back. They made Home Depot pay for a new traffic light!

  • So the city decided Home Depot needed 2 traffic lights? I still don’t understand how they came up with that one.

  • I’m with Jef. I think it’s completely fair to concede Thayer Street to restaurants in order to grow retail elsewhere, i.e. downtown.

    Also, “a store here, a restaurant there” is a big part of what livability is all about.

  • I keep harping here because I think people underestimate how difficult and important the question “How to grow retail?” is to the agenda of building walkable communities.

    Not everything in this post about Washington DC

    applies to Providence, but I felt less alone when I read it, especially comment #30!

    I would not object to 1000 restaurants on Thayer St. But I do not accept as OK the fact that a dorm dweller who would like a stash of say, fresh fruit in his mini fridge, as I am sure his Mama would wish, faces a long walk, or a car trip. This is true about other supposedly walkable neighborhoods. It is a huge problem that people who take using their car to food shop for granted are often blind to. Solving this problem will go a long way toward improving public health and breaking the cycle of car-dependence.

  • Andrew: Good link. While I think the original post is 100% wrong, you’re right about comment #30 being spot on…

    The urban neighborhood of tomorrow, in order to fill vacancies (and also to attract residents) is going to have to offer not only a broad range of retail and food offerings (again, to attract residents), it’s going to have to pull them there by the *experience* of doing urban shopping… We’re got a loooong way to go in that “experience” element in many of our neighborhoods…

    Jim: You misread me on Federal Hill. I mostly agree with everything you said… My caviat was that I think Federal Hill just *barely* makes the “destination” grade… It could (and should) be so much more…

  • I wish I found this site sooner! I didn’t know Morrison’s was closing! >>wail<<

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