To Revitalize a Decaying City Takes Many Acts of Providence

Rhode Island capital finds new ways to preserve heritage - and prosper

THERE was a time when officials in Providence, R.I., talked often of the one tool they thought might revive their broken home - the wrecking ball.

Fortunately, residents now say, when the city actually decided to start replacing its soiled and seamy 19th-century buildings with monotonous skyscrapers, the treasury was bare. Urban renewal was abandoned.

Instead, Providence has been forced to incorporate its past into its future. Today, Rhode Island's capital stands as a beacon of urban revitalization - an example of how to beautify without bulldozing, preserve and still prosper.

"The architecture's still there because we preserved it, and our history is still there," says Providence's staunchest comeback advocate, five-term Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr.

"When other cities have taken the turn to the left or to the right, they haven't gone down that path of having confidence in themselves. We kept reinvesting and reinvesting in our downtown," he says.

Other cities - such as Baltimore and Cleveland - have also struggled against tremendous odds to emerge as urban success stories. While they, too, capitalized on historical preservation as a means of revitalization, Providence is the only major city where the entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the oldest cities in the country, Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, who left Massachusetts to escape religious persecution. During its heyday in the 1940s, the city was home to booming textile and jewelry industries. That money financed the construction of beautiful homes, massive factories, shiny storefronts, and sturdy brick office buildings.

Providence, home to three renowned universities, has also become a sort of laboratory for new ideas dreamed up in the classroom. After students graduate, some have stayed here, testing their ideas and honing their skills. As a result, Providence boasts some of the best restaurants in New England, thanks to the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, and an enclave of creative artists, graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

The heritage of the past and the innovation of today have been knit together by Mayor Cianci, who began shepherding the city's rebuilding process in the 1970s. The Herculean task has required him to back, on occasion, untried proposals. His most recent plan is to attract artists to live and work in renovated buildings downtown by exempting them from state income tax and sales tax on any works they sell. Cianci hopes the plan will increase his city's tiny property-tax base by repopulating abandoned buildings and bring to life his vision of the downtown as an arts-and-entertainment district.

What has already been done to improve Providence is dramatic. In the past five years, the two rivers that run through downtown have been uncovered and moved. In place of the pavement that once buried them, graceful bridges arc over the streams, kayakers paddle through them, and pedestrians meander along the cobblestone sidewalks that flank them.

"Once the river was uncovered, people started to discover it and make it their own," says William Warner, the architect in charge of designing the river relocation project.

During the same time, a mostly abandoned railroad freight yard has been converted to an amphitheater on the rivers. The unsightly train tracks have been sunk underground, and the old train station now hosts posh offices and restaurants. A gleaming new civic center opened in 1993, and top-rate hotels have followed.

Future plans call for moving a highway farther out of downtown and opening 44 acres for development on the waterfront.

Not all is smooth sailing, however. Bickering between developers of a prospective new mall and a new 25-screen cinema complex could jettison one or both of the projects.

The snag is emblematic of hitches that have slowed the pace of the rebuilding effort. The river relocation project, for instance, was drafted back in 1985. It is expected to be completed next month - more than a decade later.

Despite the gains, many residents still yearn for Providence's turn-of-the-century profile, when the city was one of the richest in the country.

"Providence is trying to rebuild by using large, public-works projects, and that's not working," says local businessman Rick Henderson. "You've got a very large convention center that's empty a lot of the time."

Providence does exhibit a curious lack of bustle that verges on a sense of being deserted. The skyline is striking, the streets are clean, outstanding art and history museums can be found here, but this scrappy city of 160,000 is not yet a top tourist stop.

Even Cianci, at home in his office with restored tile floors and intricately painted ceiling borders, admits Providence is "a city that still has a lot to do."

But Joe Baer, owner of Baer's River Workshop, says the renovations to date give Providence residents a new sense of hope. "Some plans are tentative and some never do get accomplished. But in the interim, what is getting accomplished is small success after small success.

"I go to event after event and hear people say, 'I can't believe this is Providence,' " he says.

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