June 22, 2017

Artists and Nonprofits Revitalize a Slice of Historic Providence

  • By: Jared Foretek
Mercantile Block building in Providence, RI

photo by: Heidi Gumula/DBVW Architects

The Mercantile Block in Providence, Rhode Island.

When the Providence, Rhode Island nonprofit AS220 set out to purchase its third downtown building, it knew the Mercantile Block had exactly what it was looking for. Its sheer size—50,000 square feet, four stories, and a basement—made the 1901 structure perfect for the diverse uses the artist-run organization had in mind. There was storefront space for creative businesses, office space for local nonprofits, and room for 22 live/work studios for local artists.

Built in 1901, the building was once the hub of a bustling commercial strip in downtown Providence with a laundry, repair shop, and livery all operating from its first level. It was around that time that the entire corridor developed, offering shopping, apartments, bars, and a small brewery along Washington Street. It remained a destination until the middle of the 20th century, when the Mercantile and its surrounding neighborhood fell victim to the same economic and migratory forces that ravaged urban cores around the nation.

The Mercantile Block building in 1901

photo by: Providence Public Library Digital Collections

A 1901 photograph of the Mercantile Block and Washington Street.

Undated photo of the Dreyfus Hotel

photo by: Providence Public Library Digital Collections

An undated photograph of the nearby Dreyfus Hotel, which AS220 restored in 2007.

The building was nearly vacant when AS220—an organization dedicated to creating artist space in Providence since 1985—undertook a $16.9 million rehabilitation in 2008. With $10.4 million in historic tax credits and New Markets Tax Credits through the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, the idea was to supplement the adjacent Dreyfus Hotel building, where AS220 had restored an 1890 hotel for offices and artist space.

Now, the Mercantile Block and the Washington Street corridor are thriving once again. A meticulous restoration of the building’s four-story facade by DBVW Architects has helped revitalize the entire streetscape and inspired building owners to take up rehabilitations nearby. The mixed-use redevelopment has benefited the broader community as well, with affordable storefronts for local small businesses, office space for Providence-based nonprofits, and subsidized live/work studios for artists.

Dreyfus Hotel building in Providence, Rhode Island

photo by: Glenn Turner/Courtesy of DBVW Architects

The restored Dreyfus Hotel.

Martha Street alleyway at Mercantile Block in Providence, Rhode Island

photo by: Heidi Gumula/DBVW Architects

An emphasis was put on reanimating the Martha Street alley behind the building.

Originally incubated by AS220 in 2004, College Visions—a Providence nonprofit that assists first-generation college-bound students—worked with the group to ensure that its needs as far as space and cost could be met, all while staying accessible to its students in the heart of downtown Providence.

“We’re just incredibly fortunate to be here,” said College Visions founder Simon Moore, who in 2015 was honored at the White House for the organization’s work. “It’s a beautiful space, big space, well-maintained. … We pay below-market rent, and we’re about four blocks away from Kennedy Plaza, which is sort of the bus terminal most high school students pass through to and from school.”

The renovation also allowed locally owned small businesses—some long-time tenants—to lease newly desirable downtown storefronts at low cost. For a restaurant like Viva Mexico!, one of just a few Latino-owned businesses in the downtown area, affordable space with good real estate is hard to come by.

The storefronts serve another purpose as well; activating the sidewalk and improving the streetscape, crucial to Providence's efforts to restitch some of the urban fabric lost decades ago. The focus wasn't only on Washington Street either; DBVW made a point to reanimate the building's rear alleyway, which had previously hampered redevelopment efforts on the block.

“We’re kind of about smart growth here,” says AS220’s Lucie Searle, “and historic preservation is kind of a marriage in the way that it reflects smart growth and building on existing urban core.”

And the 17 subsidized studios have helped people like Lara Henderson, an artist who’s worked in the building’s first-floor print shop, helping others with their craft while having the space and equipment to practice her own.

“It’s been amazing to see young people really feel ownership over the space and treat it as their own studio,” Henderson says. “I just hope funding keeps happening for spaces like this to exist because honestly it’s all just about self-esteem building. … I’ve seen it drastically change the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people.”

Ultimately, the redevelopment tailored the historic anchor building for the needs of its tenants, creating a diverse, vibrant community that’s breathed new life into a formerly distressed part of downtown Providence.

“It’s a story that a lot of communities have. Artists live in places that are semi-legal or if they’re legal, they’re underdeveloped. And as soon as spaces become viable and interesting, artists get pushed out, and low-income people get pushed out,” said Shauna Duffy, AS220’s Managing Director. “So our mission is to create these spaces and create this community. And that involves having a permanent place for artists to live affordably downtown in Providence. “

Jared Foretek

Jared Foretek enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces, he was an editorial intern at the National Trust.

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