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When the economy began to sour in 2008, real estate developer Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr. made a decision to shift focus to something other than his company’s profit-making ventures.
Chace began talking with others who shared a vision of transforming Providence’s bus depot and nearby parks into an outdoor cultural center, something akin to New York’s Washington Square. Soon there were meetings with planners and leaders from City Hall, the R.I. Public Transit Authority, the Providence Foundation, downtown businesses and elsewhere. Before long dozens of agencies and organizations were coming together as the Kennedy Plaza Working Group.
The result: the area now bustles with activity. There are concerts, art fests, a regular Friday Farmers’ Market and sidewalk bazaars where vendors sell food and crafts. And just a few months ago that success prompted the National Endowment for the Arts to award a $200,000 grant to keep the effort moving. Now there’s talk of setting up a fixed-rail streetcar that will pass through Kennedy Plaza while traveling from College Hill to Rhode Island Hospital.
“We’re setting up a nonprofit that will act as a downtown parks conservancy, to make the parks operate at a much higher level than they currently do,” Chace said, when asked about the project. “It’s been proven elsewhere that this sort of thing can make an area a more attractive place, a place where restaurants and retail businesses will expand.”
Anyone who’s ever talked with Chace knows that’s just a small part of his big picture. For more than two decades he’s been working to transform downtown into a busy and beautiful place, a showcase for the New Urbanism movement.
His company, Cornish Associates, has been renovating a slew of once-vacant, historic buildings on Westminster Street into a new kind of neighborhood with shops, offices and residences close to each other.
“The goal is to turn it into a place where people can live, work and play, all within walking distance. That’s what our 21st-century cities will be like,” said Cornish’s president and CEO. “Hopefully this thing will grow geometrically, and keep doubling every five years.”
Chace, an East Side resident, was born into a wealthy family with deep New England roots. The name is well-known to those who keep track of Rhode Island history. Back in the heyday of the region’s Industrial Revolution, his forebears launched a textile-manufacturing business, Berkshire Fine Spinning Co. Chace’s father eventually sold his share of the business, and Warren Buffet, the legendary investment whiz, purchased the majority share. Over the next four decades Buffet transformed the business into Berkshire Hathaway, an investment company, and one of the most profitable in the world. The late Malcolm “Kim” Chace III – Buff’s cousin – held onto his share of Berkshire Hathaway and became a billionaire, as well as one of the Ocean State’s major philanthropists.
In his 20’s, Buff Chace tried his hand at documentary filmmaking and spent some time vagabonding on a mail ship that traveled the Pacific Ocean. He returned to Providence in 1985, to help run family business concerns after his father became ill. One of the projects he took on was renovating a strip shopping plaza his family owned in the Cape Cod town of Mashpee. It was then that he first began studying New Urbanism.
The movement is an effort to replace sprawl development with projects that respect the environment and communities. The focus is on streets and neighborhoods, rather than structures and parking lots.
“I was looking for a way to do this project that would elicit a positive response, by showing development could be sensitive to the needs and the character of the community around it,” Chace said. “I was very much influenced by my aunt, Beatrice Chace. She was a founder of the Providence Preservation Society, and saved many of the historic houses on Benefit Street.”
He set up his development company, Cornish Associates, with financial backing from cousin Malcolm Chace and brought in architect and planner Andres Duany, a leading New Urbanism proponent, to guide the project. There were countless meetings with local officials, community groups and residents. The end result was Mashpee Commons, a mixed-use development that includes shops, offices, apartments and condos designed to resemble a New England village. It’s a thriving venture that’s considered a model of New Urbanism principles.
“Communities do want development, but not development that fundamentally changes the character of the place,” Chace said of the project. “We’ve entered a new era for development. The suburban plazas have reached their last generation. What we’re doing now represents the next level of evolution.”
In the early ‘90s Chace set his sights on Westminster Street. The neighborhood was once the city’s shopping district, but the department stores had long since closed and the buildings were mostly vacant. His company purchased many of the old structures, which have been described as intact examples of 19th-century commercial architecture.
“Everyone remembers their grandmother taking them Christmas shopping there, or hearing someone say, I’ll meet you under Shepard’s clock,” he said, referring to the iconic clock that still stands on Westminster Street. “It’s a collection of historic buildings that represent Providence at its economic peak. We knew the citizens of the city and the surrounding towns still had a place in their hearts for the district.”
Cornish Associates has thus far renovated seven Westminster buildings. When completed, the project will include 225 apartments and condominiums and 60,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as parking facilities. Chace notes that Zipcar, a company that specializes in renting cars for short day trips, will have an office in the new Westminster garage.
Chace has faced a few obstacles along the way. There were headlines when he tangled with Rich Lupo, owner of the popular rock music venue Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. At that time the club was on the first floor of Westminster’s former Peerless department store. Lupo had a multiyear lease, but when Chace bought the building, he wanted the music gone. (Lupo’s eventually moved.)
For the most part, though, Chace has avoided conflicts by inviting input from city officials, business leaders and others. Three times since the early ‘90s he’s brought Duany to Providence for workshop discussions on downtown revitalization.
Though the process can be slow, his efforts have met with success. “People are moving back to the city,” he said. “The demographics prove it. That’s certainly the case in Providence. In our buildings, we have a waiting list for residential apartments. We’re 100 percent leased.” •