By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
With its vacant shopping mall, potholes and propped-up, empty bank facade, Providence’s lower Weybosset Street resembles a Hollywood back-lot version of a city after the stars have gone home.
The neighborhood may be far from its heyday, but an aggressive historic-restoration campaign by the city and preservation community is sparking a series of investments designed to revive the Downcity financial district from the beating it took in the Great Recession.
“There is definitely something positive happening, and I think people might start understanding that there is money to be had and that there is life down here,” said David O’Brien, owner of Picture This gallery and framing shop on Weybosset. “It is not a ghost town and not a bad place to be. We have been here five years and seen it dwindle. Now it is becoming more positive.”
The project that’s generated the greatest early excitement on Weybosset, even though its contribution will be largely cosmetic, is a plan to move the steel bracing that holds up the Providence National Bank façade off the street and sidewalk, and behind the structure.
“Hooray – and you probably don’t need the telephone to hear me say it,” said Robert Burke, owner of Pot au Feu restaurant on Custom House Street, when asked for his feelings on the plan. “The decline in the downtown over the past eight years was like a fall off a cliff.”
And there are more conventional redevelopment projects under way in the area that could have more lasting impacts than freeing the street of a steel eyesore.
Across the street from the bank façade, the former Equitable building, also known as the Custom House building, is in the process of a full renovation that will see a new restaurant and lounge on the lower floors and new office space on the third through fifth floors.
Nearby on Orange Street, the new Congress Tavern recently opened after a full renovation of the building that once hosted Adler’s photography shop.
Toward Dorrance Street, a cluster of three buildings sold by utility National Grid last year – the Teste Block, Providence Gas building and the Narragansett Hotel Garage – are in the late planning stages for restoration into mixed-use buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments above.