Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: Possible to Have Both? 

The Whitmarsh Apartments, in Elmwood, constructed in 1913, rehabilitated by the OMNI Development Corporation, 1995.

The three historic houses demolished in January on Angell Street on the East Side of Providence got considerable press attention. The vacant space in what had long been a quiet residential area will likely be filled with a multi-story structure, similar to those going up nearby.  Changes like these are happening up and down Thayer and Brook Streets.  Thayer, once a quiet residential neighborhood, is a strip of chain franchises, and Brook is a growing canyon of Brown University infrastructure.

How does Providence, a city with some of the oldest housing stock in the country, promote preservation, progress, and address a housing crisis all at the same time?

As bystanders have helplessly watched the destruction of these houses, they raise pertinent questions.  Couldn’t the historic commission have saved these buildings?   And, if so, could the houses have been restored to include affordable housing?  Such questions are pressing, as we witness the recent destruction of existing buildings (not always historic), to make way for structures that are “bigger and better.”

Even though the intersecting crises of affordable housing and preservation seem to have erupted recently, Providence already has at least three community organizations that have addressed these concerns for years.

SWAP (Stop Wasting Abandoned Property) is the first, beginning in 1975.  It grew out of the concerns of Berta Phillips, mother of ten children,  as she watched the destruction of houses in her Elmwood neighborhood through arson and neglect. SWAP,  by buying and rehabbing houses, then selling them to low or moderate-income buyers, kept neighborhoods intact in South Providence and beyond.

Townhouses on Bridgham Street, built through SWAP.

Reviving Pine Street was its first success. This once vital corridor connected Broad Street with the downtown before it was eviscerated when I-95 sliced through the city in the 1960s. Pine Street had been a thriving link between South Providence and the downtown. Roland Campbell, owner of a grocery store at 380 Pine Street, reminisced: “That was a great business area. People walking to work downtown would all pass by. There was a cobbler, a cleaning establishment, two laundries, another grocery, a bar, a couple of liquor stores. Hayward Park was there, with benches, very pleasant and safe.”

Friendship and Pine had become drive-through streets of disheveled properties. Today, both streets are part of a visually interesting and sustainable mixed income neighborhood of historic and new houses and apartments.

SWAP headquarters, 439 Pine Street, Providence.

SWAP’s initial mission was to buy, rehab, and sell houses to low- and moderate-income families. Ten blocks of the Pine/Friendship area were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, described in the nomination as the “largest and best preserved remnant of Providence’s early 19th-century development west of the Central Business District.” Yet “the main problem with the area,” noted Ted Sanderson, then Director of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission, “is keeping it up long enough to save it.” SWAP’s director at the time, Getz Obstfeld, confirmed this urgency: “We can afford to take a gamble that private people can’t. If we set an example, we hope others will follow.”

SWAP applied for HUD’s new Neighborhood Strategy Area program, designed to give communities rather than private developers the major voice in planning. By subsidizing the rent of low-income tenants, the NSA assured a mix of low- and moderate-income residents, with minimum displacement of those already living there. Further, SWAP stipulated in its proposal, houses must be owner-occupied, so that residents rather than outsiders would benefit. And because the area was on the National Register of Historic Places, additional tax and loan benefits were available for rehabilitation.

Today, SWAP has grown beyond its early mission and has renovated or built thousands of houses, condos, and apartments for low- and moderate-income families and individuals, extending its building program in the city and beyond. Current Director Carla DeStephano, Director of SWAP recently celebrated a renovation in Jamestown of an unused commercial building into apartments for the disabled. Joining her were members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation and elected Jamestown officials. And no one had raised the issue of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).

Ten years later, in 1985, AS220 was founded by Bert Crenca and a small group of local artists. Today the organization is widely known as a model for nonprofit arts groups, and Crenca is credited with being a catalyst for the Downtown Arts and Entertainment District.

Gallery exhibit spaces, AS220.

In the early 1990’s, Crenca was introduced to real estate developer, Lucie Searle  He asked her help to create affordable spaces where artists could live, work, perform, and exhibit.  Lucie was well-versed in the complicated process of creating financial packages, including loans, grants, and federal and state historic tax credits.  Remarkably, together they restored three downtown buildings, the Arnold Block on Empire Street, and the former Dreyfus Hotel and Mercantile Block on Washington Street. Today these buildings include approximately 50 housing units at below-market rents, attracting artists. Commercial spaces, as well as studios and galleries, contribute to the urban swirl, and rent from these tenants is an important source of income, helping to keep the housing affordable.

Hotel Dreyfus, restored by AS220, on Matthewson Street in Providence.

Today, the challenges in creating housing, especially affordable housing, are more complex. Land and construction costs are high, building codes may be outdated, and Providence’s over-reliance on the property tax leads to higher rents. Nonetheless, Lucie notes, historic preservation remains one of the strongest tools to support new housing. Because preservation uses existing infrastructure and builds upon the energy and labor that went into the original construction, it can be considered “smart building.” And locally based, it tends to make more use of local resources and less outsourcing. Demolition-before-development, on the other hand, as on the Angell Street block, sends tons of useless debris to the landfill, contributing to greenhouse gas and climate change and destroying the local history and character of a street or neighborhood.

Providence’s new Comprensive Plan for the next decade, still receiving comment, could include an inventory of historic buildings awaiting rehab, and the city could then offer tax credits to encourage their development.  Rehabbing existing buildings is preferable to new developments that pop up without warning and neighborhoods find unacceptable.  One recent example is the possibility of a 48-unit micro-loft development for the corner of Evergreen and Camp Streets.  Neighbors are opposed, citing lack of parking or public transportation.

A third organization also dating from the 80s, WBNA (West Broadway Neighborhood Association) came together in 1982 as a group of residents wishing to strengthen the distinct character of their neighborhood. Under the leadership of recently-retired director, Kari Lang, the neighborhood has now grown to include the area between Rt 10 and Rt. I- 95 on the east and west, and Broadway and Cranston Street on the north and south.  Its housing stock is historic and unique, and WBNA has worked hard to restore and maintain it, creating residential spaces that assure its status as a mixed-income neighborhood.

WBNA’s Community Development Committee (CDC) is an important tool, perhaps the most useful one to a neighborhood today committed to affecting future development.  When a new development is proposed to the city, the CDC gives input on the plan’s design, including its height, scale, and massing in relation to its surroundings. It also asks that projects include a variety of unit sizes to assure a diversity of occupants (single, couple, family); ground floor commercial space;  green technologies such as solar panels and heat pumps; and affordable units for low-income people.  Input does not guarantee a desired result, but it keeps the concerns of a neighborhood in the conversation between a developer and the city.

CDC aims to ensure any project complies with WNBA’s guiding documents.  Composed of local residents, the committee is well-versed in urban planning and the needs of the neighborhood.  Feedback from residents close to developments is welcome.  Then the review process results are shared with the developer by letter and by testimony at such public meetings as the City Plan Commission, the Zoning Board, and the Historic District Commission.

One of WBNA’s greatest concerns is being an active contributor to what might be finally, after decades of discussion, a plan to preserve the Cranston Street Armory.  As proposed plans have come and gone for almost four decades, WBNA has been a critical pipeline of public input, seeking “To preserve and reuse the Cranston Street Armory – a nationally recognized, state-owned civic building – as a public-private partnership that would benefit the diverse west side community, the City of Providence and the entire state of Rhode Island.”

The Cranston Street Armory, built in 1907.

SWAP, AS220, and WBNA were each started by a few individuals who believed existing housing could be saved and reused. As their efforts took off, each had a wider impact than anyone could have originally imagined. All collaborated with a variety of agencies and funding sources and worked for years to bring to fruition projects that include housing for families and individuals with low and moderate incomes.

These successful community processes contrast with the conflicts over plans for new developments in the I-195 District. The highway that helped isolate Upper South Providence and the Jewelry District from the East Side in the 60s has been moved further south.  Many on both sides of this district hope that the decisions made will help connect and heal the separations of neighborhoods created by the highways.  The debates over the development of 269 Wickenden,

the rejection of the luxury highrise Fane Tower, and the fight for open spaces in the new district, however, all demonstrate the continuing need for negotiating visions of the city’s future.

All parties concede that Providence’s housing crisis is dire.  A report compiled for the Elorza administration in 2021, Anti-Displacement and Comprehensive Housing Strategy, suggested that “To meet the collective need for housing within the next ten years, the City would have to target the development and rehabilitation of more than 850 [affordable housing units]. . .To put this into context, 512 new income-controlled units were constructed in the past decade according to the City’s assessment data.

With increasing pressures to develop housing, Providence recently released a map that shows where residential growth is planned.  Most areas of the city are targeted for “managed growth” in residential housing where “new development should not change overall existing development patterns.”  Areas closer to downtown are designated for “enhanced growth,” that is, “eligible for higher-density”development. 

Providence residents concerned about any phase of development can only enhance their voice by working through organizations such as those discussed here.  Others who have been involved in the development of affordable housing while preserving the character of neighborhoods include West Elmwood Housing Corporation and Omni Development Corporation. In all cases, residents concerned about development should be in touch with their representative on the City Council.

Marisa Brown, Director of the Providence Preservation Society, suggests,“We should also be thinking about the fruitful possibilities of working in coalition with environmental organizations and civic leaders to incentivize adaptive reuse and deter demolition and new construction, given the carbon costs of the latter. Other cities are moving in this direction. This would protect Providence’s treasured historic places, and would ensure a more sustainable future.”

Brown adds that “Providence really should have more regulations [such as delayed demolitions] in place to protect beloved districts.” And indeed, just recently, City Council member John Goncalves of Ward One has introduced legislation in the form of an amendment to the Providence Zoning Ordinance to strengthen the ability of the Historic District Commission to delay demolitions for a six-month review process.

And finally, Kari Lang observes, “Wouldn’t our city be in a better place, if every neighborhood had an association, and those associations each had a CDC that could weigh in on proposed developments?  Perhaps then new projects would utilize gentle density, with appropriate and quality design and construction, and include true affordable housing in every project. Our experience has been that developers gain from the experience, and that projects evolve into a stronger proposal when the community sits at the table. And public meetings will go more smoothly if residents are involved. Everyone wins.”

Sarah Gleason has been passionate about historic preservation since moving to Fox Point in 1970. She has experienced the connection between people and places in many settings: as a teacher at the Dorcas Place Parent Literacy Program, as the first Director of ReachOut&Read/RI, and as founder of the BeavertailLighthouse Museum when working for RIDEM.  Now, she is happy to be writing about this subject for The Providence Eye.