Riverside residents aim to revitalize 'The Square'
EAST PROVIDENCE — A group of city residents are hoping to have input into the revitalization and redevelopment of an historic section of East Providence.
The Riverside Renaissance Movement (RRM) has opened up a dialogue with politicians and administrators, including East Providence Community Development Coordinator David Bachrach, in an attempt to have a say into plans to bring life back to "The Square," a strip of land on Bullocks Point Avenue they believed has been underutilized and underdeveloped for far too long.
The catalyst to the revived interest in the area came with the city's recent razing of the old VAMCO jewelry plant along with a pair of dilapidated houses on adjacent parcels.
"It started with the empty lot, the two houses and old VAMCO building. We saw the chain link fence go up, and we figured something was going on. Then I was watching the City Council meeting on TV and I saw David talking about what was happening and negotiating a (sale) price. And this guy was just so positive. We wanted to get involved somehow," said RRM member Edward "Ted" Sheridan, a 1977 East Providence High School graduate and life-long resident of the city.
Mr. Sheridan, his wife Kathy and a handful of other Riverside residents coordinated a meeting about six weeks ago with Mr. Bachrach as well as several current and past area pols. It was a fact-finding mission and it left the residents feeling even better about the future possibilities of the area.
"We reached out to a couple of Council people (Ward 4's Chrissy Rossi and At-Large Tracy Capobianco, a Riverside resident) and we asked to have a meeting. And they made themselves readily available, which was great," Mr. Sheridan explained.
"I was really wowed by their enthusiasm and excitement about getting together. It was just awesome," he continued. "David was there. And then (Zoning Board Chairman) Gene Saveory showed up. (Dist. 65 State Representative) Gregg Amore showed up. This was on a Sunday afternoon, mind you. And about 15 members of the community turned out. We told the politicians this is what we know and this is what we don't know. And they told us, OK, this is fact and that is myth."
The VAMCO property is the blank canvas upon which the Riverside Renaissance Movement has set its sights on initially.
"Our focus was on the vacant lot. We asked do we have some say in the matter, and they said, yes. We just thought it was wonderful that we could have a say. We were so enthusiastic coming out of that meeting that we decided to form an organization," Mr. Sheridan, the de facto leader of the RRM, said.
Intrigued by their ability to possibly help shape the neighborhood, members of the group are now all in and are seeking additional ideas from others not yet on board.
"It's not so much a movement. It's more of a consciousness. We want an open dialogue. We want as many people involved in the process as we can have. Everyone you talk to wants 'The Square' to look nice," Mr. Sheridan said. "What we would like to see as a group, a vision is storefronts below with living space on top. We'd like it to be an owner-occupied scenario. Shops on the bottom with six to eight condos on the top. We want those people to have skin in the game. We want them to take pride in their investment."
There's that word pride again. So often associated with East Providence, these residents in Riverside want to create a place they can proudly call their own and share with the rest of the city and the region also.
"I would like us to take a different approach. We want to make it a better section," Mr. Sheridan said. "It's historical. It has two great parks in Sabin Point and Rose Larisa. It's got the (Lloof) carousel. Heck, it's got a six hole golf course (Silver Spring) right down the road. The old train depot building is for sale. The "Buckets" (convenience store) building is up for sale. Anything we can do to the area will be a positive, whether it's just a fresh coat of paint or add lighting.
"And the best part is we're not dispersing anybody. The vision is based off of 'Townie Pride.' We just want to make 'The Square' a better place, make it a happy place."
Mr. Bachrach is more than pleased to be involved with the endeavor. This is what he does on a daily basis: working cooperatively with residents of the city while trying to tempt investors to put their money into it.
Previous City Councils set the parameters for the development of the VAMCO property, which is in the early stages of redevelopment. The cleanup is being paid for through the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Management and federal Community Development Block Grants.
"Right now I have the funding to clean up the site, make it sellable," Mr. Bachrach explained. "As we go, I'll need to cobble together the funding to move the process forward. The VAMCO property is part of a larger image of what Riverside can be about. You start with a grand vision and bring it down to something more realistic."
The RRM would like to see the VAMCO property maintain a similar, though updated, look to that of the "Buckets" building, which is mixed use. Mr. Bachrach shares that sentiment, but needs to be more open to the possible realities of the real estate market.
"Affordable housing is a must. People wouldn't think that way, but Ward 4 has the least concentration of affordable housing than any other section of the city," Mr. Bachrach said. "Ideally I would love to see it be mixed use with commercial on the first floor and residential on the second floor, but that is going to be market driven. The developer is eventually going to make that decision, but we can couch it to the way we would like to see it. We can put as much teeth into the agreement to suit our vision."
Mr. Bachrach pointed out the stigma often associated with the phrase "affordable housing." He explained its much different then residences which are backed by the government. Affordable housing mandates are much more stringent. He referred to the house "lottery" the city conducted over the last year where after advertising the renovated property on Anthony Street throughout the region, only four applicants met the qualifications to gain the loan needed to purchase the property.
"We want to shape the area in the image of the community, but again the marketplace may not agree," Mr. Bachrach added. "I would love to see a commercial aspect to the plan, but it may not be in the cards. A developer may come in and build just residential. Even if they do, we can set parameters. We can be the catalyst of change. It would be nice housing, energy efficient. It will hopefully spur change, upgrades to both existing commercial and residential properties."
Both men agreed they'd like to see Riverside Square emulate what has been done over the last several years on Main Street in Warren while taking other elements from Wayland Square on the East Side of Providence.
"I would love to see cobblestone walks and gas lamps and trees and flower beds. We want to make it quaint, user friendly, but there has to be a reasonable balance between what we want and what is economically viable," Mr. Bachrach said.
Economic development is never far from Mr. Bachrach's thoughts. It is with other impending developments being undertaken in the city in mind that he looks to the future of "The Square."
"Riverside right now is not a destination. We need to make it a place people want to come to. We just finished the Tockwotten project. We have Kettle Point ready to go. We have 300 lots of waterfront property that can be developed. What I would like to see from those people when they leave that area is for them to take a right instead of taking a left," Mr. Bachrach said.
"When they get to (Veterans Parkway) do they decide to take a left and get on the highway to Providence or do they take a right and go to Riverside?" he added. "We want them to take a right, to go the parks, the carousel, to shops and boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants in 'The Square.' But we need to find what is going to be the right fit."
Ultimately, as is the case with Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other sorts of funding, Mr. Bachrach wants and needs the public to be involved in the process of turning Riverside Square into something better than it currently is.
"My vision, Ted's vision, a lot of the residents in the area is we see Riverside has a lot more potential than what is here now. Let's be honest, it's had a bad rap. We want to get rid of that. We want people to realize Riverside is no different then any other part of the city," said Mr. Bachrach.
Added Mr. Sheridan, "We're part of the community and we have a vision. We're saying let's look at everything. And whoever reads this, we want them to be part of the movement. We want them to participate, to have a voice. This is truly a collaborative effort. It's positive. There's no drama. It's a small part of East Providence that we believe can be better and we want people involved. Like my father-in-law used to say, 'It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.'"