Downcity retail revival in store

<b>THINGS LOOKING UP:</b> Downcity, particularly along Westminister Street, has seen heightened retail activity recently.
THINGS LOOKING UP: Downcity, particularly along Westminister Street, has seen heightened retail activity recently.

Merchants benefit from loan program

In the past 15 months, 21 new retail stores have opened in the Downcity retail district. By the end of this October, Cornish Associates’ Director of Marketing and Retail Leasing Francis X. Scire Jr. said he anticipates signing leases that will have the south side of Westminster Street completely rented to retailers.

“That will really leave the door open for me to fill the rest of the neighborhood,” Scire said.

Work on the Peerless Lofts, a Cornish project that includes 97 residential lofts and more than 20,000 square feet of residential space, is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.

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Providence Foundation Executive Director Dan Baudouin and his team have been working to implement the Downcity Cooperative Arts and Retail Management Work Plan. One of the first recommendations that plan made was to create a safer, cleaner environment in the Downcity area to attract new merchants.

“Cleanliness and safety really had to be addressed first,” Baudouin said. Business owners and citizens can call the Downcity Improvement District’s 24-hour hotline to report graffiti or litter problems. Cleanup efforts are funded by a special tax assessment district. Businesses in the area tax themselves and use the money to maintain Downcity streets.

“The graffiti and weed removal are some of the most significant things they’re doing,” said Joelle Crane, the Foundation’s Downcity program manager.

The Foundation has also been working in conjunction with the Providence Preservation Society Revolving Fund to offer loans to Downcity merchants to improve their storefronts. According to Clark Schoettle, executive director of the fund, there is more than $7.5 million available in the loan pool.

The Peerless building received $1 million from the loan pool. The arts center AS220 will also tap the fund to make renovations.

There are three kinds of loans available. Development loans, which serve as gap financing for rehabilitation or new construction projects, can go to $1 million. Façade improvement loans can be awarded up to $250,000. Storefront improvement loans, with a cap of $25,000 per storefront, address signage, awnings, lighting and other improvements.

“Part of what I’d like to see happen with the loans for storefront improvements is (improvements) to keep them historically compatible,” Schoettle said.

Attracting new merchants into Downcity remains an integral part of the work plan, Baudouin said.

“Some businesses have recognized the potential of the area, and some of those businesses – like Red Door Spa – are image-changers,” Baudouin said.

Crane said seeing established Federal Hill restaurants, such as L’Epicureo and Gracie’s, move into the district serves as a testament to the changing face of the area.

“The quality of businesses coming in is at a whole other level than what we’ve seen in the past 30 years,” Schoettle said.

To keep that trend moving, the Foundation has been working to develop comprehensive marketing data to present potential merchants. The Downcity Merchants Association survey asks business owners everything from their hours of operation to sales figures. Crane said the Foundation is also trying to compile vacancy rates for the district.

Another survey making the rounds this summer is a parking validation questionnaire that tries to gauge the parking needs and policies of merchants in the area.

“The biggest accomplishment in the past few years has been getting the large projects done,” Baudouin said. “People other than office workers and students are going to Downcity. This summer there are 600 new residents there.”

The Westminster Street LOFTS, which include 100 units, have already been filled. Scire said 45 of the 97 Peerless Lofts are leased. The retail space downstairs includes an 8,400-square-foot store, a 3,159-square-foot space, a 2,930-square-foot space and four smaller spaces.

Scire said while no leases have yet been signed for the Peerless retail building, he is committed to developing a funky, hip retail shopping area. The marketing plan calls for 60 percent of those retail tenants to be regional retailers.

“When we first did the agreements with Tazza (Café) and Lumiere (Salon), that started to set the stage for drawing more merchants in,” Scire said. “Things started to take shape after that.”

Crane said the Foundation is working to target specific retail uses to formulate a marketing package for potential merchants. Realizing the increased number of people living in Downcity, the Foundation is working to incorporate service-related businesses like dry cleaners, pharmacies and grocery outlets into the marketing plan.

Scire said he’s seen significant progress in the Downcity area in the last 18 months.

“A lot has changed very quickly,” Scire said. “I feel like we’re at the tipping point of developing the neighborhood. Everyone’s really committed to the goal of having a coordinated retail and arts management vision.”

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