Five Questions With: Steve Durkee

Steve Durkee, a founder of the Providence architecture firm now known as DBVW Architects, and since 2010 the director of development at Cornish Associates, recently announced he would be leaving Cornish to join a new company.

For 14 years, Durkee served as chairman of the Providence City Plan Commission. He responded to questions presented by the Providence Business News.

PBN: You recently announced you would be leaving Cornish Associates and joining a new company. Tell us what you’ll be doing and with whom.

DURKEE: After leaving my architectural firm, I joined Cornish Associates where I’ve worked for the last 10 years continuing the redevelopment of downtown Providence, which I’ve been working on for 25 years.

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I’m going to join up with longtime friend and [Rhode Island School of Design] colleague Steve Lane, who has started an innovative new company, Ark Woods & Services Co. We are specializing in using reclaimed old-growth wood in new ways. It’s an exciting new company making great sustainable products and I’m really happy to be helping at this stage. More to come, to be sure.

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PBN: You managed the construction of the Nightingale for Cornish. Tell readers about that new building.

DURKEE: The Nightingale is one of the first new residential mixed-use buildings built in downtown in a generation. With our great partners from Massachusetts, Nordblom Cos., we acquired 75 Fountain St. from the Providence Journal and that included two parking lots. We repurposed 75 Fountain first, into a new, modern multi-tenant office building with tech-focused tenants and it’s 100% leased.

Then we started the new construction on the lot across the street, which covers a full city block between Fountain and Washington streets. It is a six-story building with 143 modern apartments, including indoor, ground-level parking, a second-floor common area with an outside courtyard, fitness center, bike storage and many other modern amenities. The ground floor will have commercial tenants on Fountain and Washington streets.

We are committed to trying to find a market for the large space on Washington Street and are having ongoing discussions with possible tenants. Nothing to report yet, but hopefully we will have something to share soon.

PBN: What have been some of the highlights of Providence downtown development for you?

DURKEE: I’ve been fortunate to have worked on the redevelopment of downtown for the last 25 years, first with my architectural firm then as part of Cornish. When it started in the early ’90s, we really didn’t know where it would go, and one highlight was Rhode Island’s adoption of the State Historic Tax Credit program. It was fundamental in the renovation of most of the buildings downtown and is part of why downtown Providence is known for its amazing historical architecture.

We were able to build 400 apartments and space for almost 40 new small businesses, with hundreds of jobs, and which created a whole new vitality. Downtown hasn’t been this vibrant, pre-COVID, since the days of the great department stores. It’s been a great and satisfying project. We are also working hard today to try and retain the vitality to get past this difficult time. We need to keep the businesses alive. Watch for more on that.

I’m also very happy about the emergence of the value of public space and placemaking downtown. The Downtown Improvement District was created and now there is an effort to create a new parks network linking all the parks from the Statehouse to the head of the bay. As the downtown continues to redevelop and become more occupied, high-quality and well-programmed public space, like the new Pedestrian Bridge and parks, will become critical to the continued success. We have a great future.

PBN: What is your greatest disappointment in development, generally? Is it the loss of a historical building? Acceptance of something?

DURKEE: I think one of the most frustrating and disappointing development issues for me has been the failure to get the support needed to redevelop 111 Westminster St. [Industrial Trust Building]. We worked with the owner for five years on those efforts and while there were several close calls, the project ultimately needs the equivalent of the [State Historic Tax Credit program] to be redeveloped.

The beautiful South Street Landing project had a significant amount of tax credits available and the support of the state and universities. We know from the historical data that the historic tax credits create a return on investment of approximately 5-to-1, so it is a very good investment for the state. It’s hard to understand support for other, less-viable large projects, like the Fane [Hope Point Tower] project, versus support [for] the redevelopment of arguably the most iconic structure in Rhode Island.

PBN: Finally, you’re also opening a restaurant, Durk’s Bar B Q. Tell readers what that is.

DURKEE: Durk’s Bar B Q is a restaurant we had on Thayer Street for several years. It had tough times there in the end and we opted to close and relocate into downtown, which is likely a better environment and where I’m very comfortable.

Our new home, 33 Aborn St., will be open by the end of [October] and is a slightly infamous building on Aborn Street. We couldn’t be more excited. The menu, which is Texas-style barbecue, will be the same but better (better kitchen setup!) and the vibe will be similar.

It’s hard to understand what opening a restaurant during this COVID-19 pandemic will be like, but we built it for the times and have ultraviolet filters on the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] [system] and good open space. [We] had to submit a COVID seating plan for the R.I. Department of Health, so we feel we will have a safe interior space, as well as whatever outdoor seating we can get, and of course take-out. We’ve gotten amazing feedback, and there seems to be a lot of anticipation for us to reopen.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at MacDdonal@PBN.com.