February 14, 2013

A new identity begins to take shape

By Chris Barrett

At its northern end, Eddy Street in Providence starts with parking lots. Move south and there’s the old motor shop that’s been turned into residential condominiums. Then there’s the new Brown University medical school.

Across the street is land slated to become a park. Down the road, there is a police substation, an appraiser, a real estate office, more parking lots and a crumbling, defunct power plant. It’s a street with a hodgepodge of businesses, indicative of the wider neighborhood known for years as the Jewelry District, in a nod to its once-vibrant jewelry-manufacturing history. But starting about three decades ago, the neighborhood shifted from jewelry to offices. Now, as state and city leaders try to rebrand and reinvent the area as the Knowledge District, business leaders there say the roots are already firmly planted.

“That would be great because that’s often what I think it is,” said Malcolm Grear, founder and CEO of Malcolm Grear Designers on Eddy Street. The design firm has leveraged its creativity, expertise and skills to develop marketing campaigns for clients around the world, including the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And there are other firms with a creative bent and plenty of “knowledge,” argues Jewelry District Association President Arthur Salisbury. So he cringes when leaders try and brand the area the Knowledge District, saying it already has plenty of intelligence and diversity.

“We’re a little bit of everything and that’s what we want to be,” Salisbury said. Just look at Eddy Street. Approximately 25 businesses abut the road and employ more than 225 people in positions as diverse as gas station attendant, insurance agent and medical-school professor. The Jewelry District, however, is much larger than one street. Generally regarded to resemble a pie wedge, the district is pie-shaped, with interstates 95 and 195 forming the crust and the Providence River and Pine Street the edges. Neither the city, state nor the neighborhood association has ever completed an official inventory of businesses or jobs in the area that has grown organically since the jewelry industry largely left two decades ago. As officials tout the potential for the district to become a hub for life science research, the neighborhood has found itself in the limelight. And that spotlight has unearthed a district without an identity easy to pin down.

“It’s probably mor than meets the eye but it’s still a lot of mishmash and potential,” Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee said. A mishmash that started arriving as the jewelry industry began departing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Companies with names like the Speidel Co., the Gorham Manufacturing Co. and the Roberts Paper Co. closed up or moved elsewhere. A few companies involved in the jewelry trade still work out of the district. But rather than employing hundreds of people in big plants, they are smaller operations and few and far between, said John Mesrobian, owner of S & M Enameling Co. on South Street.

“Jewelry is pretty much dead” in the district, Mesrobian said. The industry lost to places such as China, where labor is cheaper and environmental laws more lax. In the industry’s wake small businesses cropped up. Nightclubs arrived when the city created a de facto nightlife district by steering liquor licenses to the area near Friendship and Richmond streets. Combined, the clubs can legally hold about 3,700 patrons, according to the neighborhood association. In 2007, Brown University came down off College Hill across the river and purchased 14 properties. Besides the university’s new medical school, the Ivy League institution keeps a biology lab and an entrepreneurship center in the area and this month started renovations on Dyer Street to move its continuing-education program there.

Brown says it now has about 1,000 faculty, staff and students in the neighborhood. With that, the area has started a shift toward an emphasis on research and education. “Without anybody planning it or consciously directing, it has many of the features people would hope would be in the Knowledge District at some point,” said Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning at Brown University. For years, Brown let existing tenants stay in the buildings and that left the neighborhood largely the same assortment of businesses, as some academics struggled to classify the neighborhood.

“It’s still searching for a new identity,” said D. Scott Molloy, a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Rhode Island. “I think with this emergence of health [care], that may be the forthcoming way to identify the area.” For some business leaders, that identity already exists. Dr. Timothy Babineau, president and CEO of Rhode Island Hospital, said that the area already boasts life science research. But its under-the-radar state makes selling the area to new companies frustrating. “No one wants to be the first person to jump in the pond,” Babineau said. “What I tell folks is we already have people in the pond.” To back up the statement Babineau turned to the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, where he serves on the board of directors. At his encouragement, the board formed a subcommittee to inventory the Knowledge District. In June, the 17-member committee said it tallied 784 businesses operating in the Knowledge District, which it defined broadly to encompass downtown and the Washington Park area as well as the Jewelry District.

The study found more than 530,000 square feet of space in the area used for scientific and medical research. Brown University owns 14 properties. Johnson & Wales University owns 18 buildings and leases space in another three. Lifespan operates its Coro Research Center. Rhode Island Hospital runs a liver-research center and The Miriam Hospital has a center for weight control and diabetes. Not all the companies are big and not all made it into the EDC report. Fulcrum Product Development on South Street has sat for a decade in the heart of the district. Since moving in 10 years ago, the company has renovated its building and employed interns from the nearby Johnson & Wales campus.

“We knew this was going to be an up-and-coming area because they’ve been talking about it for so many years,” President Douglas Stern said. A popular one too. Leeds Mitchell IV, vice president at MG Commercial, said office space is only available in small chunks unappealing to high-tech companies. So he has struggled to find locations for companies in the biotech and Internet industries. “There are not a lot of options right now” in the district, Leeds said. In July, CB Richard Ellis-New England reported that 68,265 square feet of space in the district is vacant, representing a 15.5 percent vacancy rate, up from a 9.7 percent vacancy rate five years ago. Commercial presence, however, is only one side of the story. The district is also home to about 250 residents, according to the neighborhood association.

Many of them, including Salisbury, call former factories home. And if you’re Salisbury, your view has certainly changed. From his dinner table, he once watched traffic jams along the elevated Interstate 195. With heavy equipment grinding up and carting away the last pieces of the highway, there’s now a swath of vacant land prime for development. And that has government officials excited.

“The potential’s all there,” Chafee said. “Now we’re ready to realize it.”