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CENTER PROFILE: A river runs through it

Urban revitalization has a new poster child: Providence Place mall in Providence, R.I. As part of a triumvirate of recently built attractions, including a new Westin hotel and a modern convention center, the $460 million development is helping to resuscitate the city's decaying core.

City officials spent years searching for ways to bring tourists and suburbanites to downtown Providence. The metro area had no shortage of retail centers, but it lacked an upscale urban mall that could maintain a buzz of downtown activity well past daylight hours.

For almost a decade, the city collaborated with developers on various downtown improvement plans, none of which were realized because site factors were discouraging. The new mall needed to be easily accessible to the Westin and to the nearby Capitol Center complex, but the only parcel available was 13 acres crisscrossed by both the Wonnasquatucket River and a functioning railroad track.

Locally based Commonwealth Development Group took the project's reigns in the mid-1990s, and finally brought all the puzzle pieces together. Renowned architect Friedrich St. Florian had already started preliminary designs for Providence Place, and in 1997, Commonwealth brought in Somerville, Mass.-based Arrowstreet as architect of record.

“We created a 120-ft. enclosed bridge over the river and railroad tracks,” says John Shortall, Arrowstreet project architect for Providence Place. “This created the Wintergarden, a three-level bridge with one entire wall made of glass.” The Wintergarden contains the mall's food court and several retailers.

For the mall's massive exterior, Arrowstreet chose to mimic the classic architecture of downtown Providence. “Towers and the glass Wintergarden wall break down the scale,” Shortall says. “We used Federal-style elements and glazing to tie in the state capitol and the city's industrial buildings.”

Considering that downtown's tight parking situation was one of shoppers' biggest turnoffs, the mall's design incorporated 2 million sq. ft. of garages on the first five levels. Four levels and 2 million sq. ft. of GLA rest on top of the parking garages. The top, or eleventh, floor houses a Hoyt's Cinema and an IMAX theater.

Since the center opened for business in August 1999, it began bringing shoppers in from the ‘burbs with its upscale anchor roster including New England's first Nordstrom, plus Filene's and Lord & Taylor. The project became a hot ticket for high-end retail chains, and the domino effect of increased downtown development followed. Several high-priced condo complexes are sprouting around Capital Center, and ambitious development plans are underway in the neighboring Downcity district.

Many similar developments across the United States have failed, but Providence Place's development team seems to have mastered the magic formula required to make a go of the urban megamall. As a result, downtown Providence has a sense of stability it hasn't seen in decades.

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