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In Providence, a Downtown Looks Forward

After a difficult 2020, a lively downtown is drawing inspiration from its creative DNA.

Photo by N. Millard/GoProvidence

The people who work in Providence, Rhode Island call their city “the creative capital” because Providence teems with creative energy. Providence residents enjoy one of the most diverse food scenes in the country, the ability to work from home while living downtown and an abundance of culture—all without the density, traffic, noise and expense of larger cities. “Downtown is the cross-section where all of Providence’s best assets meet,” says Kristen Adamo, the CEO of GoProvidence, the city’s destination marketing organization. “You have this mix of students, business leaders, tourists, meeting attendees—all in one place.”

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“Then COVID happened,” says Chris Marsella, president of Marsella Development Corporation, which has been part of Providence’s downtown development since the 1980s. As students returned to their homes and businesses turned to remote work, downtown shops and restaurants scrambled to stay alive. The Rhode Island Convention Center was temporarily converted into a hospital. “2020 was tough,” says Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “We’re used to having streets vibrant with life. To see downtown shut down was difficult.” 

But over the course of 2021, something optimistic and even inspiring became clear: Forced to think creatively to survive the pandemic, Providence is emerging as not just a restored city, but a better one. More thoughtful. More innovative. More livable. “We’re seeing a transformation that either wouldn’t have been possible without the pandemic or was accelerated by the pandemic,” Elorza says.

Photo by N. Millard/GoProvidence

Some projects that continued during COVID—such as new hotels, including an Aloft from Marriott and The Beatrice, a 48-room boutique property—have come to fruition. New restaurants have opened, while existing restaurants that honed their online and takeout business are thriving. The city’s famous WaterFire events started up again. Providence’s StyleWeek continues to showcase both local and national designers. “You see a hustle and bustle here again,” says StyleWeek founder Rosanna Ortiz. 

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But the pandemic also changed how Providence was planning its future. One example: a food hall that Chris Marsella has been developing at downtown’s Union Station—once a grand train station but now a site for shops and restaurants. Until COVID, Marsella’s food hall was going to be relatively modest, largely an outdoor food court with a shared kitchen. But when 2020 put the project on pause, Marsella realized that he could do more to support local chefs and farms and energize civic life. So he enlarged the concept; now, all 15 local vendors will have their own kitchen, elevating both the quality of cooking and the sense of community. “COVID allowed us to conceive of a bigger, bolder project,” says Marsella. That means opening in spring 2023 instead of late 2022, but Marsella wants to do it right.

Photo by N. Millard/GoProvidence

Something similar happened for Cliff Wood, executive director of the Providence Foundation, a community philanthropy. Wood spent much of 2020 working on a plan to create a downtown parks network. Providence already had some 40 acres of connected parks and public spaces. “Our mission now,” Wood says, “is to figure out how to steward them as a single entity that becomes a much more visible attraction”—the kind of big-picture project that developers and businesses value because it attracts people to live and work downtown. Other pandemic-time innovations—more bike lanes, street closings, more space for outdoor dining—are becoming permanent.

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Providence has also become a hot destination for people fleeing larger, more stressful cities. Only two New England states, Vermont and Rhode Island, enjoyed a net influx of migration during 2020, according to Siu-Li Khoe, vice president of business development at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Vermont saw a surge of retirees, but the people who moved to Rhode Island were young professionals who wanted to live in a funky downtown with more space and less cost than Boston or New York—but close enough to visit. “Providence,” says Jorge Elorza, “is right in that sweet spot.”