Real Estate > Community Profiles > Providence

Already transformed, city promises more

By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 10/19/2002


Incorporated: 1643
Population: 179,685
Area:18.46 square miles
Distance from Boston: 41 miles
Median house price: $120,000
Tax rate per $1,000: $35.94
Transportation: Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses; MBTA commuter rail service to Boston
PROVIDENCE — After living in more than two dozen cities across the nation, children's book author Natalie Babbitt and her husband, Samuel, settled here many years ago and have lived on the same East Side street ever since.

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"When we first arrived, we were told that Rhode Island was settled by pirates and they're all still here," recalled Natalie Babbitt, 70, author of "Tuck Everlasting." The award-winning book, now a Disney film, is about a 10-year-old girl's decision whether to drink from a fountain of youth.

"Providence is quite refreshing," Babbitt said. "It has an in-your-face kind of feeling to it. There are lots of independent thinkers here."

Not since the dramatic transformation in the 1980s of Lowell's mills into condominiums, performance centers, and a national park has a New England city enjoyed such a rebirth.

Under the leadership of former Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, Providence underwent a renaissance in the 1990s. Public and private dollars reshaped the downtown, giving the city beautified riverbanks, an arts district, additional housing, a shopping mall, and an ice-skating rink. A big attraction is WaterFire, an artist installation of bonfires just above the surface of the downtown waterways. (The next showing is Nov. 7, at nightfall.)

In June, Cianci was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to five years in federal prison after federal prosecutors alleged a conspiracy by city leaders to accept bribes in connection with redevelopment projects.

Two years before Cianci went on trial, though, he focused on turning scrap metal plants, oil tanks, and abandoned brick buildings along the waterfront into a dramatic riverfront development.

Known as Narragansett Landing, the area includes 600 acres from Point Street to the Cranston line, bordered by Interstate 95 and the Providence River. Another phase of the project would put I-95 underground from Atwells Avenue to Broadway; the new street-level space would connect downtown to Federal Hill, the West End, and South Providence.

Samuel Shamoon, director of the city's Department of Planning and Development, said the future of the project will depend on the new mayor, who will be elected next month.

As the city's face has improved, the median price for a single-family home has increased. This year, it rose 26 percent, to $120,000, over 2001 levels, according to the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.

This week, the association's Web site listed 165 single-family homes for sale, from $45,000 for a three-bedroom cottage in South Providence that needs restoration to a six-bedroom Victorian with a grand staircase, three fireplaces, stained glass, and sculpted ceilings on Federal Hill, for $595,000.

On the condo market, there are 18 properties, from a one-bedroom at Stone Place for $50,000 to a three-bedroom on Bassett Street for $385,900.

The city is teeming with students from Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales University. But Providence is not just for college students and those who are part of a burgeoning arts community. In the spring, Money Magazine named Rhode Island's capital as one of the best US cities for retirees, noting that Providence has a high quality of life, affordability, and lots of things to do, including a zoo and children's museum, and ocean beaches within an hour's drive.

Thomas Grillo can be reached at

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
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