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158 Bowen Street, detail

A Narrow Victory for the George C. Arnold Building

When Lori Quinn, David Stem, and the Providence Revolving Fund teamed up to rehabilitate the George C. Arnold Building on Washington Street in Downtown Providence, they knew the physical restrictions of the site posed a unique problem. “The puzzle with this building is square footage,” says Stem, referencing the structure’s depth of only 12 ½ feet, which makes it the narrowest building in Downtown Providence.

According to a 1917 Providence Magazine article recently highlighted by Sheila Lennon of the Providence Journal, a street widening project can be blamed for the slender dimensions of the George C. Arnold lot. That did not prevent Arnold, a Providence real estate investor, from seeing an opportunity. The three story building was completed in 1923, with a total square footage of only 3,500.

The Arnold Building remained occupied into the 2000s even as the building directly behind it was demolished to make room for a surface parking lot. In September of 2009, a fire damaged the building, rendering it completely vacant. Following the fire, the building appeared on PPS’ Most Endangered Properties List for three consecutive years as concern for the building’s future grew.

At a political level, the building had a critical advocate. In an economic plan for Providence unveiled by Mayor Angel Taveras in early 2013, the Arnold Building was specifically called out as a prime candidate for redevelopment due to safety concerns prompted by its continuing deterioration. The Providence Redevelopment Agency’s Executive Director, Donald D. Gralnek, was charged with finding a way to transfer the property from an owner unable to undertake the extensive repairs required, to a party that had the resources and experience to save the building and find a sustainable use.

The Providence Revolving Fund was interested in the Arnold building long before the PRA became involved. A community development corporation that works primarily in Elmwood and the Broadway/ Armory neighborhoods, the Revolving Fund also operates a loan and grant program aimed at enhancing the historic character of Downtown Providence. Years before the 2009 fire, the Revolving Fund had awarded previous owners a grant to stabilize the Arnold Building’s structure.

As the PRA worked with the building’s owner and mortgage holders to find a way to transfer the property via eminent domain, the Revolving Fund, along with developers Dave Stem and Lori Quinn, emerged as the team capable of such a unique rehabilitation. “Something was needed to break the log jam,” says Clark Schoettle, Executive Director of the Revolving Fund, of the encumbrances on the building’s title. 

When the City condemned the building through eminent domain in late 2013, the title was finally clear, enabling the PRA to sell the property to a partnership including Stem, Quinn, and the Revolving Fund – who previously worked together on the adaptive reuse of Monohasset Mill in the early 2000s.

Plans currently call for commercial use on the first floor, while second and third floors will be split into 3 apartments: one two-level, market-rate apartment, and two affordable rental units that the Revolving Fund secured through the HOME Program. The project was also one of 32 in Rhode Island chosen to receive state historic tax credits, which were renewed for a single year in 2013. “The budget on this project is extremely tight,” says Lori Quinn. “If we didn’t get the state tax credits, we don’t know what would’ve happened to this building.”

A new roof has already been installed, and the team is in the permitting process for the rest of the project. “We’re seeing this as a long-term investment,” says Stem, who expects work to wrap up in 2015.  And while the challenges of rehabilitating a 12 ½ foot wide building may seem daunting, it is the historic character to the property that attracted Stem and Quinn in the first place. “Why should we save this building?” asks Quinn. “Because it’s really cool!”