History, Successes and Direction
The Smith Hill Community Development Corporation (Smith Hill CDC) was founded in 1992 in collaboration with a group of dedicated community residents. Upon receiving training around such issues as affordable housing and community development, the Smith Hill CDC staff applied for and received 501(c)3 certification thus cementing their status as a non-profit community development corporation existing within the bounds of the Smith Hill Neighborhood. Subsequently, the Smith Hill CDC received initial funding from LISC, Citizens Community Trust, The Rhode Island Foundation, and the City of Providence Department of Planning and Development; confirming the Smith Hill CDC’s already adamant belief that neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing opportunities were imperative for both the social and economic growth of the Smith Hill Neighborhood.
Now entering our 24th year of successful community development in the Smith Hill Neighborhood, the organization’s mission remains unchanged: An unfettered commitment to the creation and sustaining of affordable housing to low-moderate income families and individuals through both rental and homeownership opportunities. Additionally, the Smith Hill CDC seeks to promote a sense of community and stimulate economic development for all of our community residents.
The Smith Hill community is one of the most diverse and culturally rich neighborhoods in the City of Providence with more than 30 different countries of origin and more than 20 different “first” languages being spoken in the home. Its history is defined in large part by urbanization, industrialization and the consistent arrival of “new” immigrants. Smith Hill’s identity is shaped by the experiences of the immigrants it has sheltered for over 150 years.
Realizing that the Smith Hill Neighborhood was in dire need of a coordinated and well planned approach to improve on the economic and housing landscape within the community, the Smith Hill CDC went about creating a comprehensive development plan for the Smith Hill Neighborhood. Smith Hill CDC split the neighborhood into 5 separate focus areas, with the plan calling for the first focus area to be addressed as the Triangle Area which contained over 200 properties including but not limited to vacant lots, foreclosed homes, and homes in massive need of repair/improvement.
In 1996 the Smith Hill CDC began what is known as the ‘Renaissance Project’. This LIHTC project focused on revitalizing the Triangle Area, in particular Goddard Street. The plan called for a significant renovation of not only the housing stock but the streetscape as well and in concert with our mission to promote a sense of community and stimulate economic growth. In step with the mission of Smith Hill CDC, we completely rehabbed 30 housing units and made them affordable to those making less than 50% of the median income. Additionally we planted street trees, created green space to relieve housing density; improved sidewalks, increased lighting and improved streetscape all made for a safer, more walkable neighborhood that also improved the sense of place and community around us. Upon completing Project Renaissance the Smith Hill CDC turned its attention to creating new housing units, a low income tax credit project, as well as multiple economic development mechanisms.
Upon completing Project Renaissance in 1999 the Smith Hill CDC began to focus our efforts onto Visions I; a low income tax credit project that focused on the north/northwest portion of the neighborhood just beyond Smith St. Smith Hill CDC continued the work begun on Goddard St and expanded the positive movement, by developing 26 high-quality affordable units for income qualified community members.
In 2003 Visions I was completed and Smith Hill CDC turned their attention to the areas west and northwest of Smith St, in particular historical areas and the Douglas Avenue Economic Corridor as designated by the City of Providence. Shortly after refocusing attention toward Douglas Ave the Smith Hill CDC identified a large expanse of land just east of St Patrick’s Cemetery as being a key area to develop if Douglas Ave is to improve its economic growth potential; thus began the Capitol Square project. Capitol Square is a mixed use commercial/condominium project designed to increase homeownership, a key indicator of economic and social growth potential, provide the Smith Hill CDC with professional and visible office space, and finally provide for a select number of retail stores to improve the economic growth viability of Douglas Avenue. In 2012 the Smith Hill CDC moved its offices into the building at 231 Douglas Ave, established a partnership with Providence College to create and open the PC/Smith Hill Annex building, leased out one of two available commercial retail spaces and sold all but one of the market rate condos and has recently begun to sell the affordable condo units as economic indicators continue to improve locally, statewide, and nationally.
In 2008, after completing Capitol Square the Smith Hill CDC turned its attention to the Pekin Street Historical District and the surrounding area for its Visions II project. Visions II encompasses 52 units, contained within 20 houses, and has brought stability and a sense of community to two of the most degraded and crime riddled streets in the Smith Hill Neighborhood. In addition to its Visions II project, the Smith Hill CDC strategically identified one-off projects that would further our mission and enhance the sense of community and safety in the Smith Hill Neighborhood. Over $12 million was invested in Visions II and it was funded through federal state and city monies as well as private investment dollars. It is important to note that this particular construction project was completed during the worst economic climate and housing market since the 1930’s. Visions II also extended the Smith Hill CDC interests up Douglas Ave north of St Patrick’s Cemetery bringing us to the outskirts of the Wanskuck and Charles Neighborhoods, an indication of things to come. Hence, in 2012 Smith Hill CDC expanded its interests into the Wanskuck and Charles Neighborhoods and the strong and earnest requests of Councilman David Salvatore. The Smith Hill CDC is currently in the development stages of creating affordable housing projects on Veazie, Lancashire, Sunbury, River and Cumberland Streets.
The YouthRAP (Youth Resident Activity Program) program became a part of the Smith Hill CDC repertoire of community efforts in 2002 with funding from Rhode Island Housing. A program designed and established for youth residing in any one of the Smith Hill CDC’s LIHTC units. YouthRAP offers homework help, summer employment opportunities, outdoor recreational trips in the summer time and a number of other on-going programs perpetually changing to the meet the needs of our youth. Thus far the YouthRAP program has been a fantastic success and one we are hoping to expand well into the future. Recently, we have incorporated the Smith Hill Stewardship program to establish a sense of community pride through employment and community engagement. Partnerships with the Park Department and Elmhurst Clean and Green also engages residents in community clean-ups, tree plantings and park events.
To date, Smith Hill CDC has created over 170 units or new “homes” in the Smith Hill Neighborhood. While the Smith Hill CDC focuses primarily on rehabilitation of old housing stock into high quality affordable rental units, Smith Hill CDC also has built new homes and commercial space, developed condominiums as well as rehabilitate old houses to be made available for homeownership. While none of these economic, social, and property development projects standing on their own will have a significant impact, the potential collective impact of these projects is thought to be profound and imperative to the continued growth of Smith Hill and its residents.
The organization is continuing to work in-concert with several different organizations, with the full realization that true community development is only successful with solid partnerships and vested local stakeholders. One important partnership is found in Providence College. This partnership which has been ongoing on various levels for several years really took major steps forward in 2012 with the opening of the Providence College/Smith Hill Annex. This particular program, housed a 231 Douglas Avenue, functions as a “space for campus-community conversation, collaboration and positive change.” More specifically the space is used as classroom space, community meeting and program development/implementation space.
In the spring of 2014 both Providence College and the Smith Hill CDC formed a partnership to operate a community Café named Common Grounds Café. The concept emerged after Providence College students participating in an Alternative Spring Break trip to Nicaragua in 2012 focused their exploration on coffee growing and production; they visited a Fair Trade grower, and became interested in developing a longer-term project. Simultaneously, the College’s School of Business began sponsoring an Entrepreneurship Society, while the Feinstein Institute for Public Service and the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation began convening an economic development incubator group as a project of the newly opened Providence College/Smith Hill Annex. These multiple interests coalesced as students, faculty and community came together to open Common Grounds Café at 233 Douglas Avenue.Our primary goal was to effectively use retained earnings to identify, organize and implement community improvements through programs and services, inclusive of, but not limited to, those that foster economic development and support affordable housing. Without sufficient revenue to run the Café, we made the decision was made to close its in May 2015.
2015 brought about change as the organization lost its leadership in Francis H. Smith. Francis drove the organization to the doorstep of transformation. Taking notes, new leadership has formed relationships with local non-profits and small business to create a deeper connection to the community. Sojourner House, a domestic abuse advocacy agency, partners with us as we provide supportive housing for their clients. Important relationships, partnerships, and collaborations are occurring organically as Smith Hill CDC reaches out to form a comprehensive approach to community development.
Much of the history of the Smith Hill CDC can be seen in a PBS documentary called Restoring Smith Hill. This film, produced and directed by J. Henry Smith, Providence College MBA Alum, chronicles the improvements and investment to our community, highlights the partnerships that make these programs and service successful, and demonstrates how an organization like the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation can be a catalyst for real change.