PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The owners of the Providence Place mall outlined their vision for the property’s future on Thursday, detailing a potential revitalization of the downtown shopping center that could include a comedy club, mini golf and more non-retail options like salons and fitness studios.

The proposal comes as the Providence City Council mulls whether to extend the mall’s tax treaty for two more decades, which would save Providence Place hundreds of millions of dollars and which the owners claim is key to the mall’s survival.

The mall’s owners, Brookfield Properties, sent a slew of executives to testify before the Council Finance Committee and pitch the need for a new tax treaty. The committee did not take a vote on the proposal Thursday night.

The mall will not just be for shopping, said Joe Hope, the senior vice president of leasing for Providence Place. He told the committee the mall’s vision includes a “reinvigorated Francis Street,” the street-facing portion of the mall currently home to several empty storefronts.

“[Francis Street is] the critically important face and is literally the front door of the property,” Hope said.

Hope said the long vacant restaurant spaces, once home to Fire & Ice and Melting Pot, are in the process of being leased to “new and exciting” restaurants.

Spokesperson Lindsay Kahn later confirmed the mall has signed a lease with Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse.

Hope said other prospective tenants for Providence Place may include financial services, medical facilities, fitness studios, wellness spas or salons, coworking space and entertainment venues such as a comedy club or “putt shack,” an indoor mini golf experience.

“All of these uses are intended to drive the frequency of visitation and increase the relevance of Providence Place to different parts of our customers’ daily lives beyond just retail shopping,” Hope said.

Providence Place already has several non-retail tenants, including the movie theater, Dave and Buster’s arcade, several restaurants and a spin studio.

Hope said the third floor of the vacant former JC Penney department store could be turned into a “junior anchor” with “enhanced entertainment,” since it would be located next to the food court, movie theater and Dave & Buster’s.

He presented a number of other malls as possible models for what Providence Place could be, including the Brookfield-owned Natick Mall, in a suburb west of Boston, which has entertainment venues and a Wegmans supermarket in its own former JC Penney.

The presentation did not include any mention of turning the mall into apartments, an idea that’s been floated by city leaders and was listed as a possibility in the original tax treaty proposal introduced last month.

Brookfield had declined to comment on their plans for the building at the time, citing the need to get “assurances” on the taxes first.

“My colleague touched on many different concepts we are considering for our shopping center, but we are not considering housing at this time,” Kahn said Thursday night.

The mall’s existing 30-year tax treaty expires in 2028, when the property would be expected to pay its full tax bill if a new deal isn’t reached. The mall paid $1 million in taxes this year, a 96% discount on its full tax bill of $25 million.

The mall’s proposal is to pay $4.5 million annually under the potential new tax treaty.

“We want to be clear, that we are not asking for something for free,” Kahn said. “Under the proposed ordinance, our annual contribution to the city will increase by $3.5M, with further upside as the mall does better. This is truly a partnership.”

But Mayor Jorge Elorza has expressed skepticism about giving the mall another treaty this far from the expiration date, and his chief financial officer testified against the proposal Thursday night, arguing the mall should pay more to the city than what it is proposing.

“An analysis conducted recently by the city assessor’s office shows that when even comparable malls in the area and region were factored into consideration, on a square footage basis, the Providence Place Mall valuation still would result in a tax payment of more than two-and-one-half times what is being proposed,” Mancini said.

Mancini said previous negotiations with the mall’s owners, which were suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic, included increased payments from the mall to the city for the rest of the existing agreement. That’s no longer part of the mall’s proposal.

He also said the mall’s tenants don’t pay any tangible tax — a property tax that businesses pay on their merchandise and other items — costing the city $2-$3 million per year.

Elorza previously said the matter of negotiating a new agreement should be for the new mayor and new City Council, elected earlier this week and set to be sworn in in January. Roughly half the members of the current council are about to leave office.

The mall executives said the downtown shopping center is still struggling to recover from the pandemic, with more empty storefronts and fewer visitors than before the pandemic.

Fahim Sayed, vice president of real estate, said the lack of in-person office workers, business meetings and events in downtown Providence have all contributed to the mall’s decline in visitors and sales. Visitor traffic is down 4 million visitors — or 66% — compared to 2019, Sayed said.

John Zilliken, senior general manager of Providence Place, asked the city for “a second opportunity” to lead a renaissance in the capital city, just as the mall nearly 25 years ago when it was first built.

“We have, we are and we wish to be a destination for downtown and our community,” he said.

While city tax treaties are sometimes approved immediately after the first public hearing, Finance Chair Jo-Ann Ryan said this hearing was a “first step” in “lengthy discussions on the future of this vital and valuable piece of real estate in the capital city.”

“There’s no question that the retail industry has dramatically changed since the pandemic hit,” Ryan said. “We heard from residents and directly from representatives of Providence Place about their challenges and needs going forward, which involves reinventing and modernizing this significant space downtown. No one wants to see the mall at the center of our city deserted and a burden to taxpayers, but any change to the tax treaty must include robust discussions that result in a fiscally responsible and fair plan for the city of Providence.”





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