During the post-WWII years when Johnson & Wales was
growing from a business school to a college, downtown
Providence was the cosmopolitan hub of culture, art
and commerce in Rhode Island. High-end department stores
rivaled the Filene’s and Bloomingdale’s of other cities. Prime
among them, The Outlet Company occupied an entire city block
on Weybosset Street.
Between 1945 and 1985, the city’s population declined by 40 percent. The growth of
shopping malls in the 1960s saw an exodus of trade to the suburbs. In 1982, The Outlet
closed its doors and in 1986 a suspicious fire gutted the once-grand enterprise. The resulting
debris and toxic contaminants were an impediment to reuse and development of the site.
When former JWU President John Yena ’06 Hon. came to the role in 1989, the
university was housed in scattered buildings around downtown. His excitement was sparked
by a presentation by renowned urban architect, Andrés Duany, to city planners, offering a
vision for a downcity rebirth and a broadened sense of community. Yena saw
Johnson & Wales at its center.
Changed livesWorking closely with government agencies, JWU funded site cleanup and when complete, purchased the land from the city. Duany’s visionary plans guided the university’s growth downtown.
Today Gaebe Commons and surrounding buildings are part of what
Yena calls “a protected little enclave where our students can withdraw
and still be part of the urban fabric and the green space of the city.”
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