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At Home With a Vision

Arnold B. "Buff" Chace, 58, is president and CEO of Providence, R.I.-based Cornish Associates, a self-described "specialized real estate development company dedicated to the principles of new urbanism and responsible development practices." Chace and his colleagues at Cornish describe themselves as "socially responsible business people and new urbanists."

As a new urbanist, Chace has accomplished much, including an internationally known retail and mixed-use village in Mashpee, Mass., that has broken the mold for shopping centers today. So it is appropriate that he will be on hand in Providence June 1--4 to welcome attendees of the CNU's 14th Congress, which has as its theme "Developing the New Urbanism."

Developers aren't "ordinary" business-people. They build the stage upon which our daily lives play. And thus they tend to be held responsible for the way in which that stage is built.

More often than not, people today live in places that do not inherently encourage walking. Opportunities for interpersonal communication are not often considered key elements of design plans. Most people cannot say they live in places that help shape their lives, every day, in meaningful ways.

However, more people are coming to realize that their current environments are lacking, although they are unsure -- and suspicious -- of any alternatives.

That suspicion is a major hurdle for developers to overcome in all of their projects, says Chace, but there are developers willing to take on the challenge. "My hope for CNU XIV is that we can start developing a best-practices approach for new urbanist developers," says Chace. "We're still working on the program. We are still trying to put all of this forward. We want to open a dialogue."

He has his work cut out for him. New urbanist developers these days still face many challenges, such as gaining community trust and working under existing zoning codes (which usually prohibit mixed-use neighbor-hoods, for example). At CNU XIV, Chace plans to share his experience in hope of finding practical ways to help new urbanist developers navigate those challenges and bring their projects to completion with as few concessions to the status quo as possible.

Chace was born in Providence to a wealthy family of business-savvy landowners and preservationists who carried on a long tradi-tion of community involvement and social conscience. Among the family's holdings was a substantial textile business, Berkshire Hathaway (BH). Eventually, Chace's father sold his share of BH, and majority ownership of the business was purchased by Warren Buffet. (Today, the firm is a Buffet investment company and one of the most profitable companies in the world.)

Chace, who gained the name "Buff " from his ancestor Elizabeth Buffum Chace, an abolitionist and suffragette, attended boarding school in a quaint New Hampshire town. He worked for a year on a ship after high school, then majored in writing and studied history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When the young writer, also a conscientious environmentalist, graduated from college, he pursued independent film and documentary-making until the economy nudged him in a different direction.

In 1985, Chace returned to Providence to help care for his father, who had fallen ill. Since then, Chace's career pursuits have honed his acuity as an investor, financial advisor, urban planner and real estate developer. One of the first family business projects he worked on after returning to Providence brought all those skills to the fore.

The project was Mashpee Commons, a redevelopment of a strip shopping center in Mashpee, Mass., on the southeast end of Cape Cod. While considering the project, Chace says he was drawn to Duany Plater-Zyberk's (DPZ) Seaside in Florida and to the principles of new urbanism.

"I was an environmentalist at the time," Chace says. "Like many others, I was upset at how the Cape was developing. We wanted to see whether we could come up with a better model. I realized we appreciate the Cape because of the proximity to water -- and because of the New England towns. We thought: Why not develop [Mashpee Commons] along the model of New England towns?"

The result has been the evolution of the shopping, working and living opportunities in Mashpee. And today, Chace is the managing general partner of Mashpee Commons, LP. While Mashpee Commons is still unfolding, its master plan is widely viewed as an outstanding success and a model of new urbanist principles in action.

A hundred years ago, Providence was a thriving port city. But from the 1950s on, the story of Providence is the same as that of other urban American communities. People left the city's urban core in large numbers in the mid-20th century to escape problems and to find the promised perfection of suburban life. The people who remained in the city never gave up. Decades later, life began to return to downtown Providence.

In March 2004, Providence partnered with downtown businesses and organizations, including Cornish Associates and the Providence Foundation to bring DPZ back to Providence for a week-long charrette. This was DPZ's third visit to Providence, says Chace; company representatives were also on hand for charrettes in 1992 and 1994.

The goal of the 2004 charrette was to take stock of the city's progress and to identify the next steps in the revitalization of Providence's downtown. In describing the 2004 charrette, Providence Mayor David Cicilline has said, "With each [downtown] workshop, attendance grew. You could feel the energy in the room as people from all walks of life had the opportunity to discuss ideas about what Downcity (the cultural district in downtown Providence) should be."

From the 2000 census, said Cicilline, "we learned that the movement of people back to Providence is gaining momentum. Development in the city is at an all-time high. Between January 2002 and June 2005, building permits were granted for over 2,500 residential units. This is ... six times the rate of residential development between 1990 and 2000. The renewed interest in developing Providence shows no sign of abating. And the rebirth is not limited to housing."

At the charrette's conclusion, Andrés Duany presented recommendations to a standing-room-only crowd at the Biltmore Hotel.

Buff Chace and Cornish Associates will have a lot to show CNU members when they arrive in June, starting with two blocks of buildings on Westminster Street in Downcity. "We have created a new neighborhood in an old district of downtown Providence," says Chace. "Our rehabilitation of seven buildings on Westminster Street has helped bring a renewed sense of hope to the city."

Westminster was once the center of Providence's downtown shopping district, but many of its buildings had been abandoned and lay vacant until Cornish and Associates went to work. The Westminster project will have 225 apartments and condominiums upon completion, plus about 60,000 square feet of retail space in several of the street's old department store buildings. "We've also incorporated a parking facility with liner buildings on each end of the block," says Chace.

In June, when new urbanists descend on Providence, Chace will be waiting with these and more projects on display. "I look forward to sharing our experiences with other like-minded -- or open-minded -- contractors."