November 29, 2014
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Seeing what others can’t envision

Even in this economy, Michael Integlia has been building and filling office buildings. They’re nice looking structures, a mixture of stone and brick that have a professional, contemporary look without appearing ostentatious or imposing.

But, when Mike worked out a deal to acquire the 86-acre Leviton property, it required subdividing the site and saving the Elizabeth Mill. I couldn’t imagine what he saw in the mill or how he might convert it to a new use. The land made more sense. He could put up more buildings. But the mill and tower? What more could that be other than a brick building with new windows, a face-cleaning and nice shrubs?

I saw even fewer possibilities when I drove up to the mill last Wednesday for the grand announcement I’ve already reported but I had a good idea what people would say.

This was going to be a “dog and pony show” with the governor and top officials issuing platitudes about development of the mill as integral to the redevelopment of the station district and how it will all bring businesses and jobs to the city. We would see renderings and hear how such an investment will transform the city – a feel-good-story about the city of the future.

At least I was right about the pony (which I’ll get to in a moment), but I couldn’t see how Mike was going to make it work financially with something built for a far different purpose. The inside of the mill is imposing. It is much bigger than it appears. The press conference was on the third floor. We climbed a wide winding staircase, where the feet of countless workers had left the treads worn. Each tread had a mat with the name “Elizabeth” running across it. There was no escaping that Thomas Jefferson Hill, who built the stream-driven mill – one of the first, I would add – was either infatuated with his wife Elizabeth or carried a heavy weight of guilt about her.

The third floor opened onto two rooms filled with sunlight that offered a view of the concrete of the Interlink garage. It was hard to see the space as desirable apartments, despite the proximity to the highway and rail station and airport. Office space is easier to imagine; although high ceilings, lack of multiple entrances and very little up front parking is problematic.

Yet, Mike was like a kid with a new toy. His enthusiasm was contagious and he skated over questions of what was planned for the mill and how he was going to finance it. The sun poured into the gigantic open spaces, dispelling nagging questions.

At the conclusion of the press conference, Mike worked the crowd and then joined Providence Journal reporter Barbara Polichetti and I as we looked over easels mounted with drawings and maps. We had the same question; what future he sees for the mill.

“Have you heard the story about the pony?” he asked.

Neither of us had and we urged him on.

There was some hesitance, which got me thinking he was having second thoughts, especially as he was talking to the news media. But he continued.

There was a boy who, more than anything, wanted a pony, he told us. The boy’s father promised it for Christmas, if he was good. The boy didn’t live up to his side of the bargain. If anything, he was terrible.

When Christmas arrived, the boy was wildly excited. He was up early and raced to pull colorfully wrapped boxes from his stocking, each filled with horse manure. Undaunted and more excited than ever, he ran to the boxes under the tree. He grew happier as he opened each to find more manure.

The father was perplexed. Had his son forgotten their agreement? So, he asked his son why he was so excited and the boy answered, “With so much horse s—- around here, there’s got to be a horse.”

I still wasn’t seeing the horse.

I knew that the Leviton property has been on the market for about a decade. Big time developers looked at the property and there were rumors of big-box stores and a village-like development. Then one company planned to raze the mill to reduce taxes while it waited for the economy to turn around. The mayor and administration stepped in. That plan was shelved, but only after some heated meetings, judging from the mayor’s comments.

Mike stepped in at that point and, in a matter of weeks, an agreement was hammered out.

As Mike phrased it, there were some “skeletons” on the property. That caught the media’s attention. For decades, industrial waste was dumped on the land and, while Leviton conducted an environmental cleanup, about 35 acres of the site would need additional remediation.

Mike addressed that by subdividing the property. The environmentally problematic parcel has been deeded to a nature conservancy and the newer section of the mill, with a half-million square feet of space, was sold to Dean Warehousing.

Mike is left with three parcels, one of which is the mill.

The parcel cornered by the Airport Connector and Metro Center Boulevard promises to be developed reasonably soon. Mike is planning a 125,000-square-foot office building.

And what of the mill?

Mike mentioned a skywalk connecting it to the Interlink. It could provide off-street parking and easy access to the station and airport.

I was starting to get the picture. If there is a horse here, my guess is Mike will find it.


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