Doc Digresses: An Interview with Mark Van Noppen, Co-Founder of the Armory Revival Company

If “white flight” is a novel phrase to you, I suggest you read someone who has more than a  paragraph to explain its myriad causes and effects.  Suffice it to say that most of Providence’s professional class lived outside of city limits by 1981, the year Mark Van Noppen shuffled down College Hill with a Brown degree and discovered the arbitrage opportunity of his lifetime: upper-class houses at working-class prices in the Armory District, Providence’s original suburb.

In 1982, when Van Noppen bought his first house near the Armory, he was betting that yuppies would return to the charming neighborhood their professional forebears had built a century earlier.  In 1986, Van Noppen doubled down and co-founded the Armory Revival Company — now the West Side’s eminent developer and broker of historic property.

At the time, the reversal of white flight was a pipe dream. In 2017, it’s happening quickly and it’s a moral quagmire. To understand at least one perspective on the sea change, I talked to Mark Van Noppen, the intellectual, financial and sometimes literal architect of the so-called Armory Revival.

 Doc Brinker: So you’re at Brown at the dawn of the Reagan era.  I’m wondering, how often are you getting over to Broadway and the Armory?

Mark Van Noppen: A friend named Richard, who was a writer — you know, writing the Great American Novel — put himself through school by scalloping during vacations and fishing as a hand on a boat during the summer. This was when tuition, room and board were $6,000.

He’d found an apartment on Almy Street for $25 a month. The house was empty. This German professor had bought the house needed someone to be in the house while he renovated it. We went to visit him one day and I remember specifically being at the corner of Westminster and Dexter streets and it was desolate. What’s now Bridgham Manor, the big middle school, was boarded up and burnt out. There were a couple semi-abandoned gas stations. The streets were empty. I remember feeling like I was on the moon.

DB: Were the demographics of Broadway and the Armory different back then?

MVN: Completely. It was very mixed, but largely white, elderly — mostly little old Irish ladies and little old Italian women. They might have a three-family home and not rent the other two apartments. They might’ve had bad experiences renting. They didn’t have a very sanguine view of people who were different.

On the Fourth of July those years, so many houses burned that firefighters would come to Providence from all over New England to be here. It was considered sport to burn vacant houses. It was just an entirely different time.

DB: So you saw pretty early on that there were opportunities to make money on real estate near the Armory. When and how did you start buying houses?

MVN: Well, here’s how I got started. I was a photographer. I graduated from Brown in ’81 and moved to Federal Hill. I worked teaching photography, cross country skiing, rock climbing, English and math. I had a little greenhouse on the East Side I was taking care of so I had free food.

DB: What were you photographing?

MVN: I was mostly shooting the kids who were living around me on Europe Street — deeply impoverished white kids. It was worse than anything I’d ever seen. I felt a little bit like Walker Evans.

I was also reading Wendell Berry, who inspired me to focus on a place and make it better. I was sort of an earth-firster: I wasn’t out there vandalizing, but I was a radical environmentalist. I thought, I could go to the country, do some homestead, and save my little piece of the universe, but what would I be affecting? If I’m going to make a difference with the environment I’d be better off bringing back the city, right? There were 700 abandoned houses in Providence at the time. If people would live here instead of buying the next subdivision, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

DB: The greenest building being the one that’s already built.

MVN: Right. So a friend and I, who had painted his grandfather’s house the summer before, decided we would buy a house together. The theory on my side being: buy a five-family house, rent four units and I’ve got some kind of an income, leaving me lots of time to do photography. I bought it in ’82 and I still live there on Dexter Street.

DB: Who’d you buy the house from?

MVN: An Irish woman. Her husband had owned a bar on Pine Street, but he passed away and the house was falling apart. It was way more work and provided way less income than I expected. We weren’t making any money even when we were done, but property values were starting to go up.

DB: So you were building equity immediately?

MVN: Yes. This was ’82 and interest rates were like 13.5% for a bank loan, so as those started to drop, values started to rise. So a friend and I were having fun, and we were having a lot of fun with the five other people in the neighborhood who were doing the same thing — artist-craftsman-builders. So we bought another one at the corner of Westminster and Parade streets and were renovating that. My partner got a Fulbright and decided to go to Germany. Eventually, I bought him out.

DB: How did you know how to do this stuff?

MVN: I got known in all the lumberyards and community hardware stores by asking, “How do you do that?” I didn’t know squat. We read books. When we had parties, someone would bring by a salvaged door knob as a birthday present.

DB: At what point did your operation evolve from a side project to a full-blown business?

MVN: In ’86, I was with my friend BJ Dupre at a May breakfast he hosted every year. Barry Preston was at that breakfast. He’d been on the board of the Providence Revolving Fund when they gave BJ the money to buy his first house. Barry was a developer doing new construction out in the ‘burbs.

The Providence Redevelopment Authority had just come out with a proposal for 13 lots right behind my house. I was like, “Oh shit this is going to be bad development all the way up to my door.” So I said to BJ, “Do you feel like building some new houses?” The three of us decided to do it together. At that point, even though I was having fun, photography ended and the Armory Revival Company started. We got an office and a bookkeeper.

DB: With Barry on board, were you getting money from the Providence Revolving Fund for your projects?  I’m curious where the capital was coming from.

MVN: No. The three of us each put in some money. Barry had a good connection to the Newport-Old Colony Bank. We’re out there in front of 64 Harrison Street, our first renovation as the Armory Revival Company, talking to the banker. The house is falling down. The clapboards are falling off.  The roaches are visibly crawling out of the windows. A guy comes walking by with a boombox at full volume that doesn’t quite fit in this wheelbarrow he’s trucking down the street. We asked the banker, “Are you ready to make this loan?” And he went with it. It was a different lending era.

DB: Armory Properties is part of the Armory Revival Company too, which means the company started brokering real estate transactions for houses that weren’t renovated or constructed by the company.  How did that arm of the business get started?

MVN: The brokerage was a really interesting lesson. In the late ‘80s, we were still renovating homes and selling them. Then the crisis hit — the savings and loan crisis of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.    People will buy into a transitional neighborhood and stay, as long as they think the neighborhood’s getting better. A lot of people judge that by property values instead of what’s actually happening around them. So we had a lot of people jump ship. Plus, my group was having kids and they were uncomfortable with their kids in the neighborhood so they left, too.

Nobody was really marketing the neighborhood for its strengths. If a little old Italian lady wanted to sell her house, she’d call up her niece who probably lives in North Providence and she’d say, “This is a nice 3-family house. Just think, you vinyl-side it and it’s low maintenance. You can rent it out for $700 an apartment and you’ll have a great income.” We said, “This is crazy!” So we created a brokerage to sell the the beautiful architecture, the access to downtown, the neighborly feel, etc.

DB: I wanted to ask about that.  Why did the Armory get vinyl-sided less severely than other historic neighborhoods on the West Side, like Smith Hill or Elmwood?

MVN: The Armory District is probably less vinyl’d than it was when I first arrived. That’s because a really aesthetically inclined group of urban pioneers were buying up houses early and having parties to strip vinyl.

DB: So were these people fabricating detail that had been removed by the vinyl-siders?

MVN: Yeah. Usually you don’t fabricate as much as was there originally. It changes the cost of renovation dramatically.

DB: Right, I would imagine the price-point for wood detailing has skyrocketed since the time these houses were built.

MVN: The short answer is yes, it’s enormously more expensive because of the labor costs, and it’s also enormously more expensive because the quality of the materials has declined.  Old growth lumber is no longer as readily available.

DB: I see.  So after a few dozen renovations by the Armory Revival Company, and after probably even more independent renovations brokered by the Armory Revival Company, has your vision for the neighborhood been achieved?

MVN: Not really.  I would say I certainly don’t feel like I have to be here for the neighborhood to succeed — to get great schools, great streets, great businesses. We have all this trendy restaurant stuff going on, which is great, but it’s not a mature neighborhood yet. I’m pleased that a lot of the diversity has been maintained. I’m concerned about the diversity being maintained.

DB: Do you catch a lot of criticism for accelerating gentrification?

MVN: I’m sure I get a lot behind my back.

DB: What about to your face?

MVN: Some.

DB: How often do you move tenants out of the houses you purchase?

MVN: Very rarely. We tend to buy houses that are trashed or nearly empty. We know how to buy those cheaply and we’re not afraid of the work.

Sometimes we do buy houses that are nice and upgrade them over time. When someone leaves, you can go in and redo the kitchen, the light fixtures, paint it nice colors, sand the floors and the rent goes up a couple hundred dollars. So that’s a form of gentrification because you’ve improved a building that was already being lived in. We’re guilty of that. I see it as: The houses were built for people who made a lot of money. And it actually costs a pile of money to take care of houses that were built as really nice houses. To get the kind of affordable housing that is decent, you basically need to have subsidies.

DB: So do you use the affordable housing subsidies that are available for developers, like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit?

MVN: We’ve used that once, but not in Providence.  We’ve used HOME funds, which is another form of subsidy, quite a bit.

The other thing to say is that you can go not far from the Armory District and find really good housing that’s cheap. I know there’s this feeling that you grew up here and your friends and you aren’t going to buy here. Well, if you have to live in Smith Hill instead of the Armory District, is it a crime? Really, is it a crime? I don’t think so. Cities change.

It’s funny when we get questions from artists about gentrification. You look at the cool stuff they’re doing to their buildings and green spaces and that’s the first thing that happens in gentrification.  And that’s what we were doing in ’82. It was just me and my artist friends.