NEWS

50 years and the Warwick Mall vision lives on

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 10/22/20

By JOHN HOWELL The black-and-white photo shows a group of men dressed in suits and ties standing in a line, smiling for the camera for what clearly is an important occasion. It was taken in July 1970. Since then, millions of people have walked where they

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NEWS

50 years and the Warwick Mall vision lives on

Posted

The black-and-white photo shows a group of men dressed in suits and ties standing in a line, smiling for the camera for what clearly is an important occasion. It was taken in July 1970.

Since then, millions of people have walked where they stood. The very same place was once under two feet of water, and today, even though they find what they want on the internet, thousands of people still come to do their shopping.

The picture is from the grand opening of the Warwick Mall 50 years ago. It is displayed in the mall offices, and to this day it’s not hard to pick out the heavy hitters of the day with the late Sen. John O. Pastore being right up there. Also easy to identify for those who know their politicians is former Gov. Philip W. Noel, who was mayor at the time.

Noel has a sharp mind, and while he could probably name off those pictured for the opening, what was clear in a recent telephone interview was his role in the events that led to the acquisition of the land the Warwick Mall.

The Warwick Mall story is one he shared with the Warwick Beacon and Cranston Herald for the mall’s 10th anniversary.

In a nutshell, if Noel hadn’t convinced the man who owned 100 acres of land to sell, the mall probably wouldn’t have been built. But there’s so much more to the story. Alongside the farmland was a 20-acre junkyard. The junkyard owners were looking to squeeze as much money as they could from the Brennan, Mugar, Lane and Bliss families, who realized with its central location, proximity to Interstate 95 and the rapid development of the suburbs, the site was ideal for a major retail development. The problem was that Luigi Vallone wasn’t interested in selling. As mayor of Warwick, Noel knew that the parcels were in the sights of developers and understood what a major retail development would mean to the city.

Brennan asked Noel if he might speak with Vallone.

“He was probably in his late 80s,” Noel said of Vallone. “He loved his land.” He remembers a statue of the Virgin Mary on the property and Vallone telling him, “This is where I’m going to die.” From the start, Noel felt a bond with Vallone.

“He was the kind of man who made you feel comfortable,” he said.

The two sat in a garden to talk. Noel told Vallone he is half Italian with his ancestors having lived in the mountains of Tuscany. But apparently that didn’t sway Vallone.

Noel described the proposed mall and Vallone had questions. He wanted to know how big it would be and how many people would get jobs. Noel thought the numbers of those employed was a significant consideration. Vallone would be making an impact on people’s lives and future generations.

“He made up his mind right there,” Noel said. “It was less than an hour.”

Indeed, the Warwick Mall has, and continues to have, a huge impact on the city. Along with the Midland Mall on the opposite side of the Pawtuxet River, the two malls became the jumping off point to the development of Route 2 – often referred to as the “golden mile,” although it is longer than that – with shopping plazas, car dealerships and big box stores. With 900,000 square feet of floor space and scores of stores when it opened, Warwick Mall was the size of a small city.

A gathering place for community

Aram Garabedian, who married Jane Bliss, assumed the role of marketing the mall and soon became the spokesman for the company. From the start, he realized the importance of making the mall a place for community.

He pushed for the carousel. When the State House underwent renovations in 1976, the Independent Man was removed from the dome. Garabedian arranged for it to be displayed at the mall and after it went back to its perch, a replica was built for the mall. The food court became a popular venue for events such as Bob Venturini’s Toys for Tots drive. The center of the mall has become the site of talent competitions, performances by dance and karate studios and expos that bring together a cross section of community nonprofits. With all that space under a roof, the mall has likewise opened its doors to walkers who rack up the steps and then join friends for coffee and to trade the latest gossip.

The mall isn’t a static location by any stretch. National chain stores have come and gone. Remember Jordan Marsh and then Filene’s? They were the original anchors. There have been additions – Nordstrom Rack and significant alterations like that of Golf Galaxy. There have been major renovations, like that of 1990 when the food court was added. Dimeo Construction has been the contractor for the beginning.

Not all renovations were planned. That was the case in 2010, when the Pawtuxet River overflowed its banks, putting the mall concourse and its stores under two feet of water. It was a major hit to the mall and its stores. To this day Garabedian talks about the job of tearing out and replacing the terracotta flooring with the Italian porcelain tile that gives the mall its polished, bright and stylish feel.

A wave of another kind, however, has brought change to the retail business. Dan Bliss, son of the late Lloyd Bliss, has anxiously followed the trend toward online shopping and the impact Amazon has had on retail. As malls in other parts of the country close, Bliss is confident Warwick Mall will be here for the next 50 years and beyond.

“What we have for us is location and access,” he said. “But there’s more to it. It’s bargains. Rhode Islanders love bargains.” He said the mall Macy’s is the best performing store in New England. He is reasonably confident that JCPenney will stay now that the store, which is separate from the mall ownership, has been bought by Simon Properties.

“The Simon deal is a biggie,” he said.

Bliss foresees change with more smaller tenants, restaurants and entertainment. Additional residential development on the property is also in the cards.

Even in the midst of a pandemic that squashed in-person retail sales, Bliss said he is more optimistic about the future of the mall than he was a year ago.

“There will always be brick and mortar,” he said.

Domenic Schiavone, the mall’s general manager, sees it that way, too.

He said the catch phrase today for malls is “lifestyle centers.” He said they are places where people shop, are entertained, have their recreation, work and live. He observes Warwick Mall was ahead of the times with its 394-unit Villa Del Rio apartments and movie theaters. He imagines offices might also be a part of the mall at some time in the future.

One has to think Vallone would have been happy to see it all.

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