PAWTUCKET - It appears the Department of Motor Vehicles will finally move out of the Apex building this summer, prompting the property's owner Andrew Gates to begin drafting major redevelopment plans there.
In an exclusive interview with The Valley Breeze, Gates discussed his preliminary plan to create an open air retail, office, and dining complex patterned after the highly popular Garden City Center in Cranston, all in the bustling heart of Pawtucket.
Likely to be christened the Riverfront Commons, this development would be nestled right off Route 95 near the soon-to-be-reconstructed Pawtucket River Bridge. The spot overlooks the downtown and the historic Slater Mill, and is perhaps this city's most recognizable location.
Gates said his ultimate goal will be to attract the right "synergy" of tenants to create "an atmosphere in which the customer wants to come."
"The big challenge is finding the right mix of tenants, the right tenants looking for space," he said.
City officials have called the future redevelopment of the Apex site perhaps the largest single initiative for the future planned revitalization of Pawtucket's riverfront.
The Riverfront Commons plan calls for two main anchor tenants under the building's famed ziggurat roof - the Apex Department Store now in place and a second store, either a grocery market or some other kind of retailer to fill the space being vacated by the DMV.
Gates said a grocery store at the current DMV location would not only help erase the stigma associated with the place, but also fill a need for convenient food shopping in the area. He said, though, that he's open to many different kinds of stores.
Though state officials have indicated their intentions in the past to move the DMV out of Pawtucket, observers say this year it appears they'll actually follow through in transferring the central office for motor vehicle services to Cranston in August.
The move, said Gates, will allow him to finally transform his collage of properties at this "prime" location into a cohesive, more modern shopping complex.
The "riverfront level" of Apex, the side of the building overlooking the Pawtucket River where the Apex Group corporate office, its online www.apexstores.com business, a real estate business, and other affiliated ventures are headquartered, is planned to accommodate more office space.
The riverfront level will likely have an all-new glass exterior and could possibly get its own entrance, according to Gates.
Any changes to the configuration of this property still need to be worked through with city leaders before he moves forward, said Gates.
The owner said he's in talks with about a dozen prospective tenants for the second anchor tenant spot next to the Apex store, and is in discussions with a number of restaurant owners about opening up a family style restaurant in the fully furnished, but now closed, Madhouse Cafe next to the DMV.
A collection of other stores, possibly including coffee shops, smaller eateries and retail shops, and other businesses are planned as part of preliminary drawings for Gates' land located across School Street from Apex. Those businesses would join the already flourishing Apex Tire Center diagonally across from Apex. The tire center could also get an addition, according to preliminary plans.
Gates told The Breeze the smaller stores "will fall in line once we have the anchor tenants resolved." He estimates it will take between "18 months and three years to bring (the entire Riverfront Commons development) to fruition."
The Apex and Apex at Home property is also in line to get a whole new look to go with its new makeup, according to the owner. New signs bearing the Riverfront Commons logo will be installed, new lighting added to go with the more ornate updated lighting in the area.
More attractive brick added throughout and an enhanced landscaping design would help complete a new "nicer New England style" look for the complex, said Gates. Still uncertain, he said, is whether the iconic tiered Apex pyramid will be modernized or left as is.
Starting in August, the DMV is expected to move into the former Department of Human Services building in Cranston. Officials say they plan to close the Pawtucket DMV office on a Friday that month, opening the new facility as quickly as possible the following week. The pending loss of the DMV and its long lines of waiting motorists will allow for greater parking availability during the day, according to Gates, addressing occasional complaints from Apex shoppers that there are not always enough spots to park.
Founded in 1924 by Gates' grandfather Albert Pilavin, as a Providence tire rebuilding company, Apex was moved to neighboring Pawtucket following the hurricane of 1938. Once in the city, the company expanded to offer a variety of products. The name Apex was formed using Pilavin's initials and his affinity for the word as it relates to attaining the highest level of success, according to the company Web site, www.theapexgrp.com .
By the 1960s, another Apex store was opened near the malls in Warwick, followed nearly 20 years later by another in the Swansea Mall. Apex had quickly grown into a full department store featuring clothing for men, women and children, as well as other home products.
The state DMV moved into the Apex building in January of 2004, three years after the Apex Department Store was downsized to about half the building as part of the consolidation of the Apex brand in southern New England. After big-box stores like Walmart and Target changed the local shopping scene, stores like Ann & Hope and Apex found it more and more difficult to compete.
The modern collection of Apex companies offer retail, consulting, financial, real estate, investment and manufacturing services, among others.