Preliminary Work Begins On New Vision for Downtown PVD
December 22, 2020
PROVIDENCE — “We’re reimagining Downtown Providence’s public spaces to be more inviting, inclusive, and connected.”
So states the website for the recently launched Imagine Downtown PVD project by the city of Providence, Arup, a London-based planning firm, and a team of other urban architects, planners, and designers.
The place of focus includes Kennedy Plaza, the ice rink, Waterplace Park, the “tunnels” that lead to Waterplace Park, and the Riverwalk area.
“The idea is to create spaces that are welcoming and vibrant, and to address some of the longstanding issues, such as lighting and accessibility, to create a better set of interconnected spaces for our downtown,” said Manuel Cordero, co-founder of DownCity Design and a facilitator of the recent Thursday night online presentation.
Providence has seen a lot of change in its near 400-year history, and along the way, downtown dislodged from the flow of daily life, a sort of island amidst a sea of residential neighborhoods.
So, as part of Providence’s Capital Improvement Plan, this past March the city issued a call for proposals to help reintegrate and revitalize downtown. Little did city officials know that the entire world was in for a massive upheaval because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that public space would gain a whole new level of importance.
“Life as we knew it was about to change significantly, and the ruptures of this year were about to break open,” said Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s director of long-range planning. “We really started to rethink this significant investment that we were going to make in a public space in heart of our city, thinking about the role that public space should take, and reflect that increasing importance that public space plays in civic life.”
The Dec. 17 presentation, in addition to providing background on the project, was also meant to kick-start conversations with the community and the people who use this space to hear their wants and needs.
Attendees were split into virtual break-out rooms and encouraged to share what spaces they use, how they use them, and what they would like to see in these spaces.
“I visited Colorado once and there was this place called Pearl Street, and you would just walk along it and there were a bunch of people doing things like music, juggling, doing a lot of different performance type stuff, and it was really fun,” Jairson Ascencao said. “So, having a space where people feel it’s OK to perform or speak would be really cool.”
Others talked about how the vision for a new downtown needs to include the suburbanites who might drive in for a night on the town.
“I grew up in beautiful, wooded Johnson right on the western edge, and my mom and dad had season tickets to PPAC and Trinity,” Mike Lusi said. “I love going into downtown … and I haven’t heard a lot of mention of the suburban residents in the ring around Providence who do come in and spend money and support all the arts and restaurants.”
And since this latest effort to improve the feel of downtown follows hot on the heels of a controversial push by the state to break up Kennedy Plaza as a central bus hub, many of the 160-plus people attending the presentation had transit on their minds.
“I actually moved to downtown district because I use public transportation,” Haley McKee said. “I found that to be a nice, accessible, central location for me to get transportation to get to school and work.”
While this city project isn’t directly linked to the state’s transportation plans, it’s part of a redefinition of what downtown will be in years to come, and many participants wanted to make sure that it remains open to all.
“It’s one of the places in the city where you can go and you can feel like you’re in the real world,” Doug Victor said. “You have people that are very different from you that are all around you and everybody is together in this common public space, and I believe that we need for this to continue and for common public space to be available right there in the center part of the city.”
Arup project manager Alban Bassuet noted that just because the area will change doesn’t mean that it will be for the worse.
“Revitalizing an area of town does not mean pushing anyone away,” he said. “It does not mean creating a new space that will only benefit a few afterwards. In fact, for us, it means to create essential amenities that will benefit everyone and bring everyone together in a crucial time when we desperately need more human connection and understanding.”
The project is being broken down into three phases and is expected to span four years. The first two phases will be funded by the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which includes a $120 million bond. The third phase is expected to be funded through a state program for stormwater mitigation.
Next steps include two public surveys — the first of which is currently live — and more public meetings in February and May, with final design deliverables expected sometime in May.