Land Use

Preliminary Work Begins On New Vision for Downtown PVD

Centuries of change has dislodged downtown Providence from the flow of daily life. (City of Providence)

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.

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  1. “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.”

    This quote earns the grand prize for Biting Irony. Yeah, like a lot of natives here in Rhody, my wife and I can relate to what this non-native is saying because we once knew a place in Providence just like that. A place where there was this terrific open space around this basin-like structure in the Woonasquatucket River. There was a beautiful walkway, all around, edged with cheerful flowers and shrubbery and what-not, places to just sit and spread a picnic blanket, nice benches, well maintained, all lining this river walk that stretched down both sides of the river past its junction with the Moshasuck and down the Providence River past RISD. And a sense, everywhere surrounding, of space. And at no point more so than from the height of the grassy lawn on the south bank of the central basin where you enjoyed a 180 degree panorama view of the city: in front of you, set back nicely, the rising towers of its central business district; to your right, again, set back almost terrace-like the bustling front entrance of the Providence Place Mall; and on your left hand the long, west facing shoulder of College Hill with its panoply of historic architecture stretching physically all the wall down the Providence River to India Point, and in time to the 18th Century.

    How apt, then, was Buddy Cianci’s comment about the twin "luxury" apartment towers that now block this view and grind the insult into your face with their bargain hotel style design. Cianci, that day, was being chauffeured around the city upon his return from is years-long prison sentence. He had never seen the WaterPlace apartment buildings and was perfectly on target with when he quipped, "Looks like the ‘Municipal Detention Center’."

    You bet, Pal. We, too, remember "having a space where people feel it’s OK to perform or speak would be really cool." But forget about re-creating that along the Woonasquatucket without resort to the wrecking ball. Worry instead about the Fane tower re-enacting the same disaster along the now popular lower reaches of the Providence.

  2. There’s literally nothing to do there. Why would anyone hang out in Kennedy plaza unless you’re waiting for a bus? If there’s no water fire, who wants to spend massive amounts of time in water place park? We need to have more businesses and events and opportunities to create street life. European cities have small kiosks all over downtown that sell food and drinks and newspapers and small things. Scheneley park in Pittsburgh has a full service restaurant, plus a variety of kiosks, plus green space plus a carousel. Plenty of things to do that actually attract people who otherwise have no reason to be there. Right now there is nothing to do in these places so the only people there are people who don’t have anywhere else to be and those people are often struggling with homelessness and addiction, so supporting these people needs to be part of any vision for downtown. Without supporting the homeless and providing reasons for other people to visit the area, nothing will ever change about these public spaces. No amount of public art or new lighting or trees is going to convince someone to come downtown from the East Side, West Side, North End, or South Side (all areas with fabulous public parks and neighborhood restaurants) to spend time in a park with nothing to do.

  3. What urban designers and cities always seem to want to forget is what actually grows cities. Cities grow primarily through the immigration of the poorest of the poor, displaced rural agricultural workers forced off the land due to corporate or similar types of centralized controls (think kings) taking over land for the resources. The only place left for the poor to go is to the city where they live in slums and shanties until their kids or grandkids become integrated into the formal economy of the city. This is actually the only way cities grow.

    What city and state economic development planners and real estate speculating scum seem to think is you have to build for the rich and make them comfortable. What that does is widen inequality and reduce the overall health and well being of the city even if it fattens a few wealthy coffers. Gentrification may generate a little bit of additional property tax revenue for a city, but it harms everyone else.

    What the city ought to do is design around making the poor comfortable and welcome. This is the same principle as the idea that if the poor are doing okay economically, you can be sure the rich are doing okay, but that it is all too easy to feed the rich while watching everyone else starve. Cities need to put the needs of the poor first in order to be a successful city.

  4. Kennedy Plaza has been "reimagined" at least three times in the decades I’ve lived here, and the outcome will be predictably the same: money spent and no result. A look through the archives of the Department of Planning and Development might have spared us this current round of brainstorming. Affordable housing should be the priority of the city and of the state, decent shelter for the more than 4,000 men, women and children who are homeless here each year. Some of those who congregate in Kennedy Plaza for the lack of elsewhere to go might some day be among the jugglers and musicians envisioned in "Reimagining" discussions, were decent housing made available. And what about the "elephant in the room" that no one talks about – the empty Superman Building that dominates Kennedy Plaza? The money spent on "Reimagining" (and is that taxpayers’ money?) could be better spent resolving what to do about this symbol of downtown Providence. Let’s reimagine Kennedy Plaza with a huge hole in the ground – and an opportunity for a new developer to seduce our representatives into okaying another inappropriate megalith.

    My comments regarding the above were not included in the December 17 summary report of the breakout sessions; so thanks to EcoRI News for the opportunity to write them here.

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