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An Even Better Downtown

Five major upgrades on the city’s horizon could bring Providence to the next level

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If we’re being honest, Rhode Island is kind of killing it these days. We have huge corporations promising to bring jobs and tax revenue into the state in the next year, like Johnson & Johnson, GE and Virgin Prime. We’re finally getting smart about capitalizing on the things that make us wonderfully weird, like the way we’re leveraging our aquaculture, and the fact that Autocrat just broke ground on a multimillion-dollar research and development facility… for the science of coffee milk. Our current unemployment rate is below the national average, for the first time in 12 years. A lot of this progress, in fairness to critics and supporters alike, is due to Governor Raimondo’s generous incentives to encourage business development, including big tax breaks. A lot of it, though, is unarguably Providence, and the quality of life the city offers. And while we’re pretty awesome, we could be better, especially in our small town mentality and big picture thinking, and specifically when it comes to downtown. Here are five things that are in the works – or should be – that are going to improve the city center and sustain the progress we’re making towards being a truly great city.

1.  We need to think smarter about transportation.
Anyone who’s lived in Providence for a long time will tout the city’s driveability as one of its best assets. It only takes 10 minutes to drive anywhere in the city! There’s free valet everywhere! Anyone who is new to the city, especially people who have come here by way of the bigger cities we’re trying to catch up to, thinks this is absolutely insane. They can’t understand why anyone would drive from the East Side or the West Side to downtown, when it basically takes the same amount of time to walk as it does to drive and park. They can’t understand why this city doesn’t quite get biking, or embrace public transportation. Yes, we’ve got a small town mentality when it comes to our cars – but we’ve historically been so attached to automobiles that cultivating other, better methods of transport hasn’t really been a priority for the city.

It would be easier to lessen our dependence on cars, though, if we had better bike lanes, and the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition has been lobbying for those for years. In January, the City announced that Providence had been chosen as one of 10 cities to benefit from The Big Jump Project, which brings in national experts to advise us on cultivating bike networks and building better infrastructure for bicycling. Their work here will focus on the City Walk corridor, currently under development, which will eventually connect eight Providence neighborhoods by pedestrian and bike paths from Roger Williams Park to India Point.

Partly because of the ride-sharing explosion over the last few years, and partly because it’s not that convenient, RIPTA’s ridership has been steadily decreasing. Last month, they announced a plan to add more routes with the goal of boosting ridership, and routing fewer lines through Kennedy Plaza. The new transit corridor will have hubs at the train station and Rhode Island Hospital, with buses running every five minutes. At each of six stops along the route, there will be shelters, ticket machines, arrival clocks and bike share stations, which will hopefully be the seed of a citywide bike share program.

2. We need to take PVDFest to the next level.

When Mayor Elorza held the first PVDFest, in 2015, thousands of people packed the streets for what was a major success for a first-year festival. While the consensus was that it was a great first try at a marquee event that could (maybe) one day have the prestige and national draw of something like South by Southwest, the detractors - this is Rhode Island, after all - complained that there was too much of a focus on national acts, and that to truly be a PVD festival, it had to put Providence’s creativity at the forefront. Then, last year, when the second PVDFest substantially scaled back its national performers and focused the majority of the festival on local talent, the festival felt smaller. While it was a good time, people seemed to agree, it felt more like a block party than a major event, and tsk, tsk, that’s not the kind of thing that attracts national attention.

So, what happens next month at the third PVDFest? Clearly, we can’t have it all: an event that encapsulates current Providence while drawing the big, marquee attention that famous performers can. We don’t know the answer, but we’re getting closer. This year’s event, June 1-4, is partnering with FirstWorks to bring in major acts like Bandaloop, who are once again dancing through the air in Kennedy Plaza, but the City is also utilizing more of Providence’s natural creative resources, and in a better way. “To further the Mayor’s idea of having this be more like South by Southwest, we’ve added a maker faire this year,” says Emily Crowell, Director of Communications at City Hall. “We’ve gotten interest from all along the East Coast from makers who want to participate.” That’s happening in partnership with AS220, and there are curators organizing stages throughout the event. A Lively Experiment, an ideas conference, is happening at URI’s downtown campus.

There’s also going to be a community dinner in Burnside Park, a Global Food Village (including a pop-up Rhode Island Oyster Festival) and a public tour of the Woonasquatucket River Corridor. The expansion outside of downtown is particularly smart. Sunday, the day after the downtown festivities, there’s going to be a second day of art and music at the Dexter Training Grounds by the Cranston Street Armory, including a FirstWorks musical project and a concert by Community MusicWorks.

3. We need to become a national event destination.

Basically, the formula for scalable events is this: if it’s a niche event that has a built-in audience, it takes off. If it’s an event like PVDFest, or EatDrinkRI, the food festival that happened at the end of April, the public interest stays too narrowly within the city. When Rhode Island Comic Con started in 2012, it’s doubtful anyone expected it to be the first event to ever shut down the Convention Center for being over capacity. Comic Con has exploded over the last five years, bringing in huge celebrities. They’ve already announced appearances by major cast members of The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, and the event isn’t until November. This August, Necronomicon, an H.P. Lovecraft convention that attracts the horror writer’s acolytes from all over the world, is throwing its biennial celebration. It started in 2013 with an impressive 1300 attendees, and given the surge in popularity for Cthulhu and the rest of Lovecraft’s monsters lately, it looks like this year is going to be bigger than ever.

Hasbro, capitalizing on the national boom in niche conventions, is launching HasCon this fall, from September 8-10 at the Convention Center. It’s going to feature mega-brands like Transformers, My Little Pony and Magic: The Gathering, and all signs point to HasCon being another major niche event happening in the city. Beyond that, it just feels like a big step forward that a major company is choosing Providence to launch a marquee event. “Hasbro has been headquartered in Rhode Island since our founding in 1923, and we are excited to welcome fans and families to our hometown for the most memorable Hasbro fan-mily experience ever,” says Jane Ritson-Parsons, Group Executive of Hasbro Brands.

But, we shouldn’t be able to count events of this scale on just one hand. Rhode Island has a lot more things that are worth attracting a national audience. And yes, people have heard about “that Fire Water thing” all over the country, but we need to position WaterFire as a bucket list item for people outside of Rhode Island. That all comes down to tourism dollars. “It’s easy to market our festival within the state,” says David Dadekian of EatDrinkRI. “People here get it. We’ve been trying to do that externally, and that hasn’t been easy. The Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau does a great job with the resources that they have, but I’m not sure I see that from the state side. State tourism needs more, and they need to do a better job. There’s a clear economic value to spending more on tourism.” Since the tourism debacle last year involving The Temperatures that Shan’t Be Named, RI Tourism has kept a low profile with its efforts to regroup and restrategize. As of press time, there are reportedly three new groups involved, that will roll out a soft summer marketing plan and debut something larger for the fall, but there’s no official word just yet.

4. We need to be able to host more visitors.
The buzzword this year when it comes to change in the city has unarguably been: hotels. Right now, there are five in the works, expected to add 500 hotel rooms by 2018: a Homewood Suites, which has broken ground near Kennedy Plaza; a Best Western just off the west side of the highway; a Holiday Inn on Pine Street; a Marriott where the Fogarty Building on Fountain Street is currently being demolished; and the hotel that’s part of the Wexford Science & Technology development on the 195 land. The Wexford project – one building for startup-oriented office space, and the other for a hotel with a first-floor restaurant and an outdoor area designed for public events like concerts and farmers markets – is still in approvals. As of press, it just passed a major milestone, and optimists are hoping it will usher in a new wave of jobs and commerce for the city.

On an average Saturday night, our hotels are over 90 percent booked. When large events happen, like a graduation weekend or a festival, visitors need to book in Warwick, or in Massachusetts. According to Martha Sheridan, president of the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, that’s a detractor for high-profile conventions who are considering hosting events in the city. “Engineering, scientific and marine trade conventions would prefer to keep their delegates closer so they can walk to the Convention Center,” Martha says. Those added rooms “allow us to go after larger, more lucrative groups that boost our economic development.” The math is simple: more people come to the city, so they spend more in the city, not just at hotels, but in restaurants and shops that keep residents’ quality of life high, too.

“We’ve not seen growth in hotel capacity for several years now,” she says, “and most of the region has. The fact that we’ve got five developers investing in hotel projects in Providence shows they’re bullish on the hospitality industry, and that’s a very positive sign.”

5. We need to create a better downtown experience.
When it comes to talking about improvements to Providence, the elephant in the room is really more of the elephant in downtown: Kennedy Plaza. The city’s transportation hub – well, it isn’t great. Though RIPTA did a major overhaul to bus stops and traffic patterns a few years ago, the better lighting and signage didn’t really change the experience of walking through Kennedy Plaza and not quite feeling safe, especially at night, when the illicit activity is more pronounced.

For Dan Baudouin of The Providence Foundation, which runs the Downtown Improvement District, Kennedy Plaza’s improvements hinge on, “RIPTA reducing their bus presence in the short term, and building the bus hub by the train station in the long term. We want to have good bus service, we just don’t want Kennedy Plaza to be a major transfer hub.” The Downtown Improvement District works with The Downtown Parks Conservancy to make sure Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park are “clean, landscaped and secure,” Dan says. “It’s not unsecure now, but any time there are a lot of people coming through a space, there are going to be a lot of issues.”

The Downtown Parks Conservancy plans programming throughout the warm weather, including food trucks, beer gardens, children’s story hours and concerts. “The idea that it’s not safe is a lot more about pushing agendas,” says Cliff Wood, executive director of the DPC. “I waited 30 minutes at a food truck today. People are definitely there. We’re not Central Park, but we’re making a lot happen with a little. The notion that Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park are dangerous is not acknowledging the incremental progress we‘ve made.” He hints that there’s a major grant about to be announced, but is not public information as of press.

Whether it’s about the messaging or it’s about the experience, it’s clear that the quality of the heart of downtown is central to the Providence experience, whether you’re a visitor or a resident. “We’re starting to look at all the parks as a network,” Dan Baudouin says. “With the 195 Commission building two new parks and the pedestrian bridge, there’s a lot of talk about how to coordinate and manage a downtown parks system.”

“It’s very important,” he says. “It’s not just a nice thing to have. It’s a necessity for economic development. People and companies, when they’re choosing a location, really want to have a great environment. We need to have great parks and great public spaces downtown.”