Nothing so far this year has stirred up the conflicted emotions and opinions of Rhode Islanders quite like the new PawSox ownership’s plans to move the team out of Pawtucket and into Providence. While some have been quick to write off the possibility as unworkable, undesirable or entirely unnecessary, I find the possibility of a baseball stadium abutting the Jewelry District and riverfront intriguing and worthy of discussion. (It should go without saying, however, that public money should not be invested in building or subsidizing the stadium, and valuable Providence real estate should not simply be given away to make it happen. One thing we can all agree on is that we don’t need another 38 Studios-esque debacle.)
If a stadium is constructed as part of a more comprehensive and forward-thinking development plan, it could bring new life to a once-moribund area of the city. To simply forfeit a once-in-a-lifetime parcel of land to a stadium that will host 70-something home games a year and call that a development plan is folly. However, to build a multi-use outdoor venue that can not only host minor league baseball, but local high school and college sports tournaments and exhibitions, concerts, school commencements and other open-air events, then surround that stadium with dining, shopping, nightlife and other amenities that keep the street level active seems like a fine plan for land that was previously home to highway overpasses and bridge abutments.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with our attempts to jumpstart the Jewelry District as an economic hotbed. The focus is primarily on developing the so-called “Knowledge Economy,” featuring the usual assortment of meds-and-eds along with tech-driven start-ups. Economic clusters like this are important drivers for cities and should be a focus in the Jewelry District, but for my dollar, we should also be focusing on creating a nightlife cluster there, too. By developing dual economic drivers in that neighborhood – one that primarily functions 9 to 5 and the other coming to life after dark – we develop a 24-hour economy in an area of the city that is less residential than most.
We often shy away from discussing nightlife as a vital economic driver for the city because of negative associations fostered by news stories of violence and unruly behavior, like the fuss on Federal Hill last summer. But it’s important to remember that those are the exception, not the rule, and that the vast majority of businesses operating in “the other 9 to 5” are peaceful, law-abiding and crucial to creating a vibrant city where people want to live and visit. The Jewelry District already has a fair amount of night-life, ranging from friendly watering holes like Nick-A-Nee’s, to music venues like The Spot Underground, to dance clubs like Art Bar. While the area has seen its share of problems caused by rowdy dance clubs that attracted a younger crowd and were prone to violence, most of those have been shut down, leaving in place the potential for a nightlife cluster that could peacefully co-exist alongside a Knowledge Economy-driven innovation district.
The opening of the 195 land provides a vital opportunity to connect the east and west sides of the river. Again, night-life can be an important factor here. With bars like Wild Colonial, Hot Club and Whiskey Republic, and restaurants like Bacaro, Parkside and Hemenway’s keeping the South Main and Water Street corridors active after dark, proper development of the 195 land could create a bustling center of activity to complement the Downcity/Kennedy Plaza/Capital Center hub. A baseball stadium with a comprehensive development plan around it could be the focal point to tie the area together. Think of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, another urban waterfront area that sits in close proximity to a baseball stadium. It was revived from its post-industrial doldrums with a cluster of arts, culture, residential buildings, offices, shopping, museums and much more, in the process becoming an important tourist draw. If we’re going to consider building a baseball stadium in Providence, that’s a model worth emulating, and if we’re going to revive the Jewelry District, we’ve got to think in terms of all 24 hours in the day, not just the ones between 9 and 5.