Reimagining Downtown Providence

New green space initiative links downtown greenspaces for a more livable city

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There’s an illusion that cities just spring up, fully formed, that their very existence will fill the streets, retail spaces, restaurants, and apartments above with throngs of people. But cities are living, breathing entities that shift and morph with each boom and bust. Downtown is not immune to that cycle. And COVID was the bust no one anticipated.

“Like any sort of crisis, there’s opportunity born out of it,” says Kristen Adamo, president of GoProvidence, the city’s tourism board.

According to Adamo – and a cross-section of downtown business owners agree – downtown Providence was booming pre-pandemic. Several national publications listed Providence on their “top cities to visit” lists, praising its big city feel wrapped up in a fun-sized package. More affordable and more accessible than its northern cousin, Boston, Providence punches above its weight in culinary and cultural offerings.

But rather than wallow in what-ifs, the pandemic galvanized Providence’s stakeholders. With unexpected time on their hands, three entities came together – the Downtown Improvement District, The Providence Foundation, and GoProvidence – and envisioned the Providence they wanted to see: one with a dynamic downtown that brought people to the area for work, play, as well as living.

“My job completely changed during the pandemic,” says Adamo. “Before, it was really about marketing the things we have. Then during the pandemic, and going forward, it became about helping to develop the things we need. We can’t just promote the things that are happening in Providence anymore; we have to help create them.”

Downtown Providence is buttressed by its namesake river. When Roger Williams arrived and declared his freedom from Massachusetts’ tyranny, putting downtown at the edge of the waterway was likely a logistics decision. The river is once again a focal point, this time for revitalization. “There are several things in the works that if they all go right, it’s going to be transformative at a deep level for Providence over the next three years,” says Cliff Wood, executive director of The Providence Foundation and The Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy. Wood is spearheading an ambitious green space initiative that links the existing disparate parks skirting downtown and the river into a cohesive parks network that forms a loop around downcity.

“We’ve always known that green space is important for a healthy city,” Wood continues, “but sometimes convincing people to invest in the way that’s required is more difficult. But with COVID, it became more obvious how much of this open space you need to have.”

Notably – but, surprisingly, with little local fanfare – the Central Park Conservancy chose the Downtown Providence Parks Network to be one of only seven urban park organizations for their Institute of Urban Parks 2022 cohort lab. The Conservancy was behind the revitalization of the once-blighted Central Park. They pioneered the idea of a public/private partnership, considered revolutionary at the time, and turned the park into the crown jewel of New York City. As part of the 2022 cohort, Downtown Providence Parks Network has access to their institutional knowledge of making these partnerships work to revitalize urban green spaces and received a $25,000 grant.

“We have this loop of public space that other cities literally spend millions and millions of dollars to create,” Wood says, referring to the 40-50 acres of riverfront land that runs from Kennedy Plaza to Waterplace Park to the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge. “So we wanted to capitalize on having this space, but that means putting together a public/private partnership to maintain, steward, and program at that level.”

Over the years, Kennedy Plaza’s renewal has had a few iterations. Originally programmed for use only six months out of the year, Wood says it became clear that the plan needed a larger footprint for year-round use. With RIPTA planning to move their buses to an indoor hub in the Jewelry District, raising the street flush with the sidewalk for ease of walking, and building an elevated connector to Waterplace Park, Kennedy Plaza will be much more pedestrian-friendly and offer ample space for events, from movie screenings to live performances to yoga classes. The plan also includes cafe kiosks for food and beverages.

Wood points out that the programming budget for Lawn D in front of the Boston Convention Center is nearly $2 million dollars a year; NYC’s Bryant Park hits $20 million. The collective day-to-day programming budget of the parks network is $200,000, which feels like a bargain. “We have big city ambitions with small town underwriting,” says Wood. “For us to reach our impact goals in our downtown spaces we need to generate increased support.”

As far as neighborhoods go, the East Side – with its stately historic homes and proximity to Brown University – gets the lion’s share of the love. Fast gentrifying areas like the West Side and the Valley – with their dramatic transformations – are media darlings.

But Providence’s vibrant city center has attracted residents, and plenty of them, without much fanfare. According to the most recent census data, 5,260 people call downtown home; and this is before the Superman building rehab adds 400 residential apartments to the neighborhood. 

Over 20 years ago, Cornish Associates led the residential charge, rehabbing abandoned downtown properties and turning them into loft apartments. “Our residential units are somewhere in the high 90 percent capacity,” says Joanna Levitt, director of commercial leasing and marketing for the real estate company. With demand strong for living space, they have several more residential properties in the works.

According to Levitt, small city living entices young professionals and empty nesters to downtown. More affordable than Boston and New York – and with both larger cities easily accessible via train and bus – Levitt sees a trend of folks from these high-cost locations migrating to Providence.

Robust amenities keep downtown vital, and Levitt says the anticipated arrival of Rory’s Market, a beloved woman-owned organic grocer with two stores on Cape Cod, on Washington Street this fall will fill a void, giving the area its first full-service grocery. Rory’s will also include a prepared foods section for grab-and-go lunches for office workers as well as catering for large corporations.

While Rhode Island has onerous commercial tax rates, Providence is a bargain compared to the commercial lease costs, residential rent prices, and general higher cost of living of our big city neighbors, which is drawing more out-of-state businesses. Levitt points out that the lower cost of living in Providence saves people money without skimping on amenities that make urban living so appealing: great restaurants, a rich arts and culture scene, and a lively nightlife. That downtown remains eminently walkable is another boon to city lovers.

New commercial tenants are filling empty storefronts, with a specialty retail space opening on Eddy Street and several new restaurants in the works. “Both restaurants and retail outlets are exceeding their 2019 numbers,” says Levitt, a promising sign that these fresh additions to the downtown area can thrive.

Tourism remains a significant income driver for the city, with downtown its hub. The city’s investment in public art has been a boon to the tourism sector. 

“We booked meetings, conventions, and sporting events just in July and August that brought $17 million worth of indirect spending,” says GoProvidence’s Adamo, who points out that the hotel taxes are a key revenue driver for the city. Full hotels – two new ones, Aloft and The Beatrice, opened during the pandemic – mean full coffers, and that money gets invested throughout all of Providence.

PVDFest and Pride also serve as linchpin events for the downtown area, drawing thousands of people to the city center to celebrate its vibrant diversity. Adamo plans on rolling out more events in the coming months that incorporate the various arts groups. “We’re hoping for a joint project between the CVB, The Avenue Concept, and WaterFire that will be a winter event. But that relies on funding, and we have not gotten word on that money yet. But that’s indicative of the kinds of things you’re going to see: groups working together to develop these kinds of events.”

Of course, projects this ambitious are bound to experience pushback. “I want to be an enthusiastic supporter,” says former mayor Joseph Paolino, who is also one of the largest property holders in downtown Providence. “But I need to know what I’m supporting.” Pointing out that the planning process has been ongoing since 2014, the former mayor quips, “It’s time to get out of poetry and into prose.”

But prose is a painstaking process, as anyone who’s written a novel can attest; and Wood counters that the prose is nearly drafted. RIPTA’s starting the RFP (Request for Proposal) process in the fall, after successfully soliciting input through an REOI (Request for Expressions of Interest) issued in the spring. “Overall, the responses confirmed our belief that RIPTA’s vision for a first-rate transit center is achievable,” says RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian in an emailed statement. They anticipate selecting a development partner by year’s end.

While Paolino says he doesn’t see a coordinated effort, Wood notes that all stakeholders have a clear line of communication, saying that RIPTA’s director of planning is at the Foundation’s monthly membership meetings providing updates on moving transit, which is the most logistically complicated part of the vision. Avedisian stresses that transparency is top of mind, noting the developer will be “contractually required to undertake public engagement activities as part of their design process.” RIPTA spokesperson Cristy Raposo Perry adds, “RIPTA will always have a presence in Kennedy Plaza as it remains a major destination for our passengers.”

Wood points out that the changes the city has undergone over the past 30 years – like moving the river, creating Waterplace Park and the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge – make downtown “more human scaled” and served as a catalyst for this  next iteration, which he expects will be complete in three years.

“City’s move, they change, they shift, and the ones that don’t, die,” he says. “Vibrancy is like the blood running through the city. If things aren’t moving and changing, then the city doesn’t have life anymore.”  

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