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Lessons From Providence

March 12, 2006
Commentary By DICK HARRALL

Much has been written about the comeback of downtown Providence, and how it might be a model for other cities. For example, a recent Courant editorial supported exhuming the river through Bushnell Park, much as Providence has done. Is Providence's success a model for Hartford? Yes and no.

I was born and raised in Providence. After completing graduate school in 1968, my first job in the planning profession was with the Providence Department of Planning and Urban Development. To say that the downtown was sliding into an economic, physical and social abyss was an understatement.

For many years it had been recognized that the downtown was constrained from physical expansion on three sides by Route 95, Route 195 and the historic College Hill area. That left only the northern boundary, which was also blocked by the Northeast Corridor railroad tracks and Union Station. The tracks had been built on piles and landfill over a waterway in 1890, forming what locals called (before political correctness) a "Chinese wall." North of the tracks were acres of mostly abandoned railroad yards and surface parking lots that charged downtown workers a dollar a day. This underused area separated the downtown, visually and physically, from the impressive U.S. Capitol-inspired Rhode Island State House.

Even with the tracks, this was the one boundary with possible flexibility. In 1964, the Redevelopment Agency commissioned a major plan to relocate the tracks to the north, thereby allowing the expansion of downtown. The plan was never implemented because of what was viewed as an outrageous cost: $4 million. However, unbeknownst to most people, change was coming. Over the next 20 years, a series of seemingly unconnected events became chapters in the Providence Story.

The story evolved, in somewhat chronological order, as follows:

A young architect, William Warner, was just beginning his practice in the late 1960s and was a constant visionary of what the downtown could be. He wanted to recreate the historic character of the city, with an emphasis on waterfront development. He would follow his vision through to its eventual realization.

With Richard Nixon's election in 1968, the federal urban renewal program was phased out. Providence hadn't gotten into the program as quickly as New Haven or Hartford, and so hadn't done as much demolition. With the money shut off, many buildings were left standing, not necessarily by policy, but by circumstances.

In the 1970s, the city also got lucky with the railroad tracks. Amtrak undertook a renovation of the Northeast Corridor, which allow the city to move the tracks on someone's else's nickel (or $4 million). In the 1980s, a few more things broke right.

John Cummings, a brilliant banker who developed the idea of holding companies, was the president of Industrial National Bank and a member of the Providence Redevelopment Agency. Industrial National Bank became Fleet Bank, the dominant bank in New England in the boom of the 1980s and a major financing source for all kinds of private investment in Providence.

Johnson & Wales University, with a hospitality-based curriculum, outgrew its facilities and chose to expand in downtown Providence. The Outlet Company, the city's anchor department store, had closed, and its building was lost in a spectacular fire. Johnson & Wales made the crucial decision in the 1980s to locate a new campus on the Outlet site.

This was key. Johnson & Wales graduates fed the local restaurant industry, so to speak. Many stayed in the city and opened hip new restaurants. This is why moving the Connecticut Culinary Institute to Hartford would be a good thing. Restaurants are important in a city's revival; a restaurant's success is the city's success.

Baby Boomers exhausted the supply of housing and areas ripe for gentrification in Boston. They discovered Providence was only an hour away by train. As employees moved south to Providence, financial service companies such as Fidelity saw labor market advantages and established facilities in Providence and its northern suburbs. Those of us who grew up in Providence used to think a trip to Boston was a big deal. But the new commuters thought nothing of doing it every day. Thus did our parochialism end.

In the meantime, William Warner was faithfully pursuing his vision for downtown. The relocation of the railroad tracks allowed for the recapture of two buried rivers, the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket. A Warner-directed study led to the 1987 project that created a new downtown river confluence and new waterfront property.

As the rebirth of downtown moved ahead, it had as its No.1 cheerleader the controversial, flamboyant mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. The man and the times were the perfect match.

The stock of buildings left intact in the 1970s now became a prized inventory for new investment, aided by a strong historic preservation movement. As these buildings were fixed up, public and private dollars built dramatic public spaces and buildings along the newly created waterfront.

Federal Hill, the location of the finest Italian dining in Rhode Island, had been cut off from downtown by I-95 and was in decline through the 1960s and '70s. However, the anchor restaurants remained. When the 1980s renaissance gained momentum, people realized that Federal Hill was within walking distance of downtown.

Change had spin-offs unique to Providence. A local Rhode Island School of Design artist began the WaterFire concept as a volunteer. This fiery artistic expression grew to an event which draws 50,000 or more people on a Saturday night. At the same time, design school graduates stayed in Providence to create an artists enclave within a special tax-free district, a complement to the Johnson & Wales alums in the restaurant business.

As downtown continued to be revitalized, the area between the statehouse and the former rail yards became the site of Providence Place, an upscale enclosed urban mall. This replaced the long-departed retail space that had once existed in the old downtown. Once again, downtown Providence became a destination.

Much was made of the downtown arena and convention center. But this complex wasn't initially successful. Providence became a more successful convention city because of the other things that happened. In other words, the convention center was a beneficiary of the revival, not a cause of it.

So, is the Providence Story relevant to Hartford? It is if we understand that what happened in Providence is unique to Providence. It was as much a matter of luck and timing as it was the pursuit of a vision. Hartford should build on its own strengths. Sure, we can steal an idea or two when it makes sense - I support the water feature in Bushnell Park. But we can write the Hartford Story by recognizing what we have.

Also, despite the success of downtown revitalization, there has been little, if any, positive impact on distressed neighborhoods in Providence. Part of this can be attributed to the physical separation between downtown Providence and these neighborhoods. Hartford has an opportunity to do a better job. The recent discussion of development north of I-84 is an example. An extension of downtown development in this direction must include as its mission the improvement of the economic, physical and social environment of the North End.

Improvement of the quality of life for all residents, and not just the creation of a downtown isolated from the rest of the city, must be the goal.

Dick Harrall, a professional planner for more than 35 years, is a principal of Harrall-Michalowski Associates in Hamden.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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