I-Way or the Highway

by by Maggie Lange

illustration by by Emily Martin

In Providence, the streets are the cities’ largest public space. It’s not parks or the famed waterfront—it’s the streets. The day of streets used as public gathering spaces is long forgotten. A city as old as Providence witnessed streets that served pedestrians, horses and carriages, then paved the way for the emergence of the automobile. Now, pedestrians scuttle across unwelcoming streets rapidly, jaywalking or not.

The I-Way project strives to repair Providence’s streets—from the minutiae of repaving to massive realignments. The project is now halfway completed, if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. However, with the largest economic downturn of a generation, it’s easy to look at this $620 million project as intimidating expensive.

Detailing the next leg of the I-Way project, Rhode Island and the City of Providence published the Rhode Island Interstate 195 Relocation Surplus Land: Redevelopment and Marketing Analysis in early September.

At a mammoth 169-pages, the report considers the redevelopment of the land liberated by the relocation of Route 195: 36 acres stretching from the Jewelry District, Old Harbor, Fox Point and College Hill. Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration developed this plan with advisors, politicians, and outside consultants. The project actually began as a safety improvement study, which evolved into a transformative reconstruction project. In the 1960s, planners designed the 195/95 interchange to serve 75,000 cars daily. The interchange now supports twice that amount.

Ron Henderson, a Providence-based international landscape architect, has worked with neighborhood groups–particularly the Fox Point Neighborhood Association to recommend improvements to the I-Way project. Henderson said this newly freed land presents the greatest building opportunity in Providence in a generation, and “it needs to be done with the most attentive and skilled thinking that can be brought to the table. This city should prepare to be the most livable small city, certainly in New England, and in the country.”

Like the moving of the railroad that made Capital Center, the I-Way project creates an opportunity to entirely rethink the roadways in Providence. Opportunities like this can make and break cities; 95/195 in the sixties revealed the consequences of cutting downtown apart—shattering neighborhoods to open only wasted urban space. Even 50 years later, Providence planners struggle to reconnect fragmented neighborhoods. This is a chance to piece together the city, Henderson explains, but unfortunately, “we haven’t progressed that far from 1960s planning.”

This most recent redevelopment plan, September’s I-Way report recommends building a combination of commercial buildings, residences, and public spaces. It also suggests expanding Brown University and Johnson and Wales University campuses. RIDOT lists Brown University as one of the potential buyers for these 36 acres. While Brown previously showed particular interest in the Jewelry District land for the medical school, the recession has induced a more hesitant drive to consume.

RIDOT’s September I-Way report outlines its three primary objectives: increased tax base, economic development to attract industry and jobs, and urban revitalization. The first two indicate a deferment to business development, which will hopefully usher in the vaguely titled “urban revitalization.”

The I-Way project is banking on big returns on this $620 million investment. The 36 acres are divided into remarkably large parcels—aimed at big, national buyers, rather than local investors. Henderson explained that deferments like this could delay a speedy urban-revitalization: “There are few people in this market that would be looking at building at the scale of these parcels. My fear is there is going to be a lot of vacant land.” If the parcels of available land were smaller, local developers could buy the land and begin building sooner.

If the land parcels remain this small, Henderson said the 36-acres might continue in the same pattern set by Capital Center. “It took thirty years to build it up to the point it is now. This is not quick enough to have strong economics and urban quality of life—maybe smaller parcels would expedite the development, but this maybe not as lucrative for the state.”

The city and state are looking to make money out of the I-Way project; the initial $620 million was certainly a pretty penny. Luckily, most of the money was spent before the recession. The I-Way design project manager at RIDOT, Lambri Zerva, said the bulk of these dollars was spent on land and the costs of the designs, utilities and construction contracts. The project is being funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent from the state—both paid for mostly by gas taxes. Even though it will still tally up a huge bill, Zerva says that with the recession, “we need to look at a lot less money now than in the past.”

The City has an objective to make a profit and an obligation to close the deficit. Disposing of the property in large chunks would garner as much profit as possible. This would increase to Providence’s tax rolls, but if the land remains empty, it will increase the hole in the Providence’s urban fabric.

However, this attempt to attract big developers could prove to be a Catch-22. The way to attract big companies, Henderson explains is “to be one of the most beautifully-urban small cities in the country.” Henderson posits that the way to build a “beautifully-urban” city would be to concentrate on accommodating pedestrians, city-dwellers, and bike-riders—not necessarily catering to the big-corporations the city hopes to attract.

While a bulk of the I-Way project is redevelopment of the land freed by the relocation of 195, the planning defers to cars and their drivers. On RIDOT’s I-Way pod-cast, they offer a computer simulation of traffic flow from the perspective of the driver’s seat—but offer no view of the streets from a pedestrians perspective or a biker’s experience. The street design focuses on driver’s safety and convenience.

Henderson said it will be difficult to create a beautiful, livable city, because the creators of the September’s report are transportation engineers, not urban planners. They concentrate on creating efficient roadways, but not necessarily enjoyable streets.

Zerva admitted that the “main objective of the 195 relocation to relieve congestion, reduce accidents and improve bridge structures.” Pedestrian-friendliness and bike-accessibility function more like side projects.

Yet, while the days of public streets are history, the September report uses old street alignments for this coming project. Zerva explained, “we pretty much have a plan laid out – we will use a lot of the historic street pattern that was there. We’re pretty much trying to recreate a lot of existing streets that has sections cut off.” Clifford Street will be reunited with its other half, as will South Water, South Main, Richard, Chesnut, Edy, and Dyer. These roads will be “realigned, repaved, widened, most likely all three.” Transit Street will extend its transit, and Friendship will be pieced back together.

It is RIDOT’s role to maintain a balance between various transportation interests. The I-Way project has a tag line, in the fashion of meaningless, bureaucratic slogans: “yours, mine, ours,” that perhaps references this desire for balance between modes of transit. Striving to accommodate all three, the roads are widened for cars, shoulder lanes are added for bikes, and crosswalks, islands, and traffic signals for pedestrians. But, the plans for bike-pedestrian-car symbiosis have been less than perfect.

The most outstanding problem seems to be the reconstruction of Wickenden. RIDOT’s report proposes that all the traffic from South Main, Traverse, and South Water will be crammed into expanded lanes on Wickenden. To provide a refuge for pedestrians, there will be a 30-foot traffic island as respite from the whizzing-lanes. Henderson says if lanes were reduced on Wickenden, rather than widened, this would create a safer road-way, eliminating the need for a traffic island. It would also open up on-street parking, which would help retail development.

September’s plan offers suggestions about how to transport more efficiently. This involves paying more attention to cars, rather than pedestrians or bikes. However, the most efficient streets are not necessarily the best streets. Henderson explains, “good streets accommodate people, bicycles, cars. They accommodate businesses because a good street brings people to coffee shops and retail stores.”

A good street also lasts. Streets are the most permanent form of infrastructure in a city. Once they are built, they are rarely moved. Buildings come up and down–but a change of streets–like this one, is a rare opportunity.

The rich folks live on Power Street, but MAGGIE LANGE B’11 lives off Hope.