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What is Past is Prologue
By 1981, when the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission published its Downtown Providence survey, two things were very apparent: (1) urban renewal of the 1950s to 1970s and the subsequent exodus from the city to suburbs had left the urban core of Providence neglected and almost vacant, and (2) despite this, the downtown area retained a historic, coherent ensemble of historic buildings and civic amenities.

Downtown Providence survey, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, 1981, cover.

Planning in the 1970s resulted in relocation of the railroad tracts and station starting in 1983, and inclusion of a river relocation plan into this project in 1984. At this time, most eyes were focused on this Capital Center, north of downtown, with little attention to this commercial, urban core: Downtown.

But, in 1984 the Downtown area was designated as an historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two years later, the Westminster Mall, a 1960s pedestrian mall, was removed to reintroduce automobile traffic and conventional sidewalks. The mall has acted as a deterrent to pedestrians, street life and shoppers.

This signaled a new commitment to undoing damage of past urban efforts, to preserving historic buildings, while considering innovative, comprehensive approaches to the district's revitalization.

Since the late 1980s, Providence has invested more than $1.5 billion in public and private funding into the Downtown, now called "Downcity," a term used as recently as the 1940s, when this area was so vital.

Limestone carvings of early Providence history: steamboat and rail transportation. Industrial National Bank Building (1928), now Fleet Bank. (September 2002)

Early History: The first three hundred years
Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. By the 1760s, Providence had a flourishing maritime trade, a merchant aristocracy, and a few important industries. In the 1840s, New England was competing with British textiles in the markets. Providence eventually lost its supremacy in international maritime trade; but by then the city's economy had a strong industrial and commercial base.

By 1900, the Downtown area became a regional center of industry and commerce, with a financial district and transportation network by road, rail, and sea. Commercial and retail growth spurned the growth of civic, arts, and entertainment institutions. Major educational institutions continued to play an important role. This was the height of the Downtown activity.

Following union strikes in the late 1920s, the city's textile mills moved to southern states and the metals industry to the Midwest from the 1930s through the 50s. During the Great Depression, urbanization in Providence largely stopped.

1950s and 1960s: A War at Home
After some stagnation, the 1950s saw both major urban renewal schemes and highway construction projects. Either one of these would have had a profound impact; the result of their combination still effects the city today. In the interim, they provided the means both to destroy historic urban fabric, and the motivation to preserve what remains — and to seek innovative solutions to mitigate past mistakes and harm.

A few of the federal-government factors contributing to urban decay are addressed below.

The 1944 the “GI Bill” (Serviceman's Readjustment Act) guaranteed loans for homes to veterans under favorable terms, thereby accelerating the growth of suburbs — and the concurrent flight from cities.

1949 Housing Act (Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill; 63 Stat. 413), inaugurated the country’s urban redevelopment program, which was notorious for large-scale central-city demolition. With the professed aims of increased low- and middle-income housing supply, it did little but relocate families and run businesses out of cities.

The Housing Act of 1954 (68 Stat. 590) followed, but it emphasized slum prevention and urban renewal (and planning, sunder Section 701) rather than clearance and urban redevelopment as in the 1949 act. While even this program had devastating effect on cities, it was through the Section 701 program that funds were made available to Providence for its model College Hill study. Though such pilot projects these policies were finally changed in the mid-1960s.

Federal Highway Act of 1956, then known as the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," provided for a 65,000-km national system of interstate and defense highways to be built over 13 years. Interestingly, it was the designation the remaining 3,500 km of the interstate system — all of it in urban areas — that helped secure the support, and votes from Congress. Today, 42,800 miles and $130 billion later, the system is almost complete. Future work, including Providence’s relocation of Interstate-195, will be to bury (as in Boston's "Bid Dig" project) or relocate highways that have divided cities for the past half century, while replacing some poorly planned, designed and built transportation infrastructure, now at the end of its service life.

1960s Planning and Urban Renewal; City Destruction and Highway Construction
<< Aerial view to the northeast of Downtown Providence, circa late 1960s, with new I-95 (from lower right to upper left) and I-195 (from lover right to middle right). Just east of I-95 (bottom, center) much of Weybossett Hill has been cleared as part of an "urban renewal" program.
Before the highways, the intersection of I-95 and I-195 (lower right) occupied one of the city's best public parks, Hayward Park. Photograph source: City of Providence.
>> In 1961, Providence 1970 was published with this illustration, showing plans to: relocate the railroad tracks and added acres of parking; and demolish Union Station, as well as City Hall.

In 1961, a committee under Mayor Walter H. Reynolds proposed a master plan entitled Downtown Providence 1970: A demonstration of citizen participation in comprehensive planning, funded as a demonstration grant administered by the Urban Renewal Administration, Housing and Home Finance Agency. To provide an indication of their intent, under “Problems,” the report states, “On the whole, Downtown Providence give the appearance of being old and worn out…. The majority of the old eclectic buildings are blighted and have had their fine exterior detailing dulled by years of neglect.” ( 1970 Downtown 961)

The following list includes the following major components (with an update on their status in parenthesis): relocation of the New Haven railroad tracks and terminal (1980s) ; a civic center (1972) including City Hall (as its 1874-78 historic City Hall was to be demolished, although this never happened), state and federal office buildings, a cultural center, and a relocated education center (for the University of Rhode Island; this ending up in the restored Shepard Building in the 1980s); a 1,300 foot long pedestrian mall along Westminster Street (constructed in the 1960s, removed in 1986); new, major offices; razing of dilapidated housing and construction of superblocks with institutional and residential uses (late 1960s Weybossett Hill Redevelopment Project), and an elderly-housing apartment house (Dexter Manor, 1960)

In addition, proposals to change circulation of regional, intercity, and downtown traffic included an east/west connector with Interstate 95 in Downtown and two one-way "inner-loop" roads. These roads would have further broken up Downtown communities, which were already fragmented by Interstate 95, 195 and Route 10. The plan included a proposal for a pedestrian walkway and a mall (built as Providence Place Mall, late 1990s).

A 1964 study of Providence identified 350 firms displaced by renewal or highway projects between 1954 and 1959. One-third of the companies went out of business; of those that survived six of ten reported a decline in income; only one in ten showed an increase. As for the owners who lost their business: one-fifth became unemployed, one-fifth took retirement; the rest found work but 90% earned less income. While there is not way to calculate the economic impact to residents of old neighborhoods that were demolished, the social and personal impact was just as profound. (1964 Zimmer 61-62, in 1990 Frieden and Sagalyn 35)

With the construction of interstate I-95 and I-195 and Route 10 in the early 1960s, there was an even greater loss of business — particularly retail. Not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the construction of the Providence Civic Center (1972) and the Hospital Trust Tower (1973) did downtown experience an increase in growth. At that time, there was plenty of parking areas, which now filled the vacant lots left after demolition.

Recently, federal legislation has been enacted to help mitigate the past harm of poorly-planned highways, and to protect existing transportation corridors. This is known as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted June 9, 1998 as Public Law 105-178. TEA-21 authorizes this program for highways, highway safety, and transit for the six-year period 1998-2003.

Slade's Building (1881) reflecting City Hall (1874-1878). (September 2002)

Downcity Looks Up, Once Again
In 1994, based on visits starting in 1992, and guided by the Downcity Task Force, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Palter-Zyberk, Town Planners (best known for their pioneering work in in New Urbanism) developed two documents as part of a 1994 report:Downcity Providence: Master plan and implementation plan. This plan was incorporated into Providence 2000: The Comprehensive Plan.

In brief, Downcity Providence recognized that:

  • Downcity contain a largely intact historic central business district, which must be preserved.
  • It is the areas urbanism which is exceptional, not the individual buildings.
  • A comprehensive program was needed for revitalization.
  • A critical mass of projects was needed to initiate change.
  • Investment and involvement was required from both public and private sectors.

The plan identified four major zones:

  1. Civic Center and Convention Center ($300 million)and Civic (now, including the hotel and Providence Place Mall)
  2. Campus of Johnson & Wales University
  3. Westminster Street for retail activities and offices
  4. Arts and entertainment, throughout

Subsequent work, described below, is based on preliminary recommendations, coupled with new initiatives.

Mixed Use
The Downcity area, which was traditionally a center for retail (and offices, needed to have increased diversity of uses. Employing city data, Coalition for Community Development — a nonprofit community organization whose mission is to revitalize Providence's Downcity core — has recorded the following uses to guide planning: entertainment and entertainment retail (see below); retail; hotel; office and government office; educational and public institutions; residential; landscaped open space; parking structures; and undetermined (parking lots, etc.). The focus of work has been to increase the entertainment, institutional, and residential activity. While retail and parking are important, to date they have not been as active. This fall, Roger Williams University students are developing proposals to design multi-use buildings in Downcity.

Downcity Arts and Entertainment District. Source: Arts & Entertainment, City of Providence
AS220, Empire Street. (August 2002)
Trinity Repertory Company, Empire and Washington Streets. (September 2002)

Arts and Entertainment District
Arts and Entertainment District was established. The idea behind it: Where art flourishes, economic development and tourism will follow. This has resulted in development of many of the initiatives described below. In 1996, legislation was proposed by Mayor Cianci and passed to The District boundaries are from Dorrance Street to Sabin Street to Empire Street to Pine Street. The outgrowth of these bills is the birth of an exciting area of the old core of the Downcity of Providence dedicated to the arts. This area is already the home of Trinity Repertory Company, NewGate Theater, CenterCity Artisans, Providence Black Repertory Company, Providence Performing Arts Center, AS220, Groundwerx Dance Company and Perishable Theatre to name a few.

This program is the first of its kind in the country. City is committed to showcasing artists in the area, and to fostering a network of artists in the community. The Mayor of the City of Providence has assembled a task force of a diverse group of individuals dedicated to implementing this District.

Artists Loft Housing
Until the 1990s, most residents downtown were found in 1970s urban renewal project that created elderly housing apartments or subsidized, low-income housing units. The Downcity plan includes rehabilitation of commercial buildings to create residential and work space for artists.

In 1999, Cornish Associates reopened the Smith Building, at 57-59 Eddy Street, as a residential building with 36 units on the upper floors, and commercial space on the street level. A third of the tenants are artists. In 1998, with help from the city and the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Financing Corporation (RIHMFC), Cornish Associates spent $8.4 million rehabilitating the Alice Building into 37 apartments, with retail space on the ground floor.

In 2003, the Cornish Associates plans to open three more downtown buildings. Four units are planned in the Burgess Building,five in the O'Gorman Building and nine in the Lerner Building. In 2004, 91 apartments are planned to be open in the Peerless Building across the street. In total, this will provide almost 200 units, enough of a critical mass to raise the demand for services and stores, which are needed as now there is no grocery store in the entire Downcity area.

The need for parking remains a big issue. For example, the Alice Building has no parking for its residents, who must pay for monthly parking elsewhere. And there are few services to support residents.


Competing with Downcity: the new Providence Place Mall,. View to north from Exchange Street, (August 2002)

There is still no major Downcity retail. Visitors to the new, 160-business Providence Place Mall and the Convention Center seldom venture out to the Downcity area. Instead, the mall has caused downtown businesses (some, generations old) to close, due to competition from the mall, or to relocate to the mall, abandoning their Downcity retail location. Strangely, part of the impetus for the 1994 Downcity Providence plan was to make the Downcity area vibrant, in tandem with the opening of the Convention Center, as it was believed that, according to Duany, "The Convention Center...will not succeed unless downtown is alive, inviting, and full of things to see and do." As the Downcity area did not develop in time, the city's response was to build the mall, rather than focus on investment in Downcity. Admittedly, the mall does draw visitors who might otherwise go shopping in suburban malls. But it also draws visitors in the Convention Center and hotels who might otherwise visit Downcity.

Downcity Partnership, Inc. was established with $9 million commitment by the Rhode Island Foundation. The organization will use a revolving-loan fund to advocate for economic revival, mixed-income housing, and an expanded arts district.

Following over 40 other states, the Rhode Island General Assembly passes enabling legislation that allows the city to create a downtown management district. The services required within this district would be financed and supported privately through a fee assessed to private downtown interests. These funds would be solely dedicated to finance the services of the management district. The downtown management district will be separate from the government and will be administered by the private sector. This may include marketing, public service and safety, streetscape maintenance and improvements. Similar districts are found in many cities nationwide.

Changes in zoning have been made to allow residential use in commercial buildings, providing an incentive to rehabilitate for loft housing. Previously, apartments and studio lofts were not permitted.

Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation offices, Washington Street. RIHMFC moved in to the restored Slade's Building (1881) in 2001. The structure, one of the first, and now the oldest commercial building in Downcity, is just west of City Hall (1874-78). (September 2002)
Rhode Island Council on the Humanities office, Westminster Street. (September 2002)

Architectural, Design and Preservation Standards
This Downcity area was separated from what is now known as the Jewelry District, which remains under the purview of the Providence Historic District Commission. The Downcity District was created, along with a commission to

The Downcity District is an overlay zoning district designed to direct development in the downtown, to protect its historic architectural character, to encourage round-the-clock pedestrian activity, to promote the arts and entertainment, and to support residential uses. The District was established in the Providence Zoning Ordinance in 1994, along with Downcity District Design Review Committee (DRC), appointed by the Mayor to administer the Downcity regulations.

Financing has been provided from federal, state and city sources, in tandem commitment from nonprofit (NGO) organizations, and private-sector investment by investors, financial institutions, academic institutions, and developers.

An Enterprize Zone is a distressed urban area targeted by the city and the State of Rhode Island for economic revitalization and job creation. To help achieve these goals, state tax incentives, job training services, and regulatory relief have been provided to businesses in these areas. Providence has been awarded two Enterprize Zones by the State Enterprize Zone Council. One of these zones included the entire Downcity area, and the adjacent Jewelry District, and the Promenade district along the Woonasquatucket River that is now separated from Downcity by the highway: Interstate 195, which is being moved.

Tax Credits for Rehabilitation
State and federal tax credits are available for certified rehabilitation of income-producing, historic properties. The state provides a 30 percent tax credit; the federal tax credit is 20 percent, to total 50 percent.

Tax incentives for Artists and Businesses
Legislation provides tax exemptions on personal income tax and sales-and-use tax for artists living in the Arts and Entertainment District in Downcity. Also passed in 1996 was legislation that provides tax incentives to property owners who convert buildings formerly used for industrial or commercial use into residential units.

Parking garage, Washington Street. Trinity Repertory Company beyond. (September 2002)

Downtown Safety and Security
To allay the perception — and reality —that the Downcity area is dangerous, several efforts have been made to provide greater security. The city has rehabilitated a structure for a centrally located, Downcity police station, next to the Providence Performance Art Center. A lighting program, with white, full-spectrum, sodium-vapor luminaries throughout downtown, needs to be continued.

Social Issues
The city must continue to rehabilitate not just buildings but some of the downtown residents who are unemployed, and at time homeless. There are also several inappropriate, adult entertainment businesses (not the sort of entertainment the Downcity plan envisioned). One of these, opposite the Trinity Repertory Theater, has been rehabilitated as a restaurant.

Improved Access
Traffic circulation has been improved. A signage and identity system has been developed to highlight the Arts and Entertainment District and the principal streets. Sidewalk and streetscape repairs have made it easier for pedestrians. Improvements in public transit have been provided by bus loop into and throughout the area, and a renovated bus terminal in Kennedy Plaza, completed in September 2002. Parking remains an issue and need.

Public Space Improvements
Streetscape improvement has been developed, principally along the major streets. A street tree program is being developed with the City's Department of Public Parks. This fall, Roger Williams University students are working with the city to design the planting of 37, 000 trees in Providence, including downtown.

Nearby Waterplace and Riverwalk includes Waterfire, an event that attracts crowds as large as fifty thousand on summer weekend nights. Gallery Night keeps galleries open for extended hours one night a month with the city providing free trolley rides from shop to shop. An annual sculpture festival and a public art program have been established.

University of Rhode Island Extension Division now occupies the restored Shepard Company Building. Founded in 1880, Shepard's was the the largest department store in New England in 1903, when it occupied the entire block. (September 2002)
Johnson & Wales University. Top: campus on site of former Outlet store. Above: interface between campus and Weybossett Street, looking east, with Johnson & Wales University campus to the south (right), (September; August 2002)

Encourage Academic Institutions to Expand or Locate
Johnson & Wales University has established a major campus; The University of Rhode Island Extension Division occupies a restored a city block — formerly the Shepards Department Store; Roger Williams University has established a Metro Center; even Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, located on College Hill, have rehabilitated buildings for use downtown. For centuries, these two institutions never crossed over the Providence River to downtown.

Sources and Resources

Arts & Entertainment, City of Providence

Cornish Associates

Downcity Providence: Master plan and implementation plan, developed as Plan 1A of the Area Plan Series of Providence 2000: The Comprehensive Plan by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Palter-Zyberk, Town Planners; and 1B of the Area Plan Series of Providence 2000: The Comprehensive Plan the Downcity Task Force and the Department of Planning and Development, January 1, 1994

Downcity Design Review Commission

Downcity Partnership

The Providence Plan

Relating to the Downcity Section of Providence, Chapter 302, 2000-S 2688, enacted 7/18/2000

Rhode Island Department of Economic Development

Rhode Island Foundation

Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission