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Symposium looks to past as guide to city’s growth

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2011

For years, there has been little more than asphalt and debris where Interstate 195 once ran through the city, but the empty lots — about 35 acres of land — hold promise. This weekend, politicians, design professionals and community leaders gathered at a symposium to discuss plans for the space and how Providence’s history could be applied to the land in the Jewelry District.

Friday’s theme, the Capital Center, examined the project that created walkways surrounding the Providence River and assessed its successes and failures, while Saturday was devoted to looking forward, at how best to develop the newly vacant land south of Downtown.

University engagement

The University is expected to play a significant role in the area. With the Alpert Medical School already in place, Providence politicians who spoke at the symposium, including Mayor Angel Taveras and Rep. Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence, said they hope the University can bring in people and organizations in the form of medical students and related biotech companies to jumpstart the economy.

The new land is a “huge opportunity in terms of economic development,” Taveras said, calling Brown a “catalyst for growth.” But he stressed that the new land will be taxable. Because the University is a non-profit, it is not required to pay taxes on its properties under academic use, creating tension between city and University officials.

Brown’s demand for large science and medical research facilities continues to grow, said the University’s long-term planner and architect Frances Halsband in an interview with The Herald.

The Jewelry District offers a great opportunity for Brown’s expansion, Halsband said, because much of its land is vacant — with former industrial buildings, surface parking lots and new lots created by the relocation of Route 195 covering much of the area’s land.

Such buildings are “completely inappropriate in the historic setting of College Hill,” she said. The relocation of Route 195 and the resulting properties’ proximity to both College Hill and the hospital complex made the Jewelry District “a kind of ideal location” for a new Med School building. Brown is now also eyeing the area as a home for its new School of Engineering.

Brown will “get out and get engaged” with this new land, said panelist Dick Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president, at the symposium.

Floating ideas

Spies spoke in a panel titled “Higher Education, Health Care and the Cost of Opportunity.”

No hospital or health care officials presented, but government and institutional leaders seem to be aiming to model the district after other medical and educational complexes across the country.

Governor Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, Taveras, President Ruth Simmons and others visited Houston’s Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, earlier this year.

They see in the Jewelry District an opportunity to create something similar, something to bring in new jobs and boost the state’s economy. Together with the nearby medical complex centered around Rhode Island Hospital, the area has been branded the “Knowledge District.”

For panelists, the prospect of a cohesive, visitor-friendly area was key. “I want to live in a city where you can just leave your house and walk,” Blazejewski said.

While the last remnants of the old Route 195 structure are being swept away, there are still several infrastructure projects proposed or planned which will be key to the area’s growth. A pedestrian bridge will be built on the supports for the old bridge over the river, with a new waterfront park at its western end.

A Rhode Island Public Transit Authority study is looking at the possibility of creating a new transit line, such as a streetcar, to connect College Hill, downtown Providence, the Jewelry District and the hospitals.

Panelists thought historical preservation should play a role in the development. Ron Henderson, a designer for “cityWALK,” the plan for public pedestrian walkways in the area, said in an interview with The Herald that his plan would make for a street pattern “similar” to the original street patterns. But it would also let pedestrian pathways “thread through all of the other planning and development efforts,” he said.

He said he hopes to provide “equitable access” to “urban assets” for all the nearby neighborhoods, especially those which do not currently have access.

The river will be a “central location that ties together different parts of the city, rather than a dividing element that separates different parts of the city,” Halsband said in an earlier interview with The Herald.

Arnold Chace, president and CEO of local development firm Cornish Associates, was in the crowd Saturday and said he is encouraged by the community’s united vision for the land. Taveras nominated Chace to be part of a panel that will oversee the area’s development, but he did not receive the governor’s approval. The State House is expected to approve members of the seven-member panel this week.

“Our resources are so limited, so collaboration is necessary,” Chace said.

Taveras said he hopes to see zoning regulations set by June 30, 2012, at which time business can apply and development of the new land can begin.

Sticking around

For Brown students, Spies said, “the idea of staying in Providence has more possibilities than it did five years ago.”

Planners and community activists continue to cite the importance of mixed use development — growing the number of restaurants, clubs and housing units to bring activity at most or all hours of the day and night.

But despite the implications for city life, the attendees at the Providence Preservation Society’s “Make no little plans” symposium were mostly local real estate agents and designers.

Real estate professionals in the state are required to fulfill a biannual number of credit hours to maintain their licenses, and this event was “one of the more interesting events” that could fulfill the requirement, said Sue Erkkinen, a local agent.

— With additional reporting by Greg Jordan-Detamore

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