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Capital Center, a Neighborhood Opportunity Lost, Part I

Waterplace

A recent thread on the “New England” board of the food and restaurant site Chow.com started me thinking that Capital Center, Providence’s newest neighborhood, is perhaps the city’s busiest, most bustling urban streetscape. It also, by far and away, the city’s saddest and loneliest…

Greater City Providence head Jef Nickerson has long said that the underdevelopment of Providence Station was a “hundred year mistake.” The underdevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood will likely be a much quicker mistake. I think that easily within the next, oh, 10-20 years we could already be weighing urban redevelopment options and trying to figure out how to build what should have been intrinsic and essential to the Capital Center effort from the beginning. Something that should have been a (good) version of, for example, Cambridge’s Kendall Square. We should have built a public space called Station Square, but we didn’t… But maybe we still can…

In the Chow.com thread, some posters were asking if there were any restaurants serving very early, pre-6AM breakfasts in the city. One individual remarked that the restaurant Temple, “near” the train station, is one of several opening early.

That post made me somewhat sad… The baroque restaurant Temple, which I like, is nevertheless the best, closest breakfast option to the hordes of commuters trudging to the station each morning? Temple, all the way across the currently muddy Station Park and in the opposite direction from where 98% of the commuters are walking? Why isn’t there anything actually in the station’s immediate vicinity? No less than 7 new buildings have been erected within 3 blocks of the train station in the last 30 years (and no less than 5 of those in the last 5 years) and there’s no place to eat? What can you do there? Maybe some financial planning at a hidden Avalon Apartment office? Sit in the station’s plaza? (Oops, you can’t do that, as station officials park their SUV’s there…)

Dropping my wife at the train station one recent morning and picking her up later that evening, I was absolutely amazed by the high pedestrian volume along Park Row and Exchange Plaza… Veritable hordes of people are walking and biking back and forth from downtown, Kennedy Plaza, and the East Side. Taxi’s don’t have enough room to serve everyone who wishes to find one… It’s the kind of critical mass of humanity that’s the stuff of dreams for nearly every Providence neighborhood retail center (save for the busy DePasquale Square and Thayer Street). And this is all the case before the massive Blue Cross/Blue Shield building opens and before the Capital Cove and Waterplace Condos reach capacity. This place is gonna have huge volumes of humanity…

Despite that amazing volume, however, there’s about as much energy, vibrancy, and excitement in the vicinity of the station as there is in the above photo of the empty (both of people and commerce) Waterplace Condos atrium – absolutely none. People walk in the street because the sidewalks are too narrow (or unshoveled). Huge, looming, blank building facades cast deep shadows over the walkers at all hours. Despite a sparking skyline right in front of the station, pedestrians need to look down, not up, to avoid the crumbling concrete of the station’s plaza or its mangy, overgrown “landscaping.” They certainly aren’t setting their watch by the clock on the station’s signature tower, which has been broken for all 5 years I’ve lived in the city.

Providence planners and officials have strained to create a place where hundreds or even thousands of people could congregate every day. The kind of place Photoshop artists populate with digital cutouts of pedestrians to use when rendering proposed buildings to somehow suggest people will want to spend time there.

Amazingly, that place now exists, but it exists in a place no one anticipated… Around the rail station. It’s a place no one planned, and thus a place we as a city haven’t exploited. But the commuters have created it anyway, despite the fact there’s absolutely nothing there to make that place attractive, compelling, or even tolerable. Despite its hostility, the commuters are still there…

What we need to do, on the site of the sad plaza over the parking garage and in the block of space surrounding the station, is to create Station Square. This should be a place where people can drop off dry cleaning. A place where they can grab lunch or dinner. A place were they can relax in an attractive plaza that serves as a beautiful gateway to a city that beckons beyond. A place they can hop onto a circulator trolley to bring them to their bus or the nearby downtown. A place of public art. A place where city citizens can have booths and stalls established to do farmers markets, zocolos, or festivals.

The good news is that creating this need not be difficult or expensive, both important in these tough times. But this could be one of the ultimate stimulus plans for the city. In the upcoming Part II of this post, Jef Nickerson and I will outline some options for creating Station Square, the public space that Providence residents are demanding by the actions of their feet…


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9 Responses to Capital Center, a Neighborhood Opportunity Lost, Part I

  1. Alex March 12, 2009 at 6:37 am #

    I’m interested to see how many commuters will be using the new intermodal station instead. Or perhaps that’s a different group of people all together?

  2. Alger March 12, 2009 at 8:20 am #

    As one of those pedestrians walking Park Row I have these same thoughts on a daily basis (particularly when negotiating the incredibly spalled sidewalks of the Amtrak ghosttown). From a planning and design perspective the Capital Center is an almost complete failure of imagination; the buildings are ugly and faceless, and what street level access exists is virtually invisible. The luxury development east of the station and across from the Blue Cross construction captures this even better than the Waterplace mistake. One gets the sense that there was supposed to be storefronts appealing to the commuters along the sidewalk arcade, but they are so hidden in the shadows that the woman working in the hair salon seems to spend most of her days smoking out front. The awning over the dry cleaners on the northeast corner suggests that there was once a restaurant in that space, but no one seems to remember it being there.
    The fundamental problem seems to be, as you suggest, is that the only reason to be in that area is to access the station.

  3. mental757 March 12, 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Don’t forget to add the MBTA extension next year and the XXX number of travelers and commuters coming from/to the airport, Warwick, and other points south…

    I’m starting to think the $20M AMTRAK has requested to “renovate” the station could possibly address some of our peaves about the facility. I pray that they fix the sidewalks, landscaping, and clock (at least). I’d even trade (dare I say this) a small parking lot on the mall side for those SUV’s. I’d rather have that than, the makeshift/clutter the current parking situation is.

    I have a meeting in Boston tonight and will be taking the commuter rail. I’ll try to make a list of some more “minimums” that the station needs to address from my viewpoint.

    Maybe someone can contact the station manager and find out what the 20 mil is for. I know there is 2M for the garage too.

  4. Corey March 15, 2009 at 3:57 pm #

    I don’t know, I don’t really consider this a lost opportunity just yet, since a lot of the things you mention can still be realized quite easily. Either way though, I don’t really know that I can condone fussing over Capital Center when there’s so much more in the way of pressing urbanism issues and development potential in the existing historic core of the city – downtown and the Jewelry District. There’s more than enough space in what is now station park to create an intermodal transit facility there, but the real potential for productive urban space still lies south of Waterplace Park for the most part.

  5. Bret Ancowitz March 15, 2009 at 10:14 pm #

    I think that’s actually one of the reasons I’m kicking off this series (which Jef Nickerson will follow-up with some ideas on reboots for this area). It’s not just about what can still perhaps be done at Providence Station now, it’s about making sure that all of the potential there (especially in the 195 land) doesn’t get squandered. We can’t let Downcity and the JD and 195 go *without* there being a “there there”… There really needs to be a new DePasquale Sq, a new Harvard Sq, a new Market Square (as in Portsmouth, NH), a new Providence version of whatever great public space you want to think of… Without it being designed-in from the beginning, I would consider the potential you describe to be squandered as well…

  6. Corey March 17, 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    I’m not so sure about that. A lot of the squares you mention feel more like outdoor malls than urban squares. I agree that a certain amount of design has to go into them, but one of “new urbanism’s” biggest faults is that it grossly overdesigns every space, to the point where they all feel more or less the same. When people speak of gentrification, they’re more than likely speaking about overdesign as well, in the only way they know how that will get attention.

    I sort of adhere to an older school of thought: set the basic rules, put in a way for people to get around, and let the rest happen as it may. Perhaps it’s too idealistic.

  7. Jef Nickerson March 18, 2009 at 8:59 am #

    I think at times the Capital Center Commission gets in the way of your principle of setting the basic rules. I plan to speak to that in my follow up post on this (which I hope to get written this weekend, it will include photos and illustrations, yay). The biggest example I see is the sign rules. I haven’t pulled up the CCC charter to review this yet, so I’m speaking a bit from memory. Basically, the CCC has to approve any sign, which includes a hearing before the committee. I imagine some just forgo a sign rather than enduring the hassle of attending the hearing (and likely multiple hearings when CCC sends the applicant back to the drawing board). On the topic of signage, I would prefer the CCC to have a broad but clear guideline on signs, so people could just put them up. We may get some crap sneak through the letter of the law, but it would help commerce. If one wanted to push the envelope, one could go through the approval process with the CCC.

    I think while we’re in this economically induced development gap, now is the time to sit back and look at what the goal of Capital Center was (if there was a goal), see where we are, and decide how we want to proceed when the economy recovers. It is also important that we assess Capital Center before we leap into redeveloping the Route 195 land. If there are lessons to be learned from Capital Center, we should learn them now and apply them to the 195 Land now.

  8. Andrew March 18, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    Capital Center seems like a fine neighborhood. You got your cornah store right there: Nordstroms. Plenty of good eating at Ruths Chris. Hungry at odd hours? Hire a personal chef!

    What? Did you think they were moving train tracks and rivers to make room for bodegas and a reincarnated Silver Top Diner?

  9. Shaun April 24, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    While we talk about developing, I sometimes feel the opposite should be happing on that site. The station and the park should work hand in hand, both being developed and become the center of the city, with development radiating from there. Think of Boston Common, just an open park in the center of the city, with all the development bordering the park and each district branching out from there. Imagine coming up from the station into the park on the South, rather than the dropoff to the East. Pedestrians could then walk from the station to college hill, and the jewelry and financial districts with the park on one side and development on the other, lined with stores with housing above. The parking lots on the north-east side of exchange st is where buildings should be going. The American express building was the first mistake of the area, I guess the new buildings going up are trying to correct it from being a lost soul.

    Sorry for the rant, I think I might need to sit down and look at an aerial view and decide what could be done to fix everything that plaques the area.

    On another note, I just found your site, and am back-reading because I enjoy it so much, keep up the good work!

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