Archive | Reboot

Reimagining of Providence Station by Jonathan Winslow

A couple months I Rebooted Providence Station. Shortly after that, Portland, Oregon based architect Jonathan Winslow forwarded me the plan he did for the station area while he was a student at RISD.

Jonathan Winslow

On his website you can see that Jonathan’s plan is a complete re-imagining of the existing train station. The new station features an atrium allowing light to reach down to the railroad platforms, an attached hotel, expanded restaurant and retail space, visitor information, new ticket booths, expaned waiting areas, and more.

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REBOOT: Providence Train Station


REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on Greater City Providence where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them. Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Oh Providence Station… why are you such a dump?

Of course the short answer to that is that we have not taken care of it. But this post is not about the sad condition of the station, it is about the fact that the station was a mistake to begin with.

Of course we used to have the stunning Union Station which is now the home of the Rhode Island Foundation and other offices. The river and railroad relocation projects resulted in the tracks leaving Union Station behind and a new station being built.

When Providence Station was opened in 1986 we were deep in the heart of the automobile age. Gas supplies were cheap and seemingly inexhaustible, Amtrak was kind of a quaint hobby that we north-easterners insisted on keeping in service, and the MBTA did not reach Providence. This resulted in a station that is too small for our post-$4/gallon gasoline world. A station that is inconveniently located away from the city’s major employment centers (and with the removal of Route 195, the city’s employment centers are poised to move further from the train station).

Were it maintained properly, the station is certainly handsome. The clock tower nicely pierces the skyline, the low slung dome is handsome and adds a modern bent to the collection of domes we have in our fair city, the interior is attractive. However, the interior is not spacious enough for the passengers we have utilizing existing MBTA and Amtrak services, and the station will become more crowded as MBTA services expand southward and if a Blackstone Valley commuter service is ever instituted. And as the price of gas continues its generally upward trend, more and more people will turn to the trains.

Let’s not waste time blaming the planners from the 80’s for their shortsightedness on the station’s design, let’s instead consider what we can do to modify it for a world that is very different from 1986.

Bret wrote a post a couple years ago in which he cited me as referring to the station as a hundred-year mistake. He went on to highlight some of the short comings of Capital Center area as a neighborhood, and suggest some solutions. We were to write a Part II to that post and never got around to it, this is that Part II I suppose.

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REBOOT: Olneyville Square


Click image to enlarge

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on GC:PVD where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them. Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

As the Iway project winds down, one of the next big planned highway projects in Providence is the Route 6/10 interchange in Olneyville.

Much like the Route 195 relocation, the Olneyville project is necessary due to the age of the structure. The bridges and viaducts have reached the end of their useful lives and need to be replaced. Also, RIDOT seeks to complete the missing connection from Route 10 north to Route 6 west.

Unfortunately, the website RIDOT had set up to explain the different alternatives for this project is no longer active. The basic plan would be to move Route 6 slightly south onto the National Lumber and First Student Bus Properties (which they were not happy about). This would allow the existing viaduct to be torn down and provide room to make that missing north/west connection.

The REBOOT proposed here is more to do with reconnecting Olneyville Square to Federal Hill and the West End, and focuses less on Route 6/10 (though they get extreme makeovers in this plan too). My plan does not create the missing north/west connection, but with some more noodling of the plans, I’m sure it could.

The key to this REBOOT, is closing down Olneyville Square to traffic, and turning it into a pedestrian and transit mall, with some substantial rerouting of area streets to move cars about the area, without moving them through the square. Of course anyone familiar with Olneyville Square will know, currently traffic doesn’t really move through the square very well. I think the technical term is clusterf*ck.

So let’s work through some of the pieces of this plan.

Olneyville Square

As stated, the square proper is closed to traffic, allowing only buses (and eventually streetcars), pedestrians, and bicycles. Some of you old timers may be remembering the pedestrian mall on Westminster Street and will blanche at such an idea. The pedestrianization of Westminster Street didn’t work. Correct, it didn’t, but it may have been an idea before it’s time, and the pressures of suburbanization that were emptying Downcity were just too strong. Olneyville is a different beast though.

As of the 2000 Census, over 40% of the households in Olneyville did not own an automobile. Also, only 3.4% of the people living in Olneyville, work in Olneyville. So these carless people who work outside the neighborhood are much heavier transit users than the city as a whole.

TriMet: MAX and Bus on Portland Mall

Portland, Oregon Transit Mall. Photo (cc) TriMet

Currently the buses get stuck in the same horrendous traffic that everyone else gets stuck in. Removing cars from the square allows the buses to move through the area fast to better service that 40% of households that lack access to a car.

Pedestrianizing the square creates more space for retailers to sell their wares on the sidewalk and creates a much more user friendly business district in the square. The fast and frequent bus service will potentially attract people from other parts of the city allowing Olneyville Square to again become the western retail and business anchor for the city.

The Route 6 Tunnel and the Southern Bypass


Seattle’s Freeway Park, built on a deck over Interstate 5. Photo from the City of Seattle.

In this plan, Route 10 from the south would rise up to the level of Broadway and Westminster and become a surface street. Ramps would allow it to connect to/from Route 6, which would go in a cut below street level which could potentially be covered and developed. This would close the wound that the highway currently creates separating Olneyville Square from the West End.

The existing section of Westminster Street from around about where the Skurvy Dog is to where it currently intersects Broadway would be closed and reserved for bus/bike/ped traffic only. Westminster would be re-routed to a new southerly location and connect to Dike Street, creating a southern bypass of the square to Plainfield Street. A small realignment of Hartford Avenue would allow traffic on this southern bypass to flow directly onto Hartford Avenue, and eventually onto Route 6. All without the current traffic congestion in the square. The realignment of Hartford Avenue requires the taking of a gas station currently at the corner of Hartford and Plainfield.

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REBOOT: College Hill Transit Sub-Hub Part 2

Tunnel portal at Thayer Street. Photo by Jef Nickerson.

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on GC:PVD where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them. Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Last month I looked at some options for what a new transit sub-hub with streetcars could look like on College Hill. After some discussion in that post, and off-site, reader Peter Brassard has created some CAD drawings of some options.

Option 1

College Hill Sub-Hub Option 1
Click image to enlarge

The first option keeps the streetcars in the tunnel portal with a switch to allow them to change directions inside the tunnel. The buses move back outside the tunnel to platforms for inbound and outbound service on Thayer Street on either side of the portal.

A drawback to this is the streetcars are changing tracks inside the tunnel blocking other bus traffic while the switch is made. The switch should be able to be made relatively quickly, but it is cumbersome.

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REBOOT: College Hill Transit Sub-Hub

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on GC:PVD where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them. Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

One of the recommendations of the Metro Transit Study is a series of sub-hubs around the periphery of Downtown. One of those hubs, and the one that will likely see streetcars the soonest, is at the top of the bus tunnel on Thayer Street. One of our readers asks, “how will a sub-hub work at Thayer Street?” And that is indeed a very good question.

There is limited space at the top of the tunnel for transit, traffic, pedestrians, and then the amenities one would expect at a transit hub. While I’ve heard no specifics for what a planned sub-hub at Thayer Street would look like (only some murmurs that Brown may have some land to use), I do have whacky schemes in my own head for what a transit hub could look like on College Hill. Here we will look at two of those whacky schemes, one slightly more grandiose than the other. Is this what RIPTA and the city are planning? Probably not. Is this something that could be done given political will, proper funding, and time? Sure, why not?

Surface Option

College Hill Transit Hub
Click image to enlarge

The first option is the Surface Option. It does not require any extreme engineering, but would require some land takings. Basically, the transitway would be extended from the current portal, along Fones Alley to Brook Street. Fones Alley is not wide enough for a proper Transitway so the house at the corner of Fones Alley and Brook Street would need to be taken (preferably moved elsewhere as though it is currently wrapped in vinyl, it is likely a very good house). Also, the strip plaza at the corner of Thayer and Waterman Streets would need to be taken. This I would be quite happy to see go as a strip plaza with surface parking between it and the street is not good urban design for Thayer Street. The building would be torn down and a new building, built to the street, with several floors would replace it.

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REBOOT: Blackstone Boulevard?

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In response to Matt’s post about Livable Streets and the street redesign contest a reader submitted this idea:

What is now the southbound side of Blackstone Blvd becomes 2-way. 1 northbound lane, 1 southbound lane and a parking lane on the southbound side. Plenty of crosswalks. Might need a northbound left turn lane at Rochambeau.

The northbound side becomes the Bike Boulevard. Only vehicles that need to access the houses along here will enter. This can be completed in one of two ways. Vehicular traffic is alternate one-way, or the blocks are open to vehicles at only one end, with passage at the other ends physically restricted to bike traffic. All the cross streets have stop signs so bike traffic flows freely.

Between the Butler entrance and Alfred Stone Rd. there are no vehicles at all. The pavement can be narrowed to just a bike path. The linear park becomes unseparated from the green space of Swan Point Cemetary.

I like this idea in concept, but I think reaching homes on the bikeway side needs some more thought. How would this best work? Does anyone have other thoughts about Blackstone or is anyone interested in taking this on and doing the Photoshop work to show how it would be realized?


Road Diet: Thomas Street

Thomas Street, Before Diet

Thomas Street

A Road Diet is when the overall width, lane width, or number of lanes on a road is reduced. The goal of the Road Diet is to reduce the speed of traffic and improve safety and or capacity for pedestrians and cyclists.

There are many streets in Providence that need to go on diets, and we will profile some of them here. The first one I’d like to show is Thomas Street.

Thomas Street runs between Benefit Street and North Main Street, connecting Angell Street to Steeple Street. Currently Thomas Street is set up to have up to three lanes, the lanes are rather wide, and there is a right turn lane at the bottom of the street onto North Main. As a result of the wide lane width and number of lanes, traffic tends to move at a very high rate of speed down Thomas Street. Recently a car went through the front of the Providence Art Club taking a street light down along the way.

The sidewalks on either side of Thomas Street are very narrow, the sidewalk on the Baptist Church Street side is only wide enough for one person (when two people pass, one has to step into the street). On the Art Club side, the sidewalk is wider, however steps into buildings and streetlights and fire hydrants and the like make the effective width of the sidewalk similar to that on the other side (i.e. very narrow).

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REBOOT: East Side Rail Tunnel (Part I)


Click image to enlarge

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on Greater City Providence where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them.

Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Beneath College Hill there lies what could someday be the workhorse of our metropolitan transit system, a tunnel. Not the one the buses and trolleys run through between South Main and Thayer Street, a rail tunnel. The East Side Rail Tunnel has been sealed up since about 1993, no trains have run through it since round about 1976. Built for under $2 million in 1908, the tunnel provides Providence with untold savings in trying to jump start a regional rail system.

So where is this tunnel? Know that big blank concrete wall between Cafe Chokolad and Mill’s Tavern on North Main? The entrance is up above there. The tunnel runs under College Hill passing under Thayer Street near Waterman Street and emerging just west of Gano Street. The tracks out the west portal continue toward the erect bridge over the Seekonk River.

From Downtown Providence 1970.

In the past the tunnel provided passenger rail service between Providence and Bristol and Fall River. Later passenger rail was dropped and freight trains used the tunnel. Before it was sealed off, it was proposed that the tunnel would be used as an automobile expressway connecting Route 6 to Route 44 (that’s part of the reason for the Henderson Bridge). Today the tunnel is just sitting there. It is time for us to put it back to use.

Mayor Cicilline proposes using part of any stimulus money Providence may get from the Obama administration to study and build a Downcity streetcar line. As part of that planning I say we plan to re-use the East Side Rail Tunnel for light rail service to East Providence, the East Bay, and points in Massachusetts (maybe even all the way back to Fall River).

How and where those eastward rail lines would go we’ll discuss in Part II, now we want look at how will trains get into the tunnel.

The tracks leading into the tunnel were part of the “chinese wall” of elevated rail lines between Downcity and the State House which were removed to make way for the River Relocation Project. Because of this the tunnel portal sits above street level. The easiest way to reconnect rails to the tunnel is to build another elevated structure.

The Illustration at the top of this post shows a possible route for a new elevated light rail line. Tracks would emerge from the tunnel under Benefit Street between Mill’s Tavern and the Providence Art Club and travel on a viaduct over North Main Street and the Metropark lot at Steeple Street. The viaduct would then make an S-curve crossing Canal Street and the Moshassuck River to run behind the Citizens Building. The viaduct would then meet Exchange Street where a station could be built across from the Waterplace condos. Trains would continue on Exchange Street into Kennedy Plaza. From there they could head west and/or south to serve the rest of the city.

Alternately a station could be located right at the tunnel portal above North Main Street. However I think the Waterplace location makes for a better station. It sits a quick two block walk from the Amtrak Station, is in the center of a dense residential area with Waterplace Condos, Avalon Apartments, and the Capitol Cove Condos nearby, and sits within a block of the Citizens Building, the future BCBSRI Headquarters, the AmEx Building, and amongst parcels that could see dense office and/or residential development in the future.

Currently there is a parking lot where the tunnel portal is, the area between the portal and North Main Street could be excavated to allow for this parking to be moved down to street level under the new tracks.

An elevated rail line! Are you daft?

Yes, we did tear down the “Chinese Wall” because it created a barrier between Downcity and the State House. Yes, we are tearing down Route 195 because it creates a barrier between Downcity and the Jewelry District. Yes, people in Providence would not be all too enthused to build a new elevated structure Downcity. However, an elevated structure need not be a barrier.


This 1954 photo from Art In Ruins shows that the old elevated structure was quite wide, wide enough for up to four tracks. The new viaduct will only need to be wide enough for two tracks. The old structure was also built over 100 years ago, with over 100 year old engineering. It was a massive stone and steal structure.


This photo by sillygwailo from Flickr shows the underside of the Vancouver SkyTrain. A new light rail viaduct in Providence can be a slender structure with pleasing ornamentation and lighting. Areas beneath the viaduct should be properly programmed to allow for seamless integration of the streetscape. At the Waterplace Station for example, a small restaurant or cafe can be installed with outdoor seating along the riverfront at Waterplace park. At North Main Street development of the Metropark Lot will create a solid streetwall on the west side of the street.

Can’t there just be a ramp for the trains to climb?

Well, yes, there could be. I don’t know the exact height of the portal above North Main and I don’t know the maximum incline that a light rail vehicle can climb, but it is likely possible that a ramp could be built between North Main and the portal to bring trains up into the tunnel. However, if we bring trains down to street level, then they will have to travel in the street. As anyone who has ever traveled in this area knows, the streets in this area are highly congested, especially at rush hours. Putting trains into the mix will only worsen that congestion and result in trains being stuck in traffic. Putting the trains on the street could easily add 5 minutes to the trip between Kennedy Plaza and the tunnel portal. Building the viaduct keeps the trains and cars separated, allowing each to move freely.

Why do we even need rail to the east?

There are only two crossings from Providence to points east, the Washington Bridge and the Henderson Bridge. All commuters and visitors to our city from points east come through these two points. RIPTA route 60 which serves the East Bay has a high level of service and dedicated passengers, but the bus has to sit in traffic with everyone else. And aside from Route 60 and a few East Providence buses, there’s not much in the way of mass transit bringing people in from the east. Without the water barrier, people have more options coming in from the west. From the north we have Commuter Rail and that rail is being extended south. The East Side Rail Tunnel provides the best option for moving people into the city via mass transit without making that transit sit in the same traffic that people are trying to avoid.

In the next REBOOT we’ll be looking at the eastern portal of the tunnel and exploring some of the easterly locations that could be served by transit running through the tunnel.


REBOOT: Dean Street Interchange and Viaduct

reboot dean before

Click image to enlarge

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on GC:PVD where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them.

Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Our first reboot is the Dean Street Interchange and Viaduct between Federal Hill and the Valley/Smith Hill neighborhoods. Currently there’s no doubt, this area is built for the automobile. Lanes are wide, turning radii are designed for highspeed auto travel, sightlines for pedestrians are limited, and in many areas sidewalks and crosswalks are non-existent.

There is also no proper streetscape. In the Federal Hill side the street is lined with highway ramps and surface parking, with small buildings set back from the street. On the Valley side the street is lined with industrial areas with open surface lots below the raised berm the street sits on. To the north of that, across the river lie suburban style development, gas stations, car washes, drive-thru fast food joints and more surface parking.

We propose a radical intervention to make this area more urban, improving pedestrian and bicycle connections between Federal Hill to the south and Valley and Smith Hill to the north, de-emphasize the highway, create urban streetwalls with buildings, stores, and parkland, and free up acres of land for redevelopment.

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