Greater City Providence

PPAC Square is great, needs trees

PPAC Square

This morning the Providence Performing Arts Center was joined by Mayor Angel Taveras and Governor Lincoln Chafee in officially unveiling the new PPAC Square, otherwise known as the intersection of Weybosset and Mathewson Streets.

Governor Chafee accepting his award

At the event, PPAC’s President Lynn Singleton presented Governor Chafee with a Founder’s Award in recognition of work he did as a U.S. Senator to secure funding for the roadway project. PPAC Square is part of Providence’s Traffic Circulation Improvements project.

The Downtown Providence Traffic Circulation Improvements Phase, of which the PPAC Square work was included, began in April 2011. The $5.5 million project restored two-way traffic on Weybosset and Empire Streets for the first time since the 1970s, while maintaining curbside parking on both sides of Empire Street. The PPAC Square project installed a dedicated drop off lane immediately in front of the theater and built out a functional traffic median that includes new sidewalks, 25 trees, granite planters, bike racks and new benches. The downtown project was supported with $4.7 million of federal funding, $700,000 of matching funds from the state and a nearly $1 million appropriation secured by PPAC for improvements within PPAC Square. An additional $800,000 was procured through a Providence Public Building Authority Bond.

The new plaque

From left: Gov. Chafee; Mayor Taveras; Joseph Walsh, Chairman of the Board of PPAC; and Lynn Singleton, President of PPAC unveil the new plaque at PPAC Square.

Mostly I like the changes at PPAC Square, the relocated comfort station tower looks nice (though I do miss the old structure):

Comfort Station Tower

The planters create good seating, and the area restauranteurs are adding to that:

Sidewalk seating

But the trees. Remember 13 mature shade producing trees were removed to make this project possible. 24 trees were planted as part of this project, but the new trees are no solace for the trees lost.

Sad tree

If these trees make it through the summer (which is highly questionable from looking at them today) it will still be decades before they ever appoach matching the shade and cooling provided by the old trees. To be honest, I avoid Weybosset Street during the day because it is just too damn hot. Brown has proven if there’s a will there’s a way to get large healthy trees planted, the Med School being the prime example.

The anemic trees at PPAC Square make it a poor environment for people on foot, especially during warm weather months such as now. I fear the crowds of people the dignataries hope will materialize won’t. Weybosset Street has great potential to be Johnson & Wales answer to Thayer Street and a center of the arts in Providence, but not if it is an uncomfortable place to be.

The problem with the lack of shade is illustrated by the orientation of the crowd prior to the start of the event.

PPAC Square

Though there was a podium in the street clearly set up so that PPAC would be the backdrop for the speaking program, the crowd gathered in the shade created by the PPAC building, behind the podium, and did not move across the street into the sun until the speakers were prepared to talk.

Trees of course are not inexpensive, which is why we have such sad little twigs in the first place. But installing larger more mature trees is an easier task than ripping out and replacing pavement. The hardscaping in the square is pretty good, I have no real complaints, the trees need addressing though.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • If they closed off Weybosset Street in front of PPAC for a block or two or three, and added a lot of trees, it could become an attractive gathering place (hopefully not along the lines of Kennedy Plaza). But the area still appears so economically depressed (when I last walked down that part of Weybosset a week or so ago, there was a heavily-tattooed woman standing in the doorway of a tattoo parlor smoking a butt), and otherwise confused (an uncoordinated mix of retail, institutional, religious, and low-end food parlors), that I suspect — sadly — we won’t see the long-term commitment needed to make it excel. And maybe that’s the problem: until the average downtown pedestrian reflects some minimal affluence (as in New York or Boston), areas like this (and Kennedy Plaza) may attract crowds of a socioeconomic level that were not what was intended.

  • The problem with large trees is the roots. Large trees have strong roots that get into the ground and interfere with utilities, pipes and things. Its not as easy as just planting something there.

  • @Bill: Have to disagree that the area looks economically depressed. Gourmet Heaven opened up and is definitely not low end. Remember the dump that Saki’s used to be? They’ve cleaned up their act brilliantly and are in it for the long haul. There’s also Cilantro and a pub at the end of the street.

    The majority of the block is occupied and used by Johnson and Wales students and Downtown businesses who are customers of the businesses on the street. I don’t know what affluence you’re talking about. This is a pretty good street with local businesses.

    So what if you saw someone with tattoos smoking? A lot of people have tattoos and smoke. No big deal.

  • The gaping hole in the streetscape at Grant’s Block is what is really hurting the area in my opinion. Larger trees would definitely be nice too.. Why couldn’t they have used the same type that Brown used on Chestnut St along the new Med School?

  • I may be mistaken about Weybosset, but I thought that one of the reasons street trees are difficult is because of all the vaults and tunnels under the sidewalks. That’s why the trees were originally in that planting box thing by the comfort station. I am sure someone at Planning can tell us for sure, but aren’t the JW trees on the inside of the fence, not on the sidewalk?

  • There were issues with stuff below the surface interfering with the trees, but the trees that were there could have stayed if the street was designed differently. I fail to see how it was absolutely necessary to remove those trees to begin with, but that is in the past now I guess.

    Thing is though, the street is utterly unlivable without shade, and it will be decades and likely forever before we get a tree canopy back.

Providence, RI
Partly Cloudy
5:29 am8:14 pm EDT
Feels like: 88°F
Wind: 7mph W
Humidity: 43%
Pressure: 29.96"Hg
UV index: 6
84°F / 70°F
81°F / 68°F
75°F / 68°F