Everyone can be a prophet. On a midwinter’s day, walk down South Water Street and face west. You’ll see a pedestrian bridge, half built and under construction. To your right is the iconic Superman building, current fate unknown. To your left you’ll see the site of the future Fane Tower. Last week the city council voted to override Mayor Jorge Elorza’s veto of the project. As of this writing, the design pegs it as the tallest building in the state. While it will dominate the skyline, to get a better idea of the shape of things to come, you have to go lower than a skyscraper.
The pedestrian bridge sits in the piers from the old I-95 bridge and will span the Providence harbor. It will connect the city’s Jewelry District with the East Side. No longer will you have to walk all the way to Memorial and down the other side of the shore. The bridge is a pathway and is intended to increase public space. There will be benches and even an enlarged deck jutting out into the harbor.
It’s intended to be part of a larger network of pedestrian pathways under the Urban Trail Initiative. The initiative is made to highlight Providence’s beauty, and combine several other city programs that were already underway. City Walk, one of the original city enrichment programs, intends to put in a pedestrian trail connecting the India Point and Roger Williams Parks. Neighborhoods like Smith Hill, Olneyville, Valley and Downtown are all part of the Woonasquatucket River plan, which includes enhanced pathways and walkways to encourage walking and biking. These urban trails will be aided by the city’s bikeshare program, and will connect the cities’ museums, libraries and cultural centers.
Bonnie Nickerson, director of the PVD planning department, describes it as more of a slow lane than a typical bike path. “It’s evolved a little bit to include every mode of travel you use to get around the city under 20mph.” In Providence, kids frequently walk to school, and these urban trails are all about making the city accessible and safer. “The idea is to make it easy to think of a different way in and around our city, as well as to enhance city safety for all the users of our public right away… these are really busy areas and we want to re-orient the public realm to have a better balance between those who are driving in cars and those who are using every other way to get around the city.”
The city’s bike sharing program features the JUMP bikes which are currently tethered to RIPTA’s Downtown Transit Connector (DTC) project. There are more than 400 bikes and 40 bike stations, and in 2019, they expect to expand the program citywide. Outside of California, Providence is the highest performing city for bikes. “That in itself has brought a lot of visibility to biking,” says Nickerson. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m using the JUMP bike as a way to commute to and from work, but that’s what I’m doing.’ It’s really, really easy to do and just this program has shifted people’s mindsets on how easy it is to get around our city.”
Kennedy Plaza is the beating heart of Providence, and the nexus of some big capital improvement projects. The DTC project intends to run speedier and more frequent service between the train station and the hospital district. Meanwhile, the city is using this as a springboard to take KP up a notch. “We’re gonna be doing several different things to enhance Kennedy Plaza,” says Nickerson. The intent is to be friendlier toward pedestrian traffic and RIPTA buses.
Washington Street will be switched to a bus only road in both directions from Dorrance Street to Memorial Boulevard. All regular, two-way car traffic will be directed toward Fulton Street along Kennedy Plaza. They’re shutting down the East Approach, the current bus-only lane, and transforming it into a public space. This includes putting in a traffic light at Fulton and Memorial Boulevard. “The goal is to make Kennedy Plaza more balanced among all the different user groups that are there today,” Nickerson explains. Washington Street becoming a transit-only lane is a first step. The increase in standard traffic should be minimal; all the plan does is shift vehicles a block over. There’s also the added benefit of making it easier and quicker to use the bus. The city hopes this will encourage riders to use RIPTA more often.
Kennedy Plaza is scheduled to start these changes in the spring, and the pedestrian bridge will be finished in the middle of next year. The city’s various urban trail initiatives are part of the slow, ongoing process of transforming a city. As we head into 2019, it’will grow harder and harder to believe PVD was ever once a sea of parking lots covering the river.