Tonight, I went to a public meeting run by Providence’s Department of Planning and Development. A few of upfront observations:

  1. The folks who work for the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) were professional, kind, and capable, as was the consultants who worked with them. They maintained decorum and a genuine sense of openness even though there was a clear tension in the room between some outspoken (and knowledgeable) community members and activists who had clearly participated in many past meetings.
  2. The ideas presented for the Knowledge District demonstrated thoughtful, albeit top-down, considerations for the space that showed a remarkable respect for the complexity, size, and importance of the project. I also felt that the DPD and their consultants got all the big ideas right and that they were quite familiar with the community they were re-imagining.
  3. Despite some great big ideas, there are really important details that are worth memorializing that the DPD is missing. In part, maybe this is because they’re simply not at that deep a stage. I’m hopeful that the purpose of the public meetings was not just to get feedback on the big concepts (which seem largely unassailable), but to make sure they get the details right from the people who live and interact with these neighborhoods daily.
  4. There are some clear areas of consensus among the engaged community, both positive and negative. At times, this consensus suggest that the state, city, and institutions (business, education, health, etc) have very different goals than the community. ∫ Here’s my summary of what the community had to say:

Folks want to get rid of surface parking lots and move towards more parking structures. It’s very clear that everyone feels these surface lots contribute to the desolate feel of the Jewelry District and hospital area, as well as acting as an extra barrier (beyond the highways) to connecting the Knowledge District to the rest of the city. People want to see mixed-use, with real action on the street level and residences and offices on higher floors. Everyone wants better sight lines to draw people into the Jewelry district and wants to see green space embraced, not solely through a park on the water but intimately placed directly on the streets as trees and other landscaping. People cited Chestnut and Richmond Street  several times as strong streets that acted as the main arteries by which Downcity and the Jewelry District connect. It seems that there is broad agreement that there a reason needs to exist to draw pedestrians into this neighborhood from Downcity, Fox Point, and Upper South Providence if we’re going to have a vital, 24/7 community. There was also pretty broad acceptance of higher buildings being constructed along I-95 and keeping large footprint buildings out of the Jewelry District.

Most of the more negative tone of the evening came from two core issues– the need for more residential development, something that’s not seen as high priority or even on the radar of most public officials, and funding. I’ll start with funding. There are serious concerns that even if the plans are perfect and great, a total lack of municipal, state, and federal funding for the foreseeable future places major risks on central aspects of the DPD’s plans. How can we fund a large, sweeping greenway and inviting, beautiful streets? How can we fund restoring vital roadways absorbed by bad planning in the past? How can we upkeep the parks people crave or build vital family institutions like schools without any public funding? How will we repurpose landmark buildings like the Dynamo House that has sat vacant even though it’s so full of potential? There is a serious sense that all the projects that serve as good models for the Knowledge District required considerable public infrastructure investment that’s just not available now. Sadly, to truly “fix” the Knowledge District will require not just one large project, but several major improvements. I saw little optimism for the proposed Streetcar/light rail system that RIPTA is championing. Some of that was disbelief that it could ever be funded, and some of that was disbelief the streetcar was a solution to a real problem. There’s also little optimism that the proposed pedestrian bridge to connect Fox Point to the Jewelry District is going to happen. Everyone begrudged that DPD had little real authority to make anything happen. Zoning is an absolute disgrace in Providence, particularly this area. But even substantially improving the zoning and regulations around development won’t actually make sure the projects are mindful of the projects wider goals. More to the point, it’s still unclear how Providence can simply use the name “Knowledge District” to bring in the kind of development needed. There is serious consternation that the entire “Knowledge District” concept is selling something that doesn’t exist and won’t have the infrastructure to attract folks. Without the promise of big public infrastructure improvements, developers are going to play the “wait and see” game.

Residential development is another important aspect of what the community members craved. It was immediately clear that the desire of folks at this meeting was to have a 24/7 neighborhood with mixed-uses, including several calls (from residents, no less) to include low-income and affordable housing. There is strong dislike of the name “Knowledge District”, especially if it supplants the Jewelry District (which is a subset of the area in question). No one feels that this name captures what they want to use the space for, and no one felt the name had any real meaning. Folks believed that “Knowledge District” was as empty marketing that would have no real longterm staying power. But really, this goes beyond a bad name. The members of the community who met with DPD tonight clearly believe that residential development has taken a major backseat to institutional expansion and large business development. My interpretation was that the community felt that lawmakers were simply hoping that big groups like the hospitals, Brown University, Johnson and Wales, and some yet-to-be-named mid-sized businesses would snap up parcels and build massive buildings that would fill with jobs. First, they believed this vision was largely a fiction (again, see the hesitation folks had that businesses of any remarkable size would take on the development costs and move to Providence without the public infrastructure investments). Second, these kinds of buildings were not what the community envisioned, particularly for the Jewelry District area that already has much smaller plot sizes and lower building heights. What I heard, rather clearly, was that the sea of parking lots around the hospital and the area with raised highway along I-95 was fair game for the behemoth buildings most lawmakers are picturing for the entire project. But the interior of the Knowledge District has to be filled in with a place that people want to live, play and work in (in that order).

I hope to write some more on my thoughts on developing this area in the future. I generally agree with the comments from the community above, but I have a bit more optimism and a bit more faith. Overall, I was really happy with how DPD is framing this project. They are very consciously thinking about distinct portions of the Knowledge District and respecting their differences while simultaneously ensuring cohesion and setting strong, wider goals.

I just hope we get a damn grocery store and dramatically cut down on surface lots. More on that later.