Support Bike-to-School Day in Central Falls


Portland enjoys Bike-to-School Day everyday, so why not here?

Central Falls is one mile square, and the densest location in the state. As a building sub at Calcutt Middle School, I'm organizing an fundraising effort for Bike-to-School Day this year. Please help us fund breakfast for student and staff participants. Surplus funding will go to a fund for Central Falls to add bike infrastructure for safe routes to school.

I'm excited to say we already have a commitment from the principal to bike to school from a couple towns over.

Please check out the donation page.

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Village Demolitions, Close to Home

Qalunya: a Palestinian village that no longer exists. It was destroyed around
the same time as the lower part of my street.
When is something about transportation or housing to a great enough degree that I should write about it? This is a question that often boggles me. Contrary to the Twitter peanut gallery, I care about a lot of issues besides bikes, but I try to stay reasonably focused on the blog so as not to dilute my message.

I went to an event last night sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace which I think sits on the edge of this gray zone. Lia Tarachansky, a woman who grew up in a West Bank settlement and has since become a vocal activist for Palestinian rights, came to speak about her country's struggle to come to grips with its role in forcibly displacing the majority of Palestinians from their homes over the last six decades (spoiler alert: they're not doing so great with that conversation, but then again, neither are we). 

What really struck me deeper than ever was the parallel between our own history. The direct parallels to Providence are what made me decide to write this on the blog.

The speaker talked about the quest for ethnic homogeneity and how villages had been bulldozed during the 1948 War of Independence/al Nakba, and then gradually made to seem as if they'd never existed. Many of the villages were covered over with new settlements or even by national parks, and pieces of their ruins that continued to give hints of a human presence were labeled as Roman relics instead of evidence of an expelled culture. Streets were taken out. Sometimes new streets were put in, with totally different names. 

The event was held at Moses Brown School, just blocks from "University Heights" which I've recently blogged about. The neighborhood was bulldozed at around the same time, and many of its streets were done away with (try looking up "Mallett Street" in Providence, for instance), its institutions taken away, and its memory erased. It felt strange to be talking about the process of removing villages just a block or two from a neighborhood (map) we had removed.

The speaker went to great lengths to talk about how the current occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are intertwined with this earlier history. It's interesting to think of how what for Israel/Palestine is the earliest depths of its history is for us the recent past, and to think of how the creation of University Heights is a continuation of early American patterns.
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The Problem with 3-Foot Pass Laws

A number of states, including Rhode Island, have 3-ft. pass laws. Under a 3-ft. pass law, drivers overtaking a bicyclist must give at least 3 ft. of room to the left of the bicyclist.

I agree to some degree with the basic premise behind 3-ft. pass laws--passing closer than 3 ft. is obviously really a jerk move. But overall, I think these laws are more harm than good, because they codify the idea that drivers should pass bicyclists in the first place--in fact, if you listen to the enthusiasm in the tones of voice of many bike advocates  when they talk about 3-ft. pass laws, one of the best things that's ever hoped for is good "driver education". We're apparently supposed to encourage drivers to pass people on bikes! In the vast majority of cases, bicyclists are on roads where this should not happen. The rural weekend-warrior notwithstanding, much of bicycling happens in the cores of towns and cities, and many bicyclists are already going at or close to the speed limit.

The rule should be:

*Do not go above the speed limit to pass a bicyclist.
*Do not pass a bicyclist within the same lane (this is already the law for any vehicle).

Rule #1 precludes passing a cyclist on any 25 mph road, unless the cyclist is going unusually slowly. I can push 15 mph if I'm towing a fully-loaded bike cart with heavy supplies, and 20-25 mph is easy to hit on flat or downhill grades. There are certainly people who bike more slowly. But even if the cyclist is in the 15-20 mph range, it's going to be hard to pass him/her without breaking rule #1, because at 25 mph it'll take too long to overtake the cyclist. Drivers routinely go above the speed limit just for ordinary driving, and what a 3-ft. pass law says is that these drivers can go even faster for a few seconds, so long as they keep their distance.

Rule #2 covers places where bicyclists may be riding but which are not designed with them in mind. A prime example would be N. Main Street, because it's a four-lane stroad. Bicyclists should be understood to be able to take the full lane on stroads like this--although I'm doubtful of how many would take up the offer--and drivers should be required to pass them in the lane to their left.

Most drivers who pass me on the street are being poor drivers, in that they're speeding. But even so, the vast majority are not trying to be aggressive--they are actually, I'm sure, trying to be considerate. The design speeds of our streets are set to lull many people into higher speeds without thinking about it. I've observed drivers going 40 mph in cars where I am the passenger and bike safety is the topic of discussion! So we should try our best when we encounter these lost souls to remember that many of them are not trying to do any harm. When we teach these well-intentioned drivers to pass bicyclists, they will certainly oblige, and what they will be doing is still going to be wrong, even if it's legal.

But 3-ft. pass laws also seem problematic because of how they effect the truly aggressive drivers: by making passing a bicyclist the norm, we leave the factors that make an aggressive pass in the realm of the subjective. Today a driver passed me very fast on Rochambeau. I know I was going at least 25 mph, because I was booking it hard down a moderate hill. The driver beeped at me, revved his engine, and then picked up speed to a burst of 45 mph or so to overtake me. I know that what the driver was doing was telling me I was not welcome and to get off the road, but under the law, who's to say? The driver did pass with less than 3-ft., but let's try proving that in court.

The real change that needs to happen is infrastructural, and rules like these can only go so far. What concerns me most is that we're creating new problems as we go instead of dealing with the roots of the problem.

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Fountain Street (Maybe) to Get a Protected Bike Lane


Bob Azar of the Planning Dept. met with the Bike & Pedestrian Advisory Commission tonight to discuss the proposed protected bike lane for Fountain Street in downtown. The protected bike lane would run from Empire Street to Dorrance and would then terminate. 

Sign our petition: Mayor Elorza should support a modern Broadway & Sabin

Discussion topics included whether the bike lane should be two-way (the Commission and the public were agreed that it should not, and should instead go eastbound towards the Biltmore Hotel), and whether it was possible to have a westbound protected bike lane to compliment it on a different street (Bob Azar said no).

Convention Center calls the shots Pressed on why the city could not implement a protected bike lane on Exchange Terrace/Sabin/Broadway, Azar said that the Providence Convention Center "objected to any change of the street" at all. Azar declined to comment on details except to say that the city had decided that the battle was not winnable on Exchange/Sabin/Broadway.


Protected bike lane? Maybe not. A protected bike lane was not the only option that Planning said was on the table. Other proposals included slanted parking with convention "door zone" bike lanes. (Update: Commissioner Nickerson says that the slanted parking included a protected bike lane. I don't remember it that way, but it's worth noting the discrepancy). 

Parking neutrality? A member of the public commented to say that the city should consider allowing the removal of street parking if it is replaced in another nearby location. I commented as well to point out that the city is imminently building a publicly-financed 1,200 car garage within blocks of the location.

Regency Plaza to grab up part of Broadway? Commissioner Jef Nickerson of Greater City Providence asked that the city preserve the width of Broadway near the Regency Plaza complex. The complex, which has a large area of surface parking lots in between its buildings, has asked for the City of Providence to abandon part of the street to allow it to extend its property line. Nickerson, who has reported on the Regency Plaza street abandonment proposal before, stated that the city should plan bike infrastructure with the extreme width of Broadway so that it is ready with necessary width in case of an update.

Regency Plaza
The Planning Dept. should study "induced demand". Bob Azar commented during his presentation that the short stretch of protected bike lane on Fountain Street was all that the city could allow in order to accommodate traffic flow, but also expressed his commitment during prior negotiations to pushing for some kind of bike infrastructure. "I suspect that the biker mentality is that total gridlock would be okay, but we can't have that." 

Studies have shown consistently that driving demand and congestion are extremely flexible, and that added bike infrastructure improves the commute times of drivers.

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Park Your Dog? Or Dog Your Park?


My passage to being an East Sider is complete. I'm in the back of the April edition of East Side Monthly, talking about frequent direct RIPTA routes, protected bike lanes, and parking reform, among other things (I can't link to the article, as it's not online yet, but you can get a copy of it--complete with scowling crossed-eyed photo of me in a parking garage*--at most places on the East Side--they're free!).

The street near Waterman Dog Park, as it should be.


The East Side Monthly has a good article here and there, but is also a huge unending receptacle of self-righteous East Side NIMBYism, particularly in the form of neighborhood letters to the editor. The most recent rant came from a neighbor who doesn't want a new proposed dog park (see meeting time below)

The letter starts off by complaining that the proposed dog park will cost too much. Then it goes into some very legitimate criticism of the location, saying that it will be difficult for people to access the park due to the conditions on Waterman and Angell Streets. Some hightlights:
To the south, Waterman Street is a veritable speedway as drivers jockey for position to enter the Henderson Bridge on-ramp, just past the proposed parking. Speeds of 35 mph, and higher, are not uncommon!
Okay, I'm with you so far. 
How will anyone cross from the proposed parking area. . .
What? Parking area?

Forgive me, but are we really going to provide designated off-street parking for a dog park? Is it extreme for me to suppose that a parking park (Ooh! Freudian slip!) for walking your dog would be a place for. . . walking?

The letter to the editor goes on:
. . . or worse, how will anyone exit their auto if they are foolish enough and try to park on Waterman. Add dogs on leashes and perhaps a child or two, well, hopefully EMTs will be standing at the ready for the inevitable catastrophe.
The letter-writer is right to be worried about Waterman Street, which is extremely dangerous for pedestrians or bicyclists, but the crux of this letter--which is that we should avoid building a park because of the problems with Waterman Street--takes the problem and turns it ass-backwards. We should hope that we can bring as many children, dogs, and adults to this area as possible, but we'll have to fix what's wrong with the street in order to do that. And all the parking in the world won't help that, no matter what side of the street it's on.

Waterman Street near the proposed park.


The biggest design features of this street that cause it to not function are that the lanes are double one-ways that are set extremely wide. I don't have the exact measurements here, but direct your attention to the width of the car in the travel lane, and see how much space it has on either side of it within the lane. That causes people to speed. Lane widths shouldn't be more than 10', but the baseline in Providence is at least 12', and it wouldn't shock me if these lanes were more like 14'. 

Dogs like streets that are friendly for pedestrians, like Thayer St.
during the snow storms, when it was temporarily car-free and
thriving.
Waterman rarely needs two lanes for traffic--what traffic congestion exists is only at lights, not in-between--so the street should lose a lane for cars, push the parking in, and have protected bike lanes on the other side of the parked cars. This setup can actually reduce speeds--we should aim to get them at least below 20 mph--and under those conditions we can even set traffic lights to blinking red, which would do away with the congestion while also improving pedestrian conditions. It's extremely silly for Waterman or Angell to have two lanes here, because the streets come to a bottleneck at Brown University just a short distance away, and go back to just one (although, that one lane is also too wide).

One way I would suggest paying for the dog park would be metering parking along it. This depends on demand. Donald Shoup (video) says you should charge the lowest price the market will allow that still leaves one or two spaces open on every block. It's not clear to me that many people park in this part of Waterman to begin with, so in this case there may not be much demand, and the price might be rightly set at zero. But adding a dog park to the area, and hopefully other amenities over time, should change that picture. Charge a small fee for those who park, and help the neighborhood maintain an open green space--what could be better? The author of the letter supposes that parks are a liability, and certainly they are. But so too is street parking that is unoccupied. We paid $40 million to repave Providence's streets, and already many of them are in great need of touch-ups, but the people who park on a large part of our streets pay nothing for the valuable real estate. And we're going to add a surface lot on top of that?



We should build this dog park. But to make it successful, we need to make the streets on either side of it work. Rather than avoid a new pedestrian activity in order to avoid potential harm, let's tame Waterman and Angell Streets. Let's leave the surface lot out of the picture, and charge a small fee for people who park (if the market for parking allows). And then let's sit back and watch the neighborhood bloom.

You can support a dog park at the next public meeting: Thursday, April 9th, 7:00 PM at Rochambeau Library

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*I'm not looking a gift-horse in the mouth. I take horrible photos, and it's not ESM's fault.

Check Out These Blogs!

RI Future is a more established blog than my own, and deals with a wider range of topics. I presume it has better overall readership than mine, but I'm also often surprised at the trout-faced expression friends sometimes give me when I tell them I've written something there. I think perhaps the readership in urbanist circles doesn't overlap very well with the readership of progressive blogs.


In any case, I've had two things up there recently that I thought pushed some pretty big thoughts, and got underwhelming comments and feedback. I'd love to see more of a discussion:

On gentrification, poverty, and transportation:


"Gentrification, which I will define here as the displacement of poor people from a neighborhood when wealthier people move in, mostly doesn’t exist. . . [but] poverty remains a serious, wrenching problem that should actively confronted by government."


On drunk driving and prisons:

"Atty. Gen. Kilmartn’s recent proposal that vehicular homicide should bring a minimum 30-year sentence strikes me as a bad idea. . . The state should make it illegal to operate a bar in a driver-dominated location. I hope that Rhode Island MADD will join the call to fix this design problem. . ." 
Our friends at Eco RI News should also be on your radar if they're not. 

I've recently submitted an open letter to the Downtown Design Review Committee calling for a #NoNewParking policy in Providence. I'm aware that it's also been shared with city officials Bonnie Nickerson and Bob Azar. It's similar in form and content to the article I wrote on the need for a different parking policy, but I'd love for people to share it around, comment on it, and follow up with their elected officials to let them know how important a different direction on parking policy is.

"Cities are about people and buildings, not cars. . . "
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How University Heights Became What It Is

Join the conversation about BRT on N. Main.
I live on Doyle Street, and whenever I go to the Whole Foods--the nearest grocery store to me within walking distance--I stumble past the irritating parking lot moat around it. I always wonder what the neighborhood was like there before. So I asked Providence Preservation Society if they had any documents they could share. Here's what I got, un-redacted. If I come across photos, I'll update this as I go. The reading also includes some other neighborhoods, like Cathedral Square. I'm still reading through this myself, so I look forward to reader comments and any help coming across further documentation or photos.


II. West River Industrial Park (1954-1964)

The Federal government’s advocacy of an interregional highway system was paired inevitably with a program for urban renewal. The first major project of the Providence Redevelopment Authority (PRA), established in 1947, addressed both issues. With the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, the essential elements for the reshaping of Providence were in place: statistical and quantifiable standards of “urban blight,” a Federal funding mechanism for “slum clearance” plans, and a broad consensus that America’s older cities should be reconfigured for the automobile. 

Hoping to reverse a postwar exodus of industry from Providence for suburban sites with easy access for autos and trucks, the PRA began planning in 1954 for eminent domain acquisition of the West River neighborhood, a 60-acre area north of downtown identified as blighted in earlier planning studies. This dense, 19th-century neighborhood comprised twelve streets and over five hundred, stores, factories and churches and the dwellings of some seven hundred families. 

The pattern of acquisition and development employed by the PRA, established earlier in Chicago, consisted of the following steps:

-- identification of an area as blighted,

-- procurement of Federal funds for redevelopment studies and design plans ,

-- acquisition of the blighted area through eminent domain,

-- demolition of existing buildings and, in most cases, street pattern, and

-- sale of the cleared property for private development carried out under PRA

    oversight

Patrick Malone, professor of Urban Studies at Brown University, has pointed out that residential neighborhoods were prime targets for this process. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 drew upon “housing hygiene” standards promulgated by the American Public 

Health Association in the previous decade linking sub-standard housing to a variety of measurable social and physical ills. The Housing Act, however, had no established standards for industrial blight. Although selected, private efforts had been made to beautify factory settings since the mid-19th century,1 most factory complexes remained degraded, functional places, an accretion of buildings and structures with little regard for appearance or environmental pollution. The Federal standards for residential blight were, however, unsparingly specific.

A rigid, deterministic logic found no place for urban rehabilitation or revitalization in this scheme. According to the calculus of the PRA, Providence had slums; these areas bred disease as well as social and moral ills; slum clearance and replacement with new, hygienic neighborhoods would produce a better and healthier citizenry. 

But this logic encompassed an added element. Blighted residential areas could also be removed for the greater public good of economic development. The City Plan Commission’s 1946 Master Plan for Fields Point Port and Industrial District made clear that the economic survival of Providence required the protection of its industrial tax base and the nurturing of jobs: “…large areas of substandard housing will have to be cleared through redevelopment procedures to obtain properly located industrial sites.”2

Addressing the space requirements of modern industry, the Plan noted the trend of industry to exit cramped, urban settings in favor of suburban industrial parks.

Manufacturing industries generally in their search for increased efficiency are trending toward more space per worker through provision of space for car parking; expanded lunch rooms, recreation and sanitation facilities; change from multi-floor to one-floor operation; increased use of automatic machinery; and more light, air and room for the worker.3

In practical terms, this meant a doubling or tripling of site acreage. As envisioned in 1954, the PRA planned an industrial park in West River that would replicate in an urban setting a suburban park--with access to the existing Route 146 and the proposed North-South Freeway as well as railroad service. Planning for the proposed “north-south freeway” was underway by this time and the city was aware that its ample right-of-way would eliminate industrial areas in productive use since the 19th century. Such an exodus was expected to have a profound economic impact on the City. 

The Providence Redevelopment Agency took title to West River in January 1957. Demolition of the 508 commercial, residential and ecclesiastical buildings (including Immaculate Conception Church) in the neighborhood soon followed. From demolition of this dense, residential area, would emerge a new street pattern centered on a realignment of West River and Corliss Streets to form a U-shaped access road and fourteen industrial parcels, the most conspicuous of which would house the nation’s first fully-automated 

US Post Office (Intelex/McGuire, 1959, see separate HPDF). Apart from the highly-specialized design of the post office, the industrial buildings planned and built according to PRA standards were one- and two-story, steel-frame or concrete block buildings with brick and glass facades and sited on a minimum 20’ setback for required landscaping. 

Among the design standards intended to maintain the park-like setting was the requirement that there be 500 sq. ft. of automobile parking for each 1000 sq. ft. of industrial space. 

Current conditions: West River still bears the distinct look of a 1950s industrial park. Despite some changes in surface treatments, eleven of the approximately fourteen standard original parcels retain the scale and general appearance of the original design. 

The Post Office remains in excellent condition, as built, with a bland north extension. Two parcels along the east side of Corliss Street have been acquired by USPS and these buildings serve auxiliary postal functions. A modern medical office building, sited at the southwest corner of the park, is stylistically an appropriate addition to the park. Notable survivals of original construction are the Postal-Federal Credit Union Building (1960) at 179 West River St., the Adolph Mellor Company plant (C.A. Maguire, 1962) at 120 Corliss St., and the Machinery Parts Company building (1964) at 150 Corliss St. A free-standing building contemporary with the main post office is labeled as a “lubritorium” on a Sanborn map of the early 1970s. This term was introduced in the 20th century to indicate a dedicated service station bay for oil changes and lubrication. It appears to have been built to service the fleet of postal vehicles. 

Demolition. At the extreme north end of the park, the 1960 Cornell-Dubilier plant (later the B.B. Greenberg Company, C.A. Maguire, 1960,) one of the first tenants and a fine example of mid-century factory design, was demolished for construction of the present Stop and Shop.4 The Providence Gravure plant (Lockwood Greene, 1962), a printing plant for Providence Journal color gravure inserts was demolished after 1997; the site is now used for storage of truck trailers.

III. Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Project (1959-1984)

Aerial photography of Providence carried out by the state in 1951 shows a final, comprehensive look at the City before the implementation of postwar master planning: 

Cathedral Square is a busy confluence of roads at the western edge of downtown; retail shops sit cheek-to-jowl with multi-story dwellings. The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul (1878) shares the square with a statue of Mayor Doyle. Weybosset Hill is a lively confusion of traffic, people and commerce—and a neighborhood in need of a lift. Weybosset Hill, a 50-acre area wrapping around the western and northern edges of downtown Providence, included four of eighteen sites identified in 1948 by the PRA as blighted. A Development Plan for Weybosset Hill released by the agency in 1963 provided the following rationale under the heading “Blighted and Substandard Conditions”:

The project area is a “deteriorated blighted area”, within the meaning of the “Redevelopment Act of 1956” as amended to date, because buildings or improvements either used or intended to be used for living, commercial, industrial or other purposes, or any combination of such uses, which by reason of (1) dilapidation, deterioration, age or obsolescence, (2) inadequate provision for ventilation, light, sanitation, open spaces and recreation facilities, (3) detective design or insanitary or unsafe character or conditions of physical construction, (4) detective or inadequate street and lot layout, (5) mixed character, shifting or deterioration of uses to which they are put, or any combination of such factors and characteristics are conducive to the further deterioration and decline.5

Using the Federal funds made available through the Federal Housing Act to identify blight, the PRA retained I.M. Pei and Associates Architects and Planners to carry out the study and design plan. Pei’s contemporary work in New England had included Boston’s controversial Government Center (1961), a brutalist development that included a new City Hall. The 1962 Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Project, bounded on the west by the right-of-way for the new interstate highway and comprising a crescent-shaped swath from Broad Street to Snow Street, provided few surprises. Following the pattern earlier established for West River, the dwellings and businesses of the blighted area were to be demolished, the residents relocated under the supervision of the City; the cleared parcels would be redeveloped privately for a mix of commercial, ecclesiastical and residential uses under PRA guidelines.

The centerpiece of the new plan was a pedestrian plaza to be anchored by the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. This plaza would take the name of the previous square formed by the west confluence of Weybosset and Westminster Streets. The reorganization of Cathedral Square, described by Pei as “the most exciting design opportunity” in the larger redevelopment project, drew its inspiration from the great piazzas of Europe where ancient cathedrals dominated vital civic and commercial squares.6 Cathedral Square, “the heart of the Weybosset community” would do the same: automobile access would be limited; Westminster Street (at the time a pedestrian mall) would continue westerly across Empire Street and terminate at a planned Diocesan Chancery Building (1967) occupying the former street alignment at the point where it crossed the interstate, sunken below grade as it made its way through the city. 

Extending north from Cathedral Square, Jackson Street would become a pedestrian walkway leading to a proposed Weybosset Hill high-rise apartment building (later named the Regency). Key components of the plan included a high-rise motor hotel (Holiday Motor Inn and garage), several office and commercial buildings (including Blue Cross and the NET&T building extension), and high-rise elderly apartments (Beneficent House), and a sports arena (Providence Civic Center).  

Although the Cathedral would occupy an honored space within the plan, Weybosset Hill’s most conspicuous symbol bore witness not to the past, but to the possibilities of a city redefining itself around the automobile. One requirement of the PRA was the siting of a “regional travel center” to be perched above and adjacent to the freeway, serving as a welcoming symbol to the motorist. No simple filling station, this round concrete, brick and glass structure surmounted by a tall center beacon would guide auto tourists and business visitors to a renewed Providence.7 An architect’s rendering furnished in Pei’s 1962 design proposal shows the view from a planned park at La Salle Square looking northwesterly toward the motor hotel, the sports arena, and the existing Providence Police and Fire Headquarters (1938, demolished 2008). Rising in the distance is the beacon of the regional travel center (Gulf Station, 1968, demolished 2001).  

The Weybosset Hill project was launched officially in May, 1964. The first buildings were completed three years later. Cathedral Square was dedicated in 1974. A year later an Evening Bulletin article lamented that Pei’s “most exciting design opportunity” was desolate.8  Construction continued throughout the 1970s; the most recent building, One Empire Plaza, occupying the corner of Empire and Washington Streets, was completed in 1982. The area includes some nineteen low- to high-rise buildings, extensive paved areas, and landscaping. Listed in approximate chronological sequence: 

Cathedral Square (I.M. Pei with Zion and Breed,1962-1974) 

Weybosset Hill Apartments, later One Regency Plaza (Curtis and Davis, 1966) 

Diocesan Chancery Building (1967) 

Blue Cross and Physician’s Service Building (Fenton Keyes, 1967) 

Beneficent House (Paul Rudolph, 1967) 

Public Welfare Building (Castelucci Galli Planka, 1967) 

Holiday Motor Inn and garage (William W. Bond, 1967, redesigned 2008) 

Gulf Regional Travel Center (1968, demolished 2001) 

Regency East (Curtis and Davis, 1970) 

Regency West (Curtis and Davis, 1971) 

Jackson Street Apartments (Robinson Green Berretta, 1971) 

One Weybosset Hill (1971) 

NET&T Building Extension (Howe Prout and Ekman, 1971) 

Providence Civic Center (L. Kenneth Mahal—Ellerbe Associates, 1972) 

Telephone Credit Union   (Zane Anderson,1976) 

4 Cathedral Square (Robinson Green Berretta, 1976) 

5 Cathedral Square (Robinson Green Berretta, 1978) 

Gilbane Office Building (Gilbane,1979) 

Grace Church Apartments (RGB,1979) 

One Empire Plaza (1982)

Note: Providence Housing Authority’s first high-rise elderly apartment building was Dexter Manor (Creer Kent Cruise and Aldrich, 1960-62; new wing Catelucci Galli, 1984), situated at the edge of the highway right-of-way at 100 Broad Street. Although its design and scale is in keeping with the monumentality of the later construction of Weybosset Hill, it should be viewed as forerunner to the redevelopment plan. See separate HPDF.

IV. Lippitt Hill Redevelopment Project (1959-1968)

Lippitt Hill, a dense, predominantly African-American, 30-acre residential neighborhood on the northern edge of College Hill and bounded by Olney St., North Main St., Doyle Avenue and Camp Street was identified as “blighted” by the PRA through the provisions of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 and the City’s Redevelopment Act of 1956. The PRA took ownership of the project area in 1959, releasing its Official Redevelopment Plan the same year. Its vision for the transformation of this area was unambiguous:

The community expects that there will be created on the East Side of Providence a vigorous and outstanding neighborhood consistent with the position of America as a leading moral force in a pluralistic world.9

While “slum clearance” was being carried out by the authority, the PRA initiated a competition for proposals for private development according to the agency’s vision. Although the PRA had made no requirement for a plan addressing the inevitable displacement of minorities and ethnic communities, the chosen developer, University Heights Inc., led by Providence merchant Irving Fain, addressed the matter with some clarity. From the Philosophy and Objectives section of the 1962 proposal:

It is their [the developer’s] determination that University Heights will become a wholesome, desirable area of Providence, outstanding not only for its environmental advantages but…as a demonstration to Providence and to America that people of many backgrounds can live in harmony.10

Lippitt Hill as a neighborhood would cease to exist. University Heights, the name adopted for the project, would be designed as a diverse, harmonious community of residents of various income levels and ethnic composition in a distinctly modern setting. UHI had good reason to address the matter of racial harmony. Within five years of this proposal, rising racial tension would explode nationally in the summer of 1967. South Providence saw its own riots the same year. 

UHI retained Victor Gruen Associates to design a group of low-rise, modern apartment buildings in a garden setting with an abutting shopping plaza. Since the 1940s Gruen had been a strong advocate of the suburban shopping mall idea. In Mall Maker, M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s study of Gruen’s work, he addressed the siting of suburban-type malls in declining cities:

Long the nation’s most glamorous shopping districts, downtowns had been declining precipitously. Though automobiles had made the downtown functionally obsolete, all was not lost. With a combination of slum clearance and suburban shopping centers, downtown could regain its prominence, with regional shopping centers serving as “satellite downtown areas.” The latter then would accommodate “the hordes of automobiles” with “restfulness, safety and aesthetic value.”11

And so would it be in Providence; the anchor of this commercial plaza was Star Market, the involvement of which was sought by UHI as a 50% partner in their visionary enterprise. As stated in the proposal:

Star’s initial interest in Lippitt Hill was sparked by the potentialities of the shopping center. However, at the outset, Star recognized the important social challenges of the residential area. It also recognized the role of modern community developers in open-occupancy housing.12

Gruen proposed the removal of the earlier street pattern and its replacement with a “superblock” as articulated earlier in the work of urban designer Clarence Stein. At the time Gruen was completing the Charles River Park redevelopment project in Boston. His plan for University Heights included about twenty 2- to 4-story, flat-roofed, garden apartment buildings with interior views into common, landscaped quadrangles and peripheral parking at the edge of the development. A stairway (now demolished) led from the residential areas to the shopping plaza fronting on North Main St. Income diversity was assured through the availability of two types of FHA mortgages. The exterior design of the low-income blocks was such that this status was considered to be indistinguishable from the higher income units.

Tension between the idea of slum clearance as a necessary precondition for urban renewal versus the possibility of historical preservation is evident in another University Heights innovation, the creation of an “annex” along Doyle Avenue which rehabilitated a small group of 19th-century Lippitt Hill residential houses at the northern edge of the project. This concession was likely influenced by the ongoing restoration being carried out along Benefit and North Main Streets.13

Current conditions: 

Much of the housing component of University Heights retains the original design, with little or no intrusions to the original garden apartment idea. The exteriors of several units at the center of the development have undergone a recent redesign. This renovation, including balconies, creates some visual discord with the buildings of the original design.

Gruen’s animating idea of a vital link between the residential and commercial components has been lost over time. The stairwell that once connected the apartments to the plaza below is now partially demolished behind a stockade fence. Because of this and successive redesigns of the various plaza stores, there is no longer any visual or organic connection between the commercial and residential areas.

Note: Plans on file at the Providence City Archives Blueprint Collection dated 1966, 

attributed to the firm of Collins, Kronstadt, are located in Box 7.

Notes:

1 See “The Day of the Mill Beautiful is at Hand,” Providence Sunday Journal (23 May 1909): S4.

2 Plan for Fields Point Port and Industrial District, p. ix.

3 ibid, p.2.

4 This plant was considered to be the embodiment of the suburban, auto-and truck-accessible plant 

anticipated in the 1946 City Plan Commission report. A 1960 artist’s rendering of the ideal Rhode 

Island industrial park (combining in one park the best of new, statewide suburban industrial 

construction) placed the Cornell-Dubilier plant in the focal center of the illustration. See Things 

are Happening in Rhode Island, Providence Sunday Journal supplement 2 October 1960. 

5 Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Plan, p. 1-2.

6 These are: the Piazza San Michele (Lucca, Italy), the Piazza Grande (Modena, Italy), the 

Domplatz (Regensburg, Germany), and the Piazza del Duomo (Vicenza, Italy). See Weybosset 

Hill, p. 10. 

7 It is interesting to note that until the demolition of this building in 2001, two circular plan, mid-

century buildings served as bookends across the interstate: the Gulf station on the east and the 

community center for Bradford House (100 Atwells Avenue). The latter building survives.

8 “Cathedral Square Stays Desolate, Yet to Prove Urban Dream.” Evening Bulletin (2 September 

1975): 1.

9 Lippitt Hill Official Redevelopment Plan, p. 16.

10 University Heights: A Proposal for Lippitt Hill, p. 4.

11 Source: M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker, p. 120. Quoted passages were taken from a 1952 

Progressive Architecture article by Victor Gruen and Larry Smith.

12 University Heights: A Proposal for Lippitt Hill, p. 4.

13  Noted preservationist Antoinette Downing was a member of the University Heights 

corporation.