It’s smaller than first imagined, but a redesigned riverfront park slated for downtown Providence’s former Interstate 195 land should be better than the larger, original design, city and state planners say.
“The park is condensed, but we have made it a lot more flexible,” said Bonnie Nickerson, Providence director of long-range planning. She’s also a member of the design team that created the new park plan, which was approved by the Interstate 195 Redevelopment Commission late last month.
“The original plan was from 2006, which was before we had the Knowledge District and Brown University’s new medical school and knew where the pedestrian bridge would be,” Nickerson said. “The park design necessarily had to evolve. In 2006 it was really a stand-alone design, not something responding to the context of the area.”
While the plan may have needed updating anyway, the driver for the major design changes was the I-195 commission’s decision to carve out 1.2 acres for potential building construction.
The result is a 52,000-square-foot lot abutting the new park on Dyer Street that could be the site of a six-to-eight-story, 400,000-square-foot office or mixed-use building with direct water views.
Even though it makes the park smaller, I-195 commission Chairman Colin Kane said that getting ground-floor restaurants and the foot traffic of building users should improve the vitality of the park for everyone.
“I think it is the most attractive parcel in the Knowledge District and it will enliven the park by creating an active edge,” said Kane. “We were very conscious of activating that park. We spent time walking around and there is no life there now. If we had just created another open space, another India Point Park with no urban fabric, it would be a place where people play Frisbee in the summer and that’s it.”
To make room for a new building, the grass amphitheater that had been a central feature of the original 2006 design has been removed.
In its place, planners have created three smaller, multiuse plazas at corners of the diamond-shaped park between Ship, Eddy and Peck Streets.
One of the plazas, located at the promontory where a pedestrian bridge will cross to the East Side, features a vertical sculpture or installation art piece. Another on the south side closest to the new development parcel is designed to surround restaurants in a new building with outdoor seating. The north plaza is pegged for a mobile stage, restrooms and a potential farmers market venue.
The lawns and plazas in the new design are built around the concept of “outdoor rooms” with seat-height walls, stands of shade trees and tables and chairs at the water’s edge. Where the park slopes to the river, terraced plantings will be selected that could survive being flooded by brackish water.
“The original was mostly grass, but we have incorporated more hard-scape elements,” Nickerson said. “There are three plazas that are more flexible urban spaces. It could all be one large concert space with a temporary stage and outdoor seating, or it could be a variety of things.”
The park on the west bank is the centerpiece of open-space plans in the larger Iway highway project, intended to expand the city’s network of riverwalks and link downtown and the East Side with the emerging Knowledge District.
As in the original design, a promenade extending from the end of Dorrance Street to the river and a pedestrian bridge to the East Side remains a key component.
The new plan aims to open up sightlines from downtown to the park and river as well as improve bicycle and pedestrian access throughout.
To make sure construction on the new development parcel doesn’t create a barrier to the park, the plans require any new building to have an open public pathway, tracing the route of a utility easement. In renderings the path is a two-story opening in a single structure with the upper floors of the building arching over it.
As the utility easement extends the length of the former highway corridor, the pathway could cross through or between other future buildings all the way to Interstate 95.
While the pathway helps connect the park with the rest of the former jewelry district and neighborhoods in south Providence, the pedestrian bridge should link it, and the rest of the city, with the East Side and Fox Point neighborhood.
The bridge will use the pilings of the old highway overpass – an improvised re-use that saves the $2 million needed to pull them out of the water –and features a “busker terrace.”
When the I-195 commission first announced its intention to trim the park for more development, state officials managing design of the pedestrian bridge were wrestling with its cost, estimated at $5 million.
They had already sliced $500,000 off the original design – chosen by then-Mayor David N. Cicilline after a national design competition – by narrowing it and removing an on-bridge restaurant.
Construction costs remain at $5 million, plus $1 million in design contracts, but Lambri Zerva, chief civil engineer with the R.I. Department of Transportation, said the state has upped its commitment for the bridge from $4 million to $6 million and is now ready to move ahead with the project.
Still at the concept stage after recently finalizing a contract with design-contest-winner inFORM studio of Detroit, Zerva said full design work on the bridge is expected to take a year and a half. That sets the state up to put the project out to bid in late 2014.
If the scheduled holds, the bridge could be complete by the end of 2015, Zerva said.
That would finish the bridge just before completion of the 7.57-acre east- and west-side parks, which and are slated for completion in early 2016, Zerva said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pedestrian bridge to the east side was not the only bridge included in the conceptual west-bank park plan.
A much smaller pedestrian bridge is shown steps away, crossing from the main plaza (the vertical sculpture) over an inlet to a now open piece of land owned by utility National Grid.
Nickerson said the second bridge is a long-term dream more than anything else, as National Grid has given no indication that they are interested in selling, developing or opening up the land.
“We hope in the future that it could be a redevelopment site,” Nickerson said. “There is a bridge that could be built to a future expansion area, not a park, but something that would add to a development parcel.”
The next lot south from National Grid is the former South Street power station known as the Dynamo House for the failed mixed-use development planned there before the recession. Construction of the park and bridge could only help the marketability of residential projects in the neighborhood.
Once completed by the state, the pedestrian bridge (to the east side) will be turned over to the city, while the parks will be owned and maintained by the I-195 commission until it is disbanded, now set for 2031. Once the commission goes away, the parks will belong to the city as well.
The design for the new east-side park, which will extend from the new pedestrian bridge to Point Street, remains basically unchanged and features a boardwalk and a grassy meadow leading down to a salt marsh. •
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