Changing the Face of Providence

Examining the I-195 redevelopment project, and the commission chosen to oversee it.


“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” -JFK’s inaugural address, January 20, 1961.

The message from I-195 Commission Chairman Colin Kane echoes Kennedy’s words. You won’t see construction cranes dotting the skyline very soon – and this shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone. Capital Center began its odyssey over 30 years (11,000 days) ago and it’s still not finished. Despite all good intentions, the newly created land freed up by the relocation of Route I-195 probably won’t set any development speed records either, especially given the current state of our economy.

That said, there are big differences between the two commissions appointed to oversee these projects. Most significantly, the objectives of the initial plans for Capital Center were clear and well articulated when it was first created: to create marketable land for a new commercial sector of Providence; to enhance access not only to the project area but also to downtown Providence; to provide an ordered set of diverse public open spaces; and to create visual and physical linkages between downtown Providence and the State House.

While plans for the 195 land are pretty much unformed, the Capital Center had a master plan that was developed by the iconic architectural firm of Skidmore, Owens and Merrill. It included a new railroad station, streets, bridges, a small cove (in the existing riverway) and 12 parcels, now expanded to 15, for commercial development. Plus it had a $100,000 annual budget funded by both the city and state for staff.

Capital Center has its share of critics over the design and architecture of some of the buildings, the materials and uses of color. Projo columnist Dave Brussat certainly has led the charge in this area. Yet they have had some undeniable successes as well, not the least of which was corralling the monies necessary to make the infrastructure changes that have so altered the skyline of the city over the past two decades. Providence Place remains one of the most successful and attractive urban malls in the country, enhanced by its unique glassed winter garden for example. The long-dormant Masonic Temple is now a gorgeous first-class hotel. The Capital Center itself at night is colorful and vibrant.

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