Where the Seekonk and Providence rivers converge along Providence’s lower East Side, there has been a noticeable transformation, particularly along India Street, which fronts the riverbank and is flanked by Gano and South Water streets. Like other Providence neighborhoods, this area has undergone an awakening that began a decade ago when the state embarked on a massive $620+ million Interstate 195 realignment plan.
During such time, East Side residents witnessed, among other things, construction along major highways, the installation of an award-winning bridge and miles of new streets. Now in its final phase, with only two projects – the Providence Pedestrian Bridge, and the Gano Street Gateway – to complete, both of which will greatly impact the Fox Point neighborhood, the end seems very near. But there’s one hitch: the defunding of the Gano Street Gateway. This is the area where India Street wraps around Tockwotten Studios and sticks its turned tongue out at Gano and all its ambient noise and rubble. Noise from the highway above, of course, but also from the traffic which bottlenecks at the tip of India Street. And the rubble? Yes, plenty of it, such as dirty mattresses, shattered bottles, a tattered pop tent and busted fencing propped up against a guardrail. But some of it is not actually rubble, as the city and its contractors have been for years using an area of the unkempt, weedy underpass as a storage yard for building material: piles of bricks, mounds of crushed stone, blocks of cement, jersey barriers and the like.
With the best of intentions, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation set down an ambitious plan to not only make sense of an old and inadequate highway, but to also reclaim green space, and create better access to the city’s waterways. It’s been a beautification effort that, thus far, has been successful. The improvements have enriched Providence, making it easier to navigate the city; hence, for its residents, more livable. And with the recent addition of the Providence-Newport ferry service at India Point, as well as the extension of bikeways, the city is looking cleaner, greener and more inviting.
However, the loss of a significant portion of the Gateway’s budget, $1.9 of its $2.9 million budget, to the higher priority Pedestrian Bridge has, understandably, exasperated many East Side locals – Fox Point residents in particular – visitors and business owners. By reason of such loss, the eastbound I-195 entrance into the city, which had the potential to be grand and pleasing to the eye, will not be as welcoming as originally planned. According to a refined and significantly scaled down plan presented by RIDOT this past September, the improvements guaranteed in the 2011 plan seem unlikely to happen. The refined plan differs significantly, as it does not address parking and lighting needs, and reduces a good share of landscaping, which is not acceptable to the Fox Point Neighborhood Association (FPNA) and other stakeholders, who are now pressing RIDOT to finish the Gateway in accordance with the 2011 plan.
Currently, travelers (especially those new to the city) who take Exit 2 off of I-195 are faced with a mindboggling entry: a spin along India Street, past a large jersey barrier topped berm, that obstructs the view of Brown University’s boathouse and the river beyond, and to the street’s end, bumper to bumper at a cramped four-way intersection with a hairy 90-degree right hand turn onto Gano. Given the amount of commercial traffic on India Street, drivers often wait for large trucks and 18-wheelers struggling to negotiate the turn without hitting the curb (and at times they do) on the opposite side of the road. It’s a sight to behold: all traffic, from every which way, freezes; and once on Gano, the habitually scruffy underpass awaits all. Welcome to our capital, friends.
The unfortunate consequence of coexisting projects is that they too often become competing projects. And with the Gateway’s budget reallocated in order to subsidize its competitor, at stake is not only the Gateway’s emerging waterfront, but its economy and the wellbeing of all those who live, play or work in Fox Point – or simply travel through it. It’s important to recognize that the Gateway is the entrance to a destination. Residents, commuters and visitors enter it with purpose – often to access East Side areas, and often for India Point Park, which holds events throughout the year. Many commuters also enter the Gateway to access the evolving bikeway, which will eventually connect the East Bay Bike Path with Lincoln, Pawtucket and Woonsocket bikeways. And if the new Newport ferry service – which, in its first season, saw more than 33,000 passengers shuttled across Narragansett Bay – is any indication, summertime traffic is about to increase exponentially; meaning a greater likelihood for increased gridlock and potential hazards – which is hardly an upgrade to the waterfront.
Like precious conservation easements that are revoked, land unfairly taken by eminent domain or any governmental promise breached, people don’t ordinarily take kindly to such things. Yet the FPNA, and its friendly partners, such as Save Gano Gateway coalition, have been extremely patient, understanding and cooperative, but not entirely without frustration. John Rousseau, executive secretary of the FPNA, remains hopeful – as do many Fox Point residents and enterprises – that an agreeable solution will soon be reached. The Governor’s Office, after all, as Rousseau says, “has left funding options on the table.”
Building Bridges Providence (BBP) is also one of FPNA’s collegial partners. Formed last May by its president Sharon Steele and chairman Olin Thompson as a response to the state’s chronic delay to complete the remaining I-195 projects, the coalition has been instrumental in getting the Gateway’s message out to surrounding neighborhoods, sharing Fox Point’s rich history and illustrating the importance of completing the project as promised. Since RIDOT’s late September announcement of a refined Gateway plan, BBP has been assisting the FNPA with their effort to push RIDOT toward project completion in accordance with the original 2011 plan, which includes lighting and parking under the pretty stone bridge, as well as ample landscaping.
Steele explains that as soon as they learned “that the Gateway was being sacrificed to provide the [needed] funds to the Pedestrian Bridge, that was simply unacceptable… that was our call to action!” She goes on, “We knew that the Gateway was the lynch pin to secure the overall success of our emerging waterfront, the development of I-195 parcels and the expansion of the already successful ferry operations at India Point.” Steele and Thompson are in agreement with the FNPA when they say that “the number one priority is the construction of the Pedestrian Bridge, but that never meant that it should be at the expense of another important piece of the puzzle.”
Town Councilman Seth Yurdin, who represents Ward 1, which includes the Fox Point neighborhood, is resolute and vocal, saying, “This is about a promise unfulfilled. It’s frustrating dealing with RIDOT because there has been a lot of disruption to the neighborhood. [RIDOT’s] efforts included a commitment to these  plans, and it’s not okay for them to back out. People trusted [RIDOT] when they came into this neighborhood, promising this plan.” The funding cut, according to Yurdin, was made without notice or input from the neighborhood. Referring to the 90-degree turn at the junction of India and Gano, Yurdin asks, “How many more years will it take for RIDOT to alleviate a situation that’s less than ideal and dangerous?”
With RIDOT going back on its word, it’s rather difficult for anyone to know. And when people feel like they’ve been bamboozled, it’s hard to again trust the offender. Though RIDOT hadn’t expected to be short funded. The FPNA and its sister coalitions, for their part, sympathize with the state’s conundrum, and fully support the construction of the new bridge, and ancillary park, which, according to a big blue sign at the worksite, is on time for a fall 2018 opening, but at a cost that’s reached $21.9 million.
RIDOT spokesperson, Charles St. Martin, confirms the cost of the pedestrian bridge, saying, “The state has awarded a $16.97-million construction contract to the lowest of seven bidders, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, of Holyoke, Massachusetts. The total project budget, including design, contingency and all other costs is estimated at $21.9 million.” St. Martin also confirms that “RIDOT received a proposal from the community that eliminates the 90-degree turn, and the department is evaluating their proposal.”
In early November, members from several coalitions, including FPNA and its advocates, as well as state representatives, met with RIDOT regarding the Gateway’s refined 2016 plan. State Representative and native Rhode Islander, Chris Blazejewski, who has previously pledged his support to the Gateway, attended. Blazejewski states that he “thought the meeting was a positive first step,” and hopes that RIDOT will work cooperatively with Gateway guardians to reach a funding solution. Echoing Yurdin’s assertion, he states, “The 2011 original design for the Gano Gateway – without the 90-degree turn – was promised as part of the I-195 project, and was agreed upon through a public process involving a series of charettes in conjunction with the Providence Planning Department and RIDOT. The  design was planned for good reasons – to keep traffic moving smoothly, to create safe spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists, to provide much-needed parking and to promote economic development by offering a more attractive first impression of the state, the city and its waterfront to the many people who enter Providence via I-195.”
In addition to underpass parking areas on either side of Gano Street, lighting elements and extensive landscaping, the 2011 plan illustrates how India Street was meant to extend seamlessly out to Gano, and this feature is critical for such smooth flow of traffic. But there is hope. After the legislature reconvenes in 2017, Blazejewski states that he and Senator Gayle Goldin plan to introduce legislation to help fully fund the Gateway. “Due to the fiscal impact,” he says, “the bill will probably be referred to the House and Senate finance committees, where they will hear testimony and assess funding.” Blazejewski expects that he and Senator Goldin, “will ask the finance committees to consider all potential funding options, including existing programs and any other available resources.”
If a city has a soul, Providence’s might be found in Fox Point, where the waterways tell the bygone stories of Rhode Island’s first settlers, of Roger Williams’s dream and of the people who worked the waters of what was once a major seaport. Providence has always been a welcoming city – yet, today, one of its major landmarks, the Gateway, remains bootless and distressed, tethered to an erstwhile provisional plan; what was offered as a quick fix. The city’s people, particularly those invested in this neighborhood, need and desire a sense of place, home, community and a measure of pride of ownership. Not that residents don’t already feel this, just that they want everyone else to feel it, too. Especially at the gateway of this sublime and multifaceted city.