VISION THING An aerial view of the old I-195 corridor with redevelopment parcels highlighted.
The vacant spaces in downtown Providence — the Industrial Trust Building and Davol Square's "Dynamo House," among others — are like ink blots. Some see them as stages for the city's next crooked, cash-dissolving deal. Others see them as slingshots to launch Providence into a Renaissance 2.0. And then there are the literalists who see something like, say, the footprint of the former route I-195 for exactly what it is: a string of irregularly-shaped grass patches littered with duck shit.
Just what will happen with those particular 40 acres is the subject of a panel discussion in Providence on May 14 at the University of Rhode Island's Paff Auditorium. The event — part of the URI's "Urbanscape" series of lectures and forums — is titled "Where 195 Used To Be: A Community Exploration." Hosted by veteran AS220 "Action Speaks!" moderator Marc Levitt, the discussion will feature professors, arts-organization leaders, developers, city planners, and two members (including the chairman) of Rhode Island's governor-appointed commission delegated to oversee the former highway land's development.
I got a chance to speak with some of them this week about what exactly the city's grassy, crescent-shaped ink blot signifies to them.
Note that the interviews have been edited and condensed and that the interviewees are responding individually to me, not each other. You'll have to go the panel to see them all on stage at once.
BONNIE NICKERSON, DIRECTOR OF LONG RANGE PLANNING FOR THE CITY OF PROVIDENCE
You have, I think, three really important things that make this chunk of land very unique and appealing for development. One . . . there are only a few other examples of where you have acres and acres of developable land right in the heart of a city. [Second,] it is the heart of where our institutional growth is happening. If you look on a map of where this district is, it's really between College Hill and the hospital district. So it's a natural place to encourage the growth and . . . spinoffs from those institutions to land. And the other thing that's unique about it is that it's a waterfront area.
MIKE MCCORMICK, ASSISTANT VP OF PLANNING, DESIGN, AND CONSTRUCTION AT BROWN UNIVERSITY
Obviously Brown has been investing in the Jewelry District — especially [the area] literally adjacent to the 195 land — for about 10 years now. We have over 1000 people in the Jewelry District right. We've invested something like $200 million in that area.
Hopefully it develops into a really vital, mixed-use area that is complementing the work we're doing . . . [and that] really starts to connect [the city] so that we don't think of the Jewelry District and Downcity so separately. They've had this wall in between them for decades now and now that wall's gone, right? So, now it's just matter of knitting it back together.
When I say "mixed use," I'm imagining the same kinds of mixes of use that you see up in Kendall Square [in Cambridge]. There's research happening there, there's lot of businesses following along with it, there's developing, there's incubation, there's developing private industry coming along. And then, of course, because that's a lot of people, there's a really vital retail area.