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Dan Lawlor: Stop Wrecking Downtown

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Parking Lots. Downtown is full of parking lots. Flat, building destroying, street scape disrupting, concrete and tar parking lots.

Walk down Westminster- start at the RISD Dorms, and end at Empire St. You'll see what I mean. Next to the Turk's Head building? A parking lot. Next to Tazza, a parking lot (with, thankfully, a bocce court and community space attached). Next to Grace Church? A parking lot. Across from the Kinsley building? A parking lot. Diagonal to the Kinsley Building? A Parking lot.

In January, Michael Kimmelman from the New York Times referred to "Pensacola Parking Syndrome (PPS).” PPS describes "a city that tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot.”) Downtown's success depends on downtown still being there - no more wrecking balls!

The Financial District and the space between Mathewson and Empire need more attention. Positively, work has been done to create more pedestrian friendly seating near Citizens Bank, and to preserve the building facade resulting from the failed 110 Westminster condo tower. Simply devoting a small portion of parking spaces in any of the Westminster Parking Lots to something else- space for a coffee shop, another bocce court, trees, benches designed by Steel Yard, a monument, a sculpture, a fountain, special parking huts for the food drinks - would be better and increase public accessibility and use of the space.

Providence is home to Waterfire. It is not a city that needs to copy the drab, the dull, and the mundane. We don't need to look like any small, post-industrial city - we should be the best, the most interesting, the most engaging. Barnaby Evans, Waterfire's creator, has spoken of "urban ecosystems" and the importance of creating and sustaining places for engagement and enjoyment in city living. This city needs more beauty, more chance encounters, more spaces to dream up a real Renaissance. Dead space doesn't

Albany, New York is a state capital a few hours North West of here. Decades ago, Albany's old city center was completely torn up for an urban renewal project by Governor Nelson Rockefeller- grandiose state office buildings and a massive state skyscraper. The buildings are sleek, cold, and monumental. Yet, the Albany that I enjoy the most, the one that captured my eye and attention, was the Albany of small winding streets, eccentric buildings, independent restaurants and stores. From a tasty Indian buffet to community centers to bakeries and brew houses, the winding side streets of Albany were intriguing and unique. The unique side of Albany is what makes it worth returning to.

Massive monumental buildings are one sign of a strong city - but an even better sign is the unique and eclectic variety of shops, people, and landscapes around the monuments. Westminster, downtown's artery, should be more than a home to parking lots, to holding areas for cars. The street, as a whole, should be distinctive, beautiful, varied and eccentric - just like the city itself. In a time of hyper-pessimism, start believing again. Providence can be great. Decades ago, we moved rivers. With state investment and civil planning, we created Waterplace Park. In the last ten years, with far less community input, we built half empty condo towers and office buildings. We have our monuments.

Parking lots are, at present, necessary, but they do not need to be ugly. Parking lots in Providence do not need mimic parking lots in Springfield. From food trucks to AS220, from New Urban Arts to Grace Church, surely some ideas can grow as to how to better utilize our street space? Despite the pockets of dead space, this is a good city. Let's keep working on it.

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