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Railroads and Rivers
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Since the early 20th century — and until recently — Downtown Providence was cut off from the magnificent Rhode Island State House by the railroad, which included about ten tracks, many trestles, bridges, viaducts, freight sheds, and much more infrastructure — all that prohibited physical and visual linkage with downtown. For decades, the only means of connection was through a dark pedestrian underpass that went to commuter cars in vast parking lots, which further separated Downtown. Somewhere beneath the rails and asphalt lay a polluted river, long forgotten by the city's citizens.

By the 1980s, Providence made it in to the Guinness Book of World Records for having the widest bridge in the world — 1,147 feet, all of it as a road and parking deck covering the Providence River. Luckily, Providence was soon to lose this distinction as it — prompted by the long-sought opportunity — relocated the rails and removed bridges; moved two rivers; redesigned a tangled, confusing freeway interchange; and reclaimed and started to redevelop 77 acres to create the Capital Center.

Moving the railroad tracks had been under consideration for decades, with proposals starting in the 1960s. But it took until the early 1990s to realize much of this work. Today, work continues.

Railroad Station and Rail Relocation

A Capital Idea: The Rhode Island State House in Providence
The Rhode Island State House(1895-1901) is one of Providence's jewels. Due to its small size (at 1,214 square miles), Rhode Island remains a “city-state” with Providence being the only large city — as well as the state capital. This has bestowed upon the city both the monumental architecture that a state government can provide. The crowning jewel is the 1900 capital building and its environs, even though it is still poorly set in its greater context, and not connected with the downtown area — as will be seen. The presence of the state government is a physical amenity, which has provided political benefits to the city. Many states in America with large cities located their capitals in other remote, small cities, placing the monumental architecture of government in a small setting, while depriving large cities of urban amenities.
"View of the city of Providence as seen from the dome of the new State House." Signed M. D. Mason, "Supplement to Providence Sunday journal, Nov. 15, 1896." Providence Journal Co., 1896. (Library of Congress)

Aerial view northeast toward downtown (lower right), former railroad tracks and covered river, parking area, and the State House (upper left), 1960s. Source: Providence Department of Planning & Development

In 1835 the railroad came to Providence, wending its way southward from Boston. By the 1880s, six railroads converged at downtown's former Union Station (1847), increasing the area's importance as a regional economic and transportation

hub. Starting in 1873, the city studied ways to improve the heavy congestion of rail traffic. In 1889, the city adopted a plan to fill in the tidal Cove Basin (in 1892) and bury part of the Woonasquatucket River to provide a relocated, raised trestle for the rail track. This work radically altered the city's character.

This relocation, and the subsequent construction of the (new) Union Station (1896-98), helped create the present Kennedy Plaza. Today the plaza has City Hall park with a restored fountain, a new ice-skating rink, and a new bus transportation center — all surrounded by City Hall (1874-78) and the Biltmore Hotel (1920-22) hotel; late 19th- and 20th-century financial and commercial buildings, a Federal Court House (1908), and a Federal Building Annex (1938-40). This ensemble, with its variety of building types and styles, and its range of urban infrastructure and civic amenities — all in a cohesive space — serves to underscore the importance of the new Union Station as an anchor to the plaza's north side, as a linkage between the Downtown and State House, and as a transportation gateway to the city, which at the turn of the century had over three hundred trains (passenger and freight) moving though each day.

At the time, the State House (1895-1901) was being built on Smith Hill, a kilometer to the north beyond Cove Basin. At first, the new Union Station was to be built in the Richardson Romanesque style. But this was changed to its present classical design to relate to the architecture of City Hall and the new State House.

Union Station is a 100,000 square-foot complex of five structures constructed by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The complex originally consisted of five buildings symmetrically arranged on an axis, all with granite foundations, yellow mottled brick walls, and red sandstone trim. The eastern most section of the station burned in 1941. After that, matters got worse — at least until the 1970s. Starting after World War II, car, air, and bus travel was favored. By the 1950s, the number of trains into Providence had decreased 75 percent.

At that time, Union Station was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. In its description the nomination reports, "Today, Union Station is in a state of extreme disrepair. Maintenance of the complex has been almost totally ignored for twenty years. The few "repairs" that have been made (e.g. removing the colonnades and train shed) have generally been detrimental in nature. In spite of this, the station is still structurally sound, and it retains a hint of its former grandeur."

Today Union Station survives — beautifully restored — unlike New York City's Pennsylvania Central Station, which was demolished in 1965. Its tragic loss served as an impetus for preservation efforts and policies nationwide, starting with the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, and sustained by much effort and many events, including America's bicentennial celebration in 1976.

In 1976, a study of the rehabilitation potential of Union Station was funded, in part by the AMTRAK [railroad] Improvement Act of 1974. The resulting report, Union Station Providence: A study for reuse, by Anderson, Notter Associates, concluded that the station could be "imaginatively rehabilitated to serve contemporary functions while preserving its architectural integrity." A mixed use was proposed, including retail, restaurant and entertainment, government offices, and a transportation center. The major shortcoming was a perceived lack of parking, and so ample parking was proposed near the station.

On April 26, 1987, ten months after the new AMTRAK train station opened near the State House, the vacant Union Station suffered a devastating fire — just as developers were planning to invest $11 million for adaptive use as a retail location. Fortunately, the North American headquarters of London-based Cookson America chose to locate its American headquarters in the central terminal; the Providence Chamber of Commerce occupied the westernmost building, and remaining space was occupied by offices and restaurants. Following Cookson America's departure, the state’s community foundation (the Rhode Island Foundation) occupied the central space, making it (once again) accessible to the public. The foundation makes meeting space available at low or no cost; it has an art gallery; and its philanthropic endeavors are a magnet for urban vitality.

Capital Center Commission
In 1976, America's bicentennial celebration helped coalesce the many locate and state preservation efforts — many that began as a reaction to urban renewal, and as a realization of the wealth and potential of remaining history. That year, Congress approved a billion-dollar plan for high-speed train service from Washington to Boston. This made available money to carry out a long-considered plan: to relocate the tracks and trestles that had divided downtown Providence.

Union Station, restored, and occupied by The Rhode Island Foundation. (September 2002)

Meanwhile, the Capital Center Plan was developed (in 1979), followed by formation of the Capital Center District (in 1981). Subsequently, to achieve this work, the Capital Center Commission was established by the State enabling legislation in 1981 (updated 1993) and City ordinance in 1982. The Commission coordinated development and establishes and enforces design criteria and regulations Capital Center District, a special development district. The Commission reviews and approves all public and private sector development plans and improvements in conformance with the Design and Development Regulations.

The Capital Center District includes 77 acres of real estate surrounding the State House and abutting downtown. Approximately 49 acres of property are held in private ownership; approximately 28 acres are in public ownership. The district is not an historic district, although individual properties are listed on the National Register. Union Station, and its restoration, was a key component of this plan.

The objectives of the initial plan were 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 provided an ordered set of diverse public open spaces; and to create visual and physical linkages between downtown Providence and Smith Hill (the State House).

A master plan was developed by the 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.

In 1979, the Providence Rail Relocation Concept Planning Report was developed by Deleuw Cather / Parsons and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. This study, " concluded that it would be physically and operationally feasible to relocate the railroad and to construct a new station. This study also concluded that the costs of construction would exceed the established NECIP [project] funding for the proposed project. To make the project feasible, the City and State together identified additional sources of funds..." Added funding was provided by the city, state, other federal sources, and the railroad. The private sector invested in rehabilitation of Union Station..

Armed with this information, a Rhode Island senator lobbied for federal support of the rail relocation, which was approved. Work began in 1983, with the federal government funding 70 percent of the project, and the city, state and railroad paying for the rest. With the railway relocated, a new station was built near the State House, which opened up the potential for adaptive use of the old railroad station, and it made possible a connection between the previously inaccessible Capital Center area and Downtown (also called “Downcity”).

Waterplace Park, view to the east, with new construction at the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers to the left (northeast) and the rehabilitated Union Station to the right (south), (August 2002)
Riverwalk,view to the west, upstream toward Waterplace, with the Providence Place Mall in the distance. (September 2002)

River Relocation
The 1979 master plan developed by Skidmore, Owens and Merrill (SOM) included plenty of new infrastructure and improvements. But this $110 million project missed an opportunity to address the rivers: at the time little more than slow-moving and polluted. These rivers were an unconsidered part of the problem: in fact, the SOM plan favored paving over more of the rivers. Instead, the rivers became part of the solution, as conceived and developed by William Warner, a Rhode Island architect.

The rivers had been abused and neglected for decades. Remember that by the 1980s, Guinness Book of World Records listed Providence as having the widest bridge in the world — 1,147 feet, all of it as a parking deck covering the polluted rivers.

With the help of the Providence Foundation, and added funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Warner’s plan received preliminary project funding and approval in November 1984 for Phase I: realignment of the Woonasquatucket River along its natural course; relocation and conservation of a World War I Memorial (around what was known as “suicide circle: a vehicular roundabout); and construction of Waterplace and the first section of Riverwalk, to include an open-air auditorium surround a cove, new streets, Venetian-style bridges, parks, cobblestoned pedestrian walkways, pavilions, sculptures, fountains, and more, all along the rivers and connecting to the greater downtown. Boat landings are accessible from the Riverwalk, and canoes, kayaks, and gondolas are frequently seen on plying the waters. Riverwalk, including Waterplace, is the site of Providence's Waterfire, a nationally acclaimed multimedia installation that features over sixty small fires illuminating the river.

The scope of even this first phase rivals the large-scale urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this Downtown project did not displace residents (largely because no one was living in this area).

The Center's parcels include the State House, new railroad station; parking lots and vacant land (to be developed); the restored Union Station, with offices, retail, restaurants; new construction (mimicking the Union Station in form, scale and materials) including a hotel; and nearby, the site of the new Providence Place Mall.

The restored Union Station and adjacent City Hall park, Riverwalk and Waterplace, and a new boulevard (planned since the 1870s) have done so much to claim this land as a vital part of an expanded downtown. Yet a complete connection between Downcity and the hill has not been achieved. There remain vacant, large parcels scattered between new construction whose scale is perhaps too large, yet whose grandeur is lacking.

As noted in a January 1994 report, by the year 2000, the Capital Center was to have over one million square feet of retail space, 2 to 2-1/2 million square feet of office space, one thousand hotel rooms, five hundred residential units, ten thousand permanent jobs.

Yet today at Capital Center, more than a third of the development parcels remain empty, even after two decades of growth citywide. Even with empty lots, construction of the Providence Place Mall has partially obscured the viewway of the State House site. Memorial Boulevard, a new access road, connects the East Side of the city to Route I-95, allowing motorists to bypass the often-congested Kennedy Plaza. However, this boulevard is so wide it promotes fast traffic and it acts as a barrier to Riverwalk and points north.

Despite these points, this inspired — and inspiring — rail and river relocation project has expanded the Downtown area and connected it with the greater Downtown. And, also, so it has expanded the opportunities Providence holds for preservation and new work well in to this century.

Railroads and Rivers : Sources Cited and Resources

The Capital Center Project, Providence, Rhode Island: Design and Development Criteria incorporating revisions in response to the relocation of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, The Capital Center Commission, July 11, 1985, amended August 8, 1985.

Capital Center, January 1994, factual summary, typed.

Notter, George M., Jr., et al. Union Station Providence: A study for reuse, Anderson, Notter Associates, January 15, 1976

Providence Rail Relocation Concept Planning Report, Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, Providence Station, Providence, Rhode Island, Deleuw Cather / Parsons; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill / Project Architects, November 1979

The Rhode Island Foundation

Union Station, National Register Form, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission

Union Station, Providence, Rhode Island: Development Prospectus, Rhode Island Department of Economic Development, n.d. (c.1986)

WaterFire Providence