Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The city has launched an ambitious 20-year plan to transform one of its rivers into a park and a business, housing and multimode transportation corridor. The project’s Greenway Promenade aspires to recreate the celebrated San Antonio Riverwalk.
During an Oct. 25 press event to officially launch the initiative, Mayor Jorge Elorza called the 560-acre Valley neighborhood “a forgotten and almost abandoned part of our city” that residents can reclaim “and bring it back to life.”
Congressman James Langevin, D- R.I., believes the project will revitalize the neglected shoreline and industrial sites from the Providence Place mall to Olneyville Square, saying “we are going to bring new life to this area again.”
But some local business and property owners are pushing back, saying they want to keep the area as an industrial center. Members of the new Woonasquatucket Business Association are offended over language in the proposal that includes the contentious term “eminent domain.” Since July, several business owners have spoken out at public meetings at City Hall about fears of higher taxes or being forced to relocate.
“They can pick any property they choose from and we haven’t had any documentation saying they won’t do away with eminent domain,” said Oscar Lemus, owner of an auto repair shop and dealership on a 1-acre lot on Valley Street.
Lemus confronted Langevin after the event and reported that not all business owners were allowed to participate in the planning. Langevin said he hadn’t read the proposal but assured Lemus his office would speak with him.
“The stakeholders have not been given the opportunity to talk to the planning department or the City Council,” Lemus told Langevin.
Yet, according to a Hummel Report story, the disgruntled business owners have had pubic meetings with Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s director of planning and development, and City Council members.
Nickerson said all 25 of the city’s neighborhoods were engaged in a yearlong planning process. She noted that there are two plans, the completed Woonasquatucket Vision Plan and a business redevelopment plan that is still being crafted and will address concerns of property owners.
Nickerson said the goals of the project are to keep the neighborhoods affordable and not displace businesses.
The Woonasquatucket Vision Plan transforms city blocks along the Woonasquatucket River between Providence Place and Manton Avenue.
The project includes dredging the river, landscaped flood-control and stormwater projects, improving existing art and food businesses, and protecting and increasing affordable office, retail and housing spaces. Bicycle, bus, and walking access will improve, according to city officials, and the plan includes a river path that connects downtown with the Woonasquatucket River Greenway. A public performance venue will be built and new bridges will be constructed or existing ones repaired. A new pedestrian and bike gateway would be built at Providence Place.
The plan was funded by a $300,000 brownfield grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, a $200,000 state brownfield grant, and a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Wilbury Theater Group, Waterfire Providence, The Steel Yard, and The Dirt Place plan to develop art projects and theater productions for the proposed river enterprise.
The vision for the project was created 25 years ago by politician and philanthropist Fred Lippitt and Jane Sherman, founder of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. Some of that work has already happened, with the redevelopment of buildings near the river such as The Foundry, American Locomotive Works, Rising Sun Mills, The Plant, and Eagle Square.
Future redevelopment will occur in piecemeal initiatives and conjunction with other projects such as the Route 6/10 interchange redevelopment and the $6 million extension of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway.