Would removing the 6-10 Connector remake the city for the better?
By JAMES KENNEDY/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Our Capital City has moved a highway (I-195), but some cities are actually removing them. Two highways I’ve wanted to claw out with my own hands since arriving here are Routes 6 and 10, which cut neighborhood from neighborhood throughout the city, and strangulate Olneyville from all sides.
I recently spoke with some prominent local people, as well as some national highway removal experts, to hear what they thought we could do with Providence’s ugly, concrete monsters.
Dump truck heard round the world
Early on the morning of Dec. 15, 1973, a young Sam Schwartz got a call. Brittle from mismanagement, a piece of the West Side Highway had collapsed under the weight of a dump truck working to repair it. Schwartz, now known around the country as the transit advocate “Gridlock Sam,” was just an unknown junior engineer then, and was tasked with the duty of finding out how to cope with all the excess gridlock that New York City’s traffic department expected.
“We really didn’t know what would happen at the time,” Schwartz said. “I set up counters on all the avenues, which was easy to do because it was gridded Manhattan. Within a week the traffic dissipated. It was weird. We couldn’t find any extra cars anywhere.”
Traffic didn’t get worse in New York because drivers chose a different time or route to get to their destination, or chose not to drive at all. “The street grid was able to completely absorb it,” Schwartz said.
But in 1973, traffic engineers had no concept to describe this, and Schwartz, one of the few at his office who lived in the city and took the subway to work, faced ridicule from colleagues for the idea that extra road capacity might not be the solution to traffic mitigation. But the predicted traffic nightmares never materialized, and neighbors, who never liked the raised highway in first place, pushed against rebuilding it. In the 1980s, Mayor Ed Koch convinced the federal government to repurpose highway funds for Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) improvements. New York has never looked back.
Highway removal has come to many locations in the United States since the West Side Highway collapsed, and Schwartz said cities need not be afraid to try it, even if they’re much smaller than the City That Never Sleeps.
“I’m not saying tear 6 and 10 out and build nothing,” he said. “You should invest in transit options to replace them.”
Hidden by the highways
Arthur Eddy is an architect at Birchwood Design Group. He has lived in places at both extremes of the walkability and transit spectrum — from highly urban Philadelphia to Atlanta, with its fabled auto-addicted car culture. He worked under Bill Warner to move a river and a freeway in Providence, but has a comparative eye for these other cities as well.
“We don’t really have the traffic of a major city here — we don’t even have Hartford traffic,” Eddy said. “The only place Providence has traffic problems is around these extremely problematic highways.”
The Chestnut Street firm has been working with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council on a plan to revitalize Harris Avenue as a biking corridor — a plan he said is only beginning to address the problems of the Olneyville and Valley neighborhoods, so long as the highway is there.
“If you’re a really experienced biker, right now, you can bike down Harris. You wouldn’t bike it as a novice. And you certainly wouldn’t walk it,” he said, scribbling drawings on a napkin at a downtown eatery. “The highway creates all these border areas that affect even how livable the neighborhoods around them are.”
Eddy first approached biking with the hope of an improved route on the river, but said the biggest argument for Harris Avenue is the dangerous and unpleasant portion of the Dean Street mini-highway that crosses Promenade on its way to Route 6.
Other bike advocates agree. “To bike from the center of our city presently requires that you either take a prohibitively roundabout route, or clench your teeth and anus as you navigate some of Providence’s most bike-unfriendly roads, such as Elmwood Avenue and Cranston Street,” said Eric Weis of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. He also serves as chair of the Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission.
Weis said removing the highways was a vision he could get behind. Cranston Street currently is the most direct way to get to the Washington Secondary Path, which goes all the way from the Providence border to the Connecticut line, and the highway is the major obstacle to using it.
Cost is an obvious concern, but the Providence Business News published a front-page story this year announcing a half billion in anticipated costs to rebuild the 6-10 Connector. This highway system sports 14 bridges either over it or part of it that are in fair to poor condition, according to a 2013 state Department of Transportation (DOT) report. A map of Providence bridges really illustrates that unnatural features like expressways account for many of the city’s unaccounted bridge costs.
“The cost of this highway is tremendous compared to a street like Broadway or Westminster,” said Eddy, his napkin now full of buildings and neighborhoods. “On Broadway, you have a fairly minimal piece of road, but you have businesses, housing and apartments, all which pay taxes towards that road. What tax base does a bridge have? We’ll be paying that cost off for decades.”
Instead of a freeway, Eddy envisions the continuation of Smith Hill and Federal Hill development into the valley, with park space continuing from Waterplace Park, transit lanes and a bike path stretching as far as Roger Williams Park.
“With Waterplace Park, Providence has really done what it’s done lots of places, which is to only go halfway,” Eddy said. “Everyone loves WaterFire, but then in between the park isn’t used. And part of the reason for that is that it just stops for no reason at the mall.” With no genuine through-path, the park is not a genuine walkway.”
The city is beautiful, he said, but the highways obscure that.
“My wife and I actually did the CVS 5K (last) year, and we were standing in front of the mall at Francis and Memorial and she looked around and said, ‘Wow, it’s actually nice here’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah, there’s no cars,’” Eddy said. “The beauty of moving the river was that the road already slimmed down a bit, but it could even get narrower to reduce speeding and make it easier to cross.”
A redesign would keep I-95 in place, but with only one highway, there would be no reason for the huge, 20-acre Viaduct interchange that barrels fast-moving cars onto Memorial Boulevard.
John Norquist is president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a past mayor of Milwaukee. He said a city doesn’t have to be like New York or San Francisco to successfully remove a highway.
“Look at Portland, Oregon. It was just a city of 300,000 when it tore out the Harbor Drive Freeway and defeated the Mount Hood Freeway,” Norquist said. “Then it used the money to develop great transit and biking.”
Many may think of the satirical sketch comedy TV series “Portlandia” when they imagine Oregon, but the eco-city of today had been a logging town with plenty of wide highways and car traffic, and like Providence, Portland of the 1980s was a place with a high unemployment rate and disappearing business.
“Today’s Portland is all built off of infrastructure. And now Portland has around 500,000 people and a growing economy,” Norquist said. “The same with Vancouver; it has no highways at all, and it’s population and economy are improving without traffic.”
Norquist said the I-195 project is a good example of the opportunities that a city can avail itself of when a freeway disappears, but noted that removal of urban highways is always better than relocation.
“The highway is a rural piece of technology,” he said. “Look at Boston. It’s got several beltways around it. The Big Dig, which everyone hates, was actually as much a waste of money as people say it was, because it just took all this land and ran I-93 under it for no reason. There’s a hierarchy of roads: interstates for long-distance travel, boulevards to connect parts of a city or town, and smaller streets. I-93 has no business carrying through-traffic right under an urban core when there are plenty of belt roadways for taking it around it.
“It’s hard, because the general public doesn’t always understand road design. When I helped remove the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, the right-wing talk shows had a field day coming up with excuses for why it had to stay. Traffic would go through the roof, they said. Businesses would die. The neighborhood was really too dangerous because of gang activity to drive directly through. They came up with every racist, vile thing they could say. Of course, the reason the neighborhood was blighted was because of the freeway.”
He noted the early reactions to New York City’s now-successful bike-share system. “Everyone yells that it’s going to be a disaster, but then it’s a success and they shut up.”
Frank Shea is less of an ally of highway removal than the other people interviewed for this story, but said he had an open mind to what could be done if such a project employed the neighborhood in an equitable way.
“The question, really, is what do you do after a highway is built?” he said. “I’m always glad that Jamaica Plain didn’t get I-95. My brothers worked at a mill that was closed in order to make room for the highway.”
That mill is gone, but the highway never came. In its place is the Southwest Corridor Parkway — one of Boston’s premier bike paths, with narrow, calm streets, park space, and the Orange Line running through it.
Jamaica Plain has rebounded from the days when a highway was expected to cut through it, but Shea remembers how those plans nearly tore the community apart.
“Jamaica Plain was almost destroyed when they first discussed building I-95,” said Shea, executive director of the Olneyville Housing Corporation for the past 15 years. “People started abandoning houses. The state was seizing buildings and knocking them down.”
In Providence, Routes 6 and 10 form a border to a neighborhood that doesn't drive much. More than 40 percent of Olneyville residents don’t own a car. The highway border makes many non-car trips difficult and/or time consuming.
Olneyville was once the center for the West Side, Federal Hill and Silver Lake neighborhoods. That relationship is evident from the leftover names of certain places in Silver Lake, such as the Olneyville Playground, which can only be reached from Olneyville by walking through a trash-filled underpass.
Olneyville's separateness from its neighbors is ironic to Shea. “It’s funny because people always ask what the boundaries of the neighborhood are, and it has one very natural one — the river — and one very unnatural one — the highways,” he said.