Opinion

Building Bridges

How place making intersects with economic development as part of the reclaimed Route 195 highway corridor

Courtesy of Building Bridges

The logo of a new organization, Building Bridges, seeking to promote the development of the Pedestrian Bridge and Park as part of the redevelopment of the former 195 land.

Courtesy of Building Bridges Providence

An artist's rendition of the completed Pedestrian Bridge.

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By Sharon Steele and Olin Thompson
Posted 8/29/16

PROVIDENCE – Until recently, economic development in Rhode Island appeared to be tied up in a Gordian knot.

This term is commonly used to describe a complex or unsolvable problem, one where only a bold move can make something happen.

Our government, business leaders and institutions have all stated that economic development is the key to unravel this knot.

These same people have looked at former Route 195 corridor as the key – a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The I 195 Commission, charged with developing this corridor, has been working diligently and has made progress on many fronts. However, they are encountering challenges in marketing these parcels.

The Commission now has concluded, and has repeatedly stated, that without the building of the Pedestrian Bridge and Park, future development will be difficult, if not impossible, to realize.

A brief history
Conceived before 2006, and once promised to have been completed in 2013, the Pedestrian Bridge has been continually delayed.

The initial completion was delayed to 2014, then 2016, and again to 2017.

Now, however, the Pedestrian Bridge is funded, contracts will be signed this September, and our bridge will finally be delivered in late 2018. The Pedestrian Bridge and Park together provide what we must have to compete in the new innovation economy.

A real game changer
One of the desires of the new urbanists that are fueling the new innovation economy is to live, work and play in the same neighborhood. They want an environment that is inclusive; where outcomes are better because they are being forged together.

Quality of life for these new urbanists is critical. The place making provided by the Pedestrian Bridge and Park promises to be our real game changer.

The Pedestrian Bridge and Park serves both functional and symbolic needs. They will serve as a focal point and connector, the hub and spokes of economic development.

They connect both organizations and neighborhoods that are keys to Rhode Island’s success. As an example, we have world-class institutions in the health care sector.

The Pedestrian Bridge and Park are located at the center of our hospitals [Lifespan and Care New England], our major colleges and universities [Brown, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Johnson & Wales University, the Rhode Island School of Design and Roger Williams University], developers [Wexford and CV], and any number of start up and early stage companies and entrepreneurs.

All these stakeholders are investing in R&D capabilities that then become potential connectors for growth in the biomedical industry sector.

Connecting neighborhoods
Connecting neighborhoods is also important. On the east side of the river, we have Foxpoint and College Hill neighborhoods and the Brown and RISD communities.

Practically, they are a long way from the west side of the river, where the Downtown, Jewelry District, Lifespan, and Brown’s Medical School, and the URI/RIC Nursing School are located.

The Pedestrian Bridge will provide the critical, walk-able connection that brings together people and ideas. The Park will create a campus-like environment that will enrich the potential for interactions that are so much a part of the emerging innovation economy.

Moving forward
What we have been lacking is a catalyst to get things moving. HR&A, one of the many consultants advising us on how best to move forward, has pointed out a key element: “Make our urban environment attractive.”

An attractive urban environment is one that delivers Greenspace.

The new economy seeks to attract highly educated millennials; and the competition for these people is intense. Part of attracting and retaining these millennials is delivering on an attractive urban environment and quality of life

As we learn about GE’s detailed plans in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, these realities reinforce all our guiding principles. We need to seize upon what we already have in the Jewelry District.

GE’s project in Boston will include three buildings on a 2.4-acre campus and is set to open in 2018. That is the same year when we will finally get our Pedestrian Bridge.

Ann Klee, GE’s head of Boston development and operations, said: “GE expects our new HQ will transform the existing, unused site into a hub of technology, innovation, and intellectual stimulation as well as become a new meaningful destination on the city’s Harborwalk.”

Doug Gensler, architect for GE’s HQ, is following GE’s directives, where employee wellness is an organizing principle.

Todd Donlon, a Gensler principle and project manager, said: “We were focused on developing a building that responds to GE’s desire to provide an environment that increases productivity. Access to daylight, access to fresh air and outdoor space is a very important piece of that puzzle.”

Seizing the day
And so, Rhode Island’s Gordian knot may soon be unraveled. All that remains is for us to seize the opportunities presented. We can build upon our existing strengths, with government and communities leading the way, working together to reinvent the Rhode Island economy.

The I 195 Commission has emphatically told us that economic development will be difficult, if not impossible, to realize without the building of the Pedestrian Bridge and Park.

The story has been told. GE has explained the “why.” We already have the “what” in our Pedestrian Bridge and Park, and the “when” is painfully clear. The “when” is now. We don’t have a moment to lose.

Sharon Steele is president of Building Bridges Providence. She can be reached at sharon@sharonsteele.com.

Olin Thompson is chairman of Building Bridges Providence. He can be reached at OT@OlinThompson.com

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