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Why isn’t Providence backing the Ship Street Canal?
By Ian Donnis

How about this idea for a new and improved Providence: using land made available by the relocation of Interstate 195, the city taps mostly federal funds to create a distinctive canal extending from the Providence River into the heart of the Jewelry District. And unlike the paths alongside the river — which attract little activity beyond WaterFire nights — the additional waterfront constituted by the canal would attract pedestrians, cafes, mixed-use buildings, and other elements of heightened day-and-night activity.

Local landscape architect Paul R.V. Pawlowski, recognizing the opportunities afforded by the moving of I-195, and concerned that the city was straying from the original intent of its Old Harbor plan, conceived the canal concept in 1999. He believed a canal would offer a variety of economic, civic, and environmental benefits, and since the I-195 relocation will require the presence of earth-moving equipment, he thought, " Why not stay a little longer, dig a little deeper, and create a canal that could provide increase water frontage for mixed-use development? "

Perhaps it’s understandable that Pawlowski’s ambitious plan has existed as something of a whimsical and obscure notion since it was first floated. The Providence of today is built in no small part, after all, on changes in the city’s fabric — the relocation of two downtown rivers, for example — that once seemed very unlikely, if not impossible. At the same time, the city’s willingness to strive for a high mark in creative redevelopment came up very short when potential-laden 19th-century mill complexes on Charles Street and in Eagle Square gave way in recent years, respectively, to a Home Depot and a hybrid retail hodgepodge.

Still, the New Year is nothing if not a good time for fresh dreams and bold thinking, and the Jewelry District Association’s Canal Committee is working to gin up support for the envisioned quarter-mile Ship Street Canal (the commonly used name notwithstanding, the canal would run toward downtown from the river, between Ship and Charlesfield streets, following the current path of I-195). Pawlowski, whose resume includes the 13-mile long waterfront of Kuwait City, and the Jewelry District Association (www.jewelrydistrict.org) are also refining a scope of work for a financial and environmental feasibility study of the canal.

The main impediment to the concept seems to be the city’s skeptical posture, as expressed by Thomas E. Deller, director of the Providence Department of Planning & Development. For starters, the cost of moving a Dyer Street sewer line to accommodate the waterway could top $10 million, Deller says. But the main concern, he says, is how the state Department of Transportation indicated in 2000 that the canal would not be eligible for federal funds, apparently because an environmental impact study necessary for the I-195 relocation would have to be reopened, and doing so would cause unacceptable delays on the highway project. When it comes to the canal, Deller says, " If we can not get federal dollars for it, then it is not feasible. The city doesn’t have the wherewithal to do the project. "

But Phoebe Blake, co-chair of the JDA’s Canal Committee, cites " nothing in what we’ve learned from the federal people that would stop us right now. " The state’s congressional delegation has been supportive, she says, and the federal government’s 80 percent contribution to transit-related projects is expected to continue in coming years. As far as the doubtful stance outlined by Deller, Blake says, " I hope it can be overcome. That’s why we keep on [going]. "

Pawlowski puts the ballpark price for the infrastructure to create the canal at between $50 million and $100 million. Even with the costs, the concept offers so many potential benefits, he contends, that it deserves further consideration. A November 15 meeting on the topic attracted 25 percent of the registered voters in the Jewelry District, Pawlowski says, reflecting a significant amount of public support.

The envisioned canal would feature a series of bridges and walkways before ending in a attention-getting fountain as part of a new civic plaza at the intersection of Chestnut and Clifford streets. Besides offering a landmark that will serve as a gateway and meeting place between Downcity and the Jewelry District, the fountain would be designed to draw water from the Providence River, filter it, and recycle it back into the river. Boosters say the canal would also increase Providence’s in-town waterfront by 20 percent, bolstering opportunities for tax-generating waterfront real estate.

While canals may conjure grimy industrial images for some, anyone who has been to Venice can recognize the sublime quality of that city’s waterways. Pawlowski points to other places, including Cleveland, Baltimore, Chattanooga, and Portland, Oregon, that have experienced rebirths through improved waterfronts. As he put it in a 1999 op-ed in the ProJo, " With more street life at night, living in the city will be even more exciting and desirable. The combination of all these elements adds vitality, and with it, Providence will seem even more like a European city than it does now. "

The strategy for moving the canal concept forward includes making more people aware of it, and continuing to work through the Jewelry District Association’s Canal Committee. Like Deller, Pawlowski says the project won’t work if it is not done in connection with the relocation of I-195.

The actual removal of the existing highway is slated for 2012. Five years might seem a long way out, but given the studies and the federal funds required, it’s critical to move quickly to build a firm foundation for this promising concept.

Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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