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Dying City Rises Again in an Act of Providence

Renewal: Urban planners applaud the make-over, the exhuming of rivers and the building of a new mall. They say other cities should pay attention.


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This New England city, settled more than 350 years ago by Puritan dissenters, rose to greatness during the Industrial Revolution. By the 1970s it was virtually rotting away, a case study in urban decay.

Like so many other industrial cities in the Northeast, it was shrinking in size, dirty and decrepit.

Entertainer Bette Midler, passing through Providence, described it as "the pits."

Now Rhode Island's capital city has been reborn, and urban planners say other cities should pay attention to what's happening here.

"Providence is a demonstration project that the whole rest of the United States should be looking at,' said James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere" and the forthcoming "Home From Nowhere."

"If they can bring it off, they're really going to set the standard for urban rehabilitation in the 21st century."

Even Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr., the city's biggest cheerleader, acknowledges that Providence was grim a few years ago.

"Downtown was dead," he said. "You could throw a bowling ball through it. The Biltmore Hotel was closed, retail was dead."

Now a revival is in full swing.

Rivers once buried beneath asphalt have been exhumed and lined with walkways and an amphitheater. Railroad tracks that divided the financial district from the state's historic, white-marble statehouse have been moved and placed underground, opening 60 acres for office buildings and apartments.

Construction is to begin this spring on the $359-million Providence Place mall, an upscale shopping center that will include ground-level gardens leading to the Woonasquatucket River and a skywalk that will allow shoppers access to a new hotel and convention center complex.

The make-over has been achieved, according to urban renewal experts, without sacrificing the city's considerable architectural heritage.

"It's a city which I rank up with Boston as two of the most pleasing places in the Northeast," said John Mullin, professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "The city protected brick and stone and kept the character of the city when other people were knocking down so much."

The revival of Providence "has to be understood as being very different from the kind of urban renewal nonsense that was going on in America for the last 30 years," Kunstler said. "It aimed to use the existing buildings as much as possible. It aimed to restore the traditional city relationships."

Anton Nelessen, an associate professor of urban planning at Rutgers University in New Jersey, compared the changes in Providence to the revival of Cleveland, another city that hit bottom in the '70s.

"It's the same thing," he said. "Fifteen years ago, you could burn oil on top of the Cuyahoga River. Now, there's not enough room for all the pleasure boats."

City officials hope to see a similar scene in Providence. Plans call for flat-bottomed water taxis to run from near the mall's entrance to a row of bars and restaurants where the Providence River empties into Narragansett Bay.

Although that aspect of the renewal still is in the planning stages, many other changes have been completed. Among them:

* Train tracks were moved and placed underground and a new train station built across the street from the statehouse, while the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers were brought back above ground, rechanneled and framed with riverwalks and an amphitheater called Waterplace Park. The cost of the project, paid for with federal, state, city and private funds, was about $150 million.

* The abandoned Union Station was sold to a private developer, who converted it to offices and a pair of popular restaurants.

* The Rhode Island Convention Center opened in 1993, followed in 1994 by the attached Westin Hotel, at a total estimated cost to taxpayers of $572 million.

The changes have occurred against the backdrop of a city struggling to redefine itself. Settled in 1636 by Roger Williams, a religious dissenter from the Puritans' Massachusetts Bay Colony, Providence's population peaked at about 253,000 in 1940.

A half-century of manufacturing decline and flight to the suburbs have left the city's population at about 160,000. The city and state were hard hit by the recession, which was intensified in Rhode Island by the 1991 collapse of the state-insured banking system.

Providence continues to struggle with budget problems and a burgeoning immigrant population that has strained city services and overcrowded its schools. But the improvements to its downtown have served to rejuvenate the city.

Seemingly minor changes, such as reopening the rivers, have made all the difference, Kunstler said.

A key to Providence's rebirth has been the city's decision to be satisfied with gradual change, Mullin said.

"Rather than home runs, in Providence it was a bunch of singles," he said. "It's more like 'Bolero' than 'The 1812 Overture.' "

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