Updated March 27 at 8:27pm

City sees Route 6-10 replacement as way to improve conditions in poor neighborhoods. Will state agree?

(Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring the potential impact of the planned redesign/replacement of Providence's Route 6-10 connector.)

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City sees Route 6-10 replacement as way to improve conditions in poor neighborhoods. Will state agree?

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(Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring the potential impact of the planned redesign/replacement of Providence's Route 6-10 connector.)

Walking down Chapin Avenue toward Route 10 in Providence, the tail-end of rush hour becomes audible a block-and-a-half away.

Children are laughing and riding bikes; a man walks his dog. This is the West End neighborhood and the homes from Cranston Street to Ellery Street are well-kept.

But that all changes at the intersection of Chapin and Messer, where the road suddenly begins to descend toward Route 10. The last block of Chapin, where Valerie Stephens owns a single-family home with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, might as well be in a different neighborhood.

"I feel trapped," says Stephens, whose home is a stone's throw away from the Route 6-10 interchange, a tangled knot of roadways where Route 6 from the west meets Route 10 from the south.

Together – known as the "Route 6-10 connector" – the highway runs northeast about 1.6 miles to Interstate 95 in downtown Providence.

Each day, about 100,000 cars travel on the roadway, which snakes through six city neighborhoods. The decades-old highway is rapidly deteriorating, which has the state fast-tracking a plan to replicate and replace the roadway.

That decision, however, has exasperated some neighborhood advocates, who argue simply replacing the roadway is short-sighted, and will perpetuate the divide, isolation and disadvantages the 6-10 connector has caused for people, businesses and entire neighborhoods on that side of the city.

At least two buildings on Stephens' block are abandoned. Two more burned down in the last five years or so. A little shop on the corner closed. One of two empty lots has become known as a convenient place to dump trash. And for the last eight years, Stephens' next-door neighbors have included an array of squatters, vagrants and rodents.

"The rodent problem was so bad at one point, we couldn't even sit out in the yard," she said. "I'm thinking, ‘Who would want to live here? Why would you?'"

According to Kari N. Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, "The area has experienced huge amounts of economic disinvestment and decline because of the 6-10 and they are still suffering today."

Replacing the 6-10 in a way that fails to improve conditions in neighborhoods such as Stephens' "would be missing an opportunity to right the wrongs of past social justice," said Lang.

URBAN VS SUBURBAN

Olneyville Square was formally known as a second downtown of Providence.

A bustling neighborhood, with two rail stations, the neighborhood square was a business center where people could go instead of the downtown.

"It was the meeting spot to the west," said Bonnie Nickerson, Providence planning director.

Heavily traveled city streets still converge here, just west of Federal Hill, giving it a natural downtown feeling. But in the 1940s, city planners – faced with the exodus of urban families and the proliferation of automobiles in a post-World War II economy – decided it would benefit the city at-large to have a transportation system that better connected the downtown business district with suburbia.

"Urban areas are changing in character from one thickly populated, central city, to a group of satellite cities around the central city," wrote the Providence City Plan Commission in 1945.

Four years later, in 1949, a Master Plan for Thorofares was introduced. It included a design for the Olneyville Expressway – a precursor to the 6-10 connector. City planners at the time insisted the redesign would – among other things – remove two-thirds of traffic from Olneyville Square, create more business, increase land values and encourage better development.

The roadway was built, but everything else failed.

"The reality is that none of these things [was] met," Nickerson said. "What we got instead was large-scale disinvestment in the area and rapid population decline."

Indeed, not only did population fall dramatically – about 900 families left Olneyville in the 1940s and '50s – the city knocked down rows of houses and commercial buildings to build the roadway. Home values and traffic, if anything, got worse.

"We've had massive traffic issues there for a long time," said Jorge O. Elorza, Providence mayor, who grew up in this part of the city and now lives on the line between the neighborhoods of Olneyville and Silver Lake.

Businesses over time picked up and left, leaving buildings to deteriorate.

"Many of the buildings on the backside of Olneyville are abandoned, most of them are underutilized and that's absolutely connected to the fact that this is a dark, dead-end part of the city," Elorza said.

The city has a vision for how it would like to rebuild the roadway and undo much of the damage it says the 6-10 has caused over the last 70 years. But the window to accomplish anything substantial may be closing, as the city has money problems and the state – which has earmarked $400 million to replace the roadway – is moving full-speed ahead with its plan.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo on Sept. 7 said the time for debate had run out, and indicated she'd allow 60 more days for public input before directing Peter Alviti Jr., director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, to put the project out for bid. On Nov. 2 she extended the deadline by a week.

The impetus for this fast-track approach is based on safety concerns, as the Huntington Avenue viaduct received a sufficiency rating of 19 out of a possible 100.

Nonetheless, the timing, and the fact that the state hasn't moved to shut down, or place restrictions, on the bridge, doesn't sit well with neighborhood advocates.

"It's like being caught in an alleyway with a mugger," said James P. Kennedy, who writes the transportation blog, Transport Providence, and is a member of the 6-10 connector advocacy group Moving Together PVD. "What RIDOT has said is, ‘We're going to build whatever we want because we're in charge, so you better make some decisions quickly.' "

VISION VS. REALITY

In the wake of Raimondo's decision, the city has moved relatively quickly to offer up an alternative.

Elorza and Nickerson on Oct. 3 unveiled a plan to build a parkway running from Roger Williams Park to downtown.

The plan is designed to – among other things – reconnect neighborhoods, create an elevated roundabout, dubbed a "halo," and augment the number of entering and exiting options. City officials say the plan could cost less than the $400 million the state wants to spend, but couldn't immediately provide specifics.

"We're talking about reconnecting neighborhoods," Elorza said, addressing one of the top issues raised by community members during a series of community meetings that started at the beginning of the year.

"The road is currently designed as a way to move people efficiently from one part of the state to another part," he added. "I feel very confident that we can move people just as efficiently – if not more – with this different design that takes into account the needs and the vision of what we have here in the city."

The city wants to reduce the width of the roadway, and reclaim 50 acres of land for development. Elorza says this could translate into much-needed job opportunities for individuals living in those neighborhoods who make substantially less than the city average, and attract others to live there.

The plan would also create two miles of new, off-road bike paths and recreational trails, which is important to Elorza at a policy level, but also a personal level, as he bikes from his home to City Hall nearly every morning.

"It's literally a five-minute bike ride from downtown," he said. "Historically, we don't think about Olneyville as being connected to downtown, but if you could just hit that straight shot, I think it would do wonders for the neighborhood."

Besides reconnecting neighborhoods, and creating more transportation choices, however, the city's goals for the 6-10 connector sound a lot like the goals detailed in the Master Plan for Thorofares from 1949: Improve quality of life, maximize economic benefits and return on investment and reduce traffic congestion in Olneyville Square.

The city's push to double the number of exits and add at least one new on-ramp between Hartford Avenue and Dean Street would require federal review, which city officials admit could add time to the process.

And while the city introduced its plan within 30 days of Raimondo's initial announcement, it still might have come too late. The governor believes bridge-safety concerns are serious enough to warrant moving forward by the end of the year on a plan to upgrade the 6-10 bridges.

"I can't take six months to think about it," Raimondo recently told Providence Business News.

The Elorza administration, however, is adamant that its plan – unlike the one from decades ago – will truly benefit the neighborhoods and its residents. And even if the state won't take any of it into consideration, it's possible certain aspects of it could still be implemented over time.

But even if some of the city's plan is adopted, not everyone thinks affected neighborhoods will benefit.

COMMUNITY DISCONNECT

Oscar O. Vargas, who owns a mechanic shop in Warwick, and a home on Webster Street near Route 6 in Providence, says he's reviewed the city's plan, and doesn't believe it would alleviate traffic or spark private investment.

"There's no saving this neighborhood," said Vargas, who's also president of the Latino Society of Rhode Island.

Gaspar Espinoza, president of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, says his association has largely been ignored in both the statewide and city planning process. When asked how, Espinoza said to look no further than the city's Oct. 3 meeting to unveil its parkway plan that was held downtown – far from the afflicted neighborhoods.

"There's a lack of appreciation this part of the city feels from its politicians, all the way from city to federal officials," he said. "They come to talk with us when they need to be re-elected, and then you don't see or hear from them until the next election."

Espinoza, who's also reviewed the plans, worries the city's push for reclaiming land for redevelopment is more likely to attract low-income housing than high-paying jobs.

"Instead of selling empty lots to multimillion dollar companies, like Family Dollar, or instead of building a Walgreens, they should develop parking structures and invest in sidewalks so people can walk and have less traffic," Espinoza added. "They talk about developing the economy here to make better jobs, but at the same time, how can you develop something when you don't have the infrastructure, you don't have friendlier sidewalks. No one is going to come here."

Espinoza and Vargas both believe the city and state are missing the big picture, saying that if millions of dollars are to be invested into the area, it should go toward more basic infrastructure to attract small-business owners and job-training programs to help local residents, not state highways.

"If anything, these plans are going to create more poverty, and not help the people who're really suffering," Vargas said.

Lang says residents and advocates for the neighborhoods have worked together to try and reconnect the communities. As examples, she pointed to towering murals that decorate some of the underpasses, which create a more inviting atmosphere, and new fencing along segments of Westminster Street designed to reconnect Olneyville, Federal Hill and the West End. But she says there's only so much that can be done without more support, which hasn't come in any significant way for decades.

"The damage of this infrastructure that divides and clogs needs greater intervention than our efforts can provide," Lang said. "It's a never-ending, uphill battle."

ANOTHER GENERATION?

The neighborhoods surrounding the 6-10 connector are among the poorest in the state.

Residents are prominently black or Hispanic and more than one-quarter of them are living in poverty.

In Olneyville, for instance, 71 percent of the 6,495 residents are black or Hispanic, according to 2007 data compiled by The Providence Plan, a Providence nonprofit. (Vargas disputes these figures, saying it's closer to 80 percent). At the same time, the median family income is $19,046, or 40 percent less than the citywide average.

To compare, on the East Side, in the Blackstone neighborhood, 92.5 percent of the 7,358 residents are white and the median family income totals $117,522, or 266.6 percent more than the citywide average.

The city sees the 6-10 connector largely contributing to some of these economic disparities, as median home prices in neighborhoods along the highway are relatively low and owner-occupied housing units are scant. And despite the pushback both locally and at the state level, Elorza has identified this moment, as the state looks to spend money on the roadway, as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to start improving the socioeconomic conditions in this area.

"It's been shown that conditions get worse near the highways," said Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. "If the state just rebuilds what's there, it's doubtful it would get much worse, but we're talking about some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state, so what's at stake is the opportunity to improve them."

For more than a generation, the 6-10 connector has negatively impacted the surrounding neighborhoods, Runyon added, so it's unclear to him why the decision to leave it unchanged would result in anything different for at least another generation.

"Whatever people are around growing up will influence them for the rest of their lives," Runyon said. "If a kid that's born in 10 years grows up in a place that's better than it is today, then that's great. Why wouldn't we want that for someone and their children?"

Originally from Boston, Stephens moved to Chapin Avenue in 2004. She landed a job with Lifespan Inc. and bought her home. It was affordable and the neighborhood at the time wasn't so bad. Some families lived here. Then the housing market crashed, and the value of her home fell $30,000. She stayed, others left.

The asthma rate for students who attend schools near the 6-10 connector is about 18 percent, which is six percentage points greater than the statewide average and more than double the national average.

Stephens was diagnosed with asthma two years after she moved to the neighborhood. Her doctor thought it was related to her pregnancy, which isn't abnormal. But it's never gone away, and she doesn't remember her doctor ever asking her any questions about where she lived.

"I'm trying to hang in here, but I tell you that if my home value went up today, I'd be out," she said. "I don't even care if I break even, I just want out, because I don't want to raise my daughter in this environment." •

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