They called it the “Chinese Wall.”
A series of elevated railroad tracks cutting through Providence, it had become a sign of the city’s decline. It seemed Providence was all train yards and parking lots. And underground rivers.
Plans were made to address the issues. According to William D. Warner the project’s chief architect and planner, the 1982 Capital Center Plan did as much harm as good. It included a highway interchange that would have dumped even more traffic into downtown and turned a rotary around a World War I monument into even more of a nightmare than it already was. And still nearly 70 percent of the 2,400-foot river way was obscured by bridges and buildings. Something more had to be done.
In 1983, the Providence Foundation took the first step and began a campaign to reclaim the city’s rivers, a project that the Bruner Foundation would award a silver medal in 2003 for Urban Excellence.
“A simple solution occurred to me,” Warner said: “Remove the decking, build the boulevard on the downtown side and a park on the College Hill side, then connect the streets on both sides of the river with graceful bridges like most normal cities do.”
Without demolishing a single building, the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck and Providence rivers were reconfigured. With the new river corridor in the center of the city, seven new bridges were designed for traffic, Warner said. Five other bridges were built for pedestrian use. Surprisingly, it was a huge public works project built with little serious opposition and little political wrangling.
With the relocation also came Waterplace Park, a four-acre park that contained several plazas, an amphitheater and a visitor center.
The $140-million project, which was largely funded with Federal Highway Administration money, freed up nearly 60 acres of land for the city to redevelop, said Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline.
And, according to former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., completion of the project took Providence from a “wannabe city to a hot city.”
At the time of the river relocations, no office buildings had been built in the city in nearly 60 years. By 1982, all movie theaters and department stores had left downtown.
Paolino said the project helped convince developers to bring commercial and residential real estate to downtown and thus helped businesses, including Citizens Bank and the Capital Grille, to locate downtown.
Paolino, whose tenure lasted from 1983 to 1991, believed the project would be a catalyst for the city’s renaissance.
“I thought it would bring a rebirth to Providence,” Paolino said. “I thought it would start the renaissance that we, for so many years, were waiting for. When you’re in public office you always look for great achievements and I consider this to be the top accomplishment that I had in my administration.”
But more than a magnet for business investment, the project helped the city develop itself as a tourist attraction.
Featured in National Geographic magazine and referred to by architects as the “crown jewel” of the city’s rebirth, WaterFire Providence took advantage of the opening of Waterplace Park and the availability of that new land.
“I started to think of using art as an element for civil ritual that would engage people and transform their expectations of the place,” said Barnaby Evans, who created the lighting of torches on the river.
First done on Dec. 31, 1994, WaterFire was intended to be a one-time celebration of the city and of the 10th anniversary of First Night Providence, Evans said. But demand for it to return grew, and WaterFire became a regular event in 1996, with a season that consists of 20 to 25 lightings per year.
A study by former University of Rhode Island natural resource economics professor Timothy J. Tyrrell and Acadia Consulting Group said WaterFire attracted more than 1.1 million people to Providence in 2004. Of the total visitors, 57 percent came from outside of Rhode Island and 79 percent said their reason for coming to the state was WaterFire, with a direct economic impact of $33.2 million.
And according to Cicilline, the events have helped people gain a greater insight into Providence’s culture.
“WaterFire has brought millions of people into the city over the course of its life [and given them] the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and magic of Providence,” Cicilline said. And “it helped the residents of this state, really of this region, value and appreciate the importance of open space,” Cicilline said.
While acknowledging the tremendous impact the project had on the region, Cicilline said he is looking to the future and intends to release his vision for the city, titled “Providence 2020,” within the next couple of weeks.
Much like the relocation of the rivers and the railroad tracks gave the city 60 acres of land to redevelop, he sees opportunity with the relocation of Interstate 195, he said, with an estimated 35 acres opening up.
Much of that vision will revolve around connecting the city’s neighborhoods to a “much more vibrant downtown,” he said.