PAWTUCKET — A plan born of common sense--that the downtown would thrive more if people could just get in to and around it more easily—was presented to about 60 people at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center last Thursday. While some called it “ambitious,” the proposal received an enthusiastic round of applause.
Maia Small, an architect with Thurlow Small Architecture, served as the lead consultant on a Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan that was commissioned by the city's Planning Department and the Pawtucket Foundation.
In the third public meeting, she presented the final recommendations of the consultants' plan that aims to help revitalize the downtown through parking and street improvements, signage and zoning modifications.
Small outlined proposals that focus on several main components: reconnecting historic turnpikes that lead in and out of the city, revamping roads to better accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, designing a mass transit hub on Exchange Street, creating more public space, trees and other landscaping for a “greener” downtown, improving public parking, and modifying zoning to encourage economic development.
Small pointed out that the original turnpike roads were designed when Pawtucket was a center of commerce and they provided a link to Providence, Boston and New York.
However, she noted that many of these turnpike connections were lost through a later reconfiguration to one-way streets, the interstate highway system and other types of development. The consultants' plan recommends reconnecting these turnpikes so that downtown Pawtucket becomes an urban core once again.
One of the first priorities to re-establish the turnpike routes involves widening the East Avenue Extension from George Street to Main Street so it can accommodate two-way traffic once again. She said that discussions have been held with Rhode Island Department of Transportation officials to do this as quickly as possible in light of the detours that are currently in place.
Other longer-term recommendations that would help reconnect the turnpikes would be restoring two-way traffic to the East Avenue Extension from Main Street to Summer Street; Main Street from Broad Street to High Street, Pawtucket Avenue from East Avenue to Division Street and Main Street from Mineral Spring Avenue to Church Street. As an additional aid to motorists, there was a suggestion to erect new, color-coded signage that would list the street names as well as the turnpike system they are a part of.
Other recommendations in the downtown proper section of Main Street call for sidewalk and roadway improvements that would involve raised sidewalks and the addition of “bump-outs,” crosswalks and bike lanes. There would be new parking spaces at varying intervals, particularly from Main Street to Dexter Street, and raised, handicapped-accessible crosswalks at Main and North Union streets, at Main and Maple streets, and again near the The Grant building and Places & Spaces Realty office.
Small said that the bump-outs, crosswalks and other changes function as “traffic-calming” devices that will make the downtown more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly without inconveniencing motorists or business customers.
For getting around the downtown, the plan calls for an “Exchange Boulevard” to be created on Exchange Street that would help organize buses, bikes and cars. The first phase, for which there is already funding in place for further development, would begin at the Nathanson (Exchange Street) Bridge and continue past Tolman High School to Broadway. This would involve road improvements that would create a “loading zone” for the drop off and pick up of students at Tolman High School, as well as the addition of dedicated bike paths and a park-like “gateway” space at the intersection of Exchange and Broadway.
Later phases would continue the improvements further down Exchange Street to Dexter Street. Small also said these plans coincide with separate road improvements that are currently in the works for Roosevelt Avenue and the Slater Mill historical site.
To improve parking, Small said the consultants recommended the adoption of new signage that uses a blue “P” to clearly designate parking garages and lots. She also noted that city officials are looking into renovating the municipal garage, and said the planned development projects, once completed, will create more on-street parking in the downtown.
Small noted that there is an effort to get people thinking differently about parking in an urban area as a way to encourage downtown development. The improved signage and stricter enforcement of a two-hour on-street parking limit will assist people in locating available parking in and around the downtown.
Concurrent to these proposals are a set of zoning changes drafted by another consultant, Nathan E. Kelly of the Horsley Witten Group. These zoning revisions were recently submitted to the city's Planning Department for review. Among these recommendations is a change in zoning requirements that would eliminate the need for developers to provide parking for a new commercial business.
Kelly explained that the thinking behind this “zero” requirement is that potential developers who are interested in purchasing an older, landlocked commercial building won't have to be limited by the city's current minimum parking requirement. Kelly pointed out that a business owner can, obviously, still choose to provide parking but it won't be mandatory.
As part of the downtown design study, Small noted several recommendations that are designed to link public spaces along the waterway. Among the short-term projects is a proposal, again in conjunction with RIDOT, that a planned stormwater retention basin that is part of the Pawtucket River Bridge replacement project be turned into a scenic park. Instead of just a hole in the ground surrounded by fencing, the consultants have designed a meandering, tree-lined channel with a pedestrian bridge over it.
Longer-term plans call for more public access to the river by linking Slater Mill to Festival Pier, and eventual pedestrian/bike bridges and routes to connect the east side to the west side and the School Street neighborhood to the river, Small said.
Among the highlights of the other proposed zoning changes are a recommendation to create a “variance free” environment through adjustments to the existing code, and protecting historic buildings through design-based standards.
In addition to the proposed zero parking requirement in the commercial downtown, other recommended zoning changes include allowing mixed use and multi-tenant commercial zoning by right and having no residential unit density requirement. It is also suggested that the process should change by shifting parts of the development plan review from the ordinance to the regulations.
Further down the road are proposals that the city do planning around the future commuter rail station, and that “design guidelines” be adopted to ensure that building facades and other components contribute to the character and identity of the downtown. Also suggested are initiatives to encourage downtown business owners to finance plantings and other natural beautification efforts.
The zoning changes are currently being reviewed by the city's Planning Department prior to adoption. The downtown design plan is awaiting implementation on its various phases as future review and funding become available. “Hopefully, there will be a second wave of funding for stimulus projects,” Small said, in concluding her presentation.
Barney Heath, the city's Acting Planning Director, said after the meeting that, short-term, the city will be implementing the zoning changes following a review process. City officials will also be working with RIDOT on the proposals and projects that are related to the Pawtucket River Bridge replacement project. After that, he said, the other proposals contained in the consultants' study will be dependent on “when we have the funding.”
Heath said the downtown design plan, which cost $100,000, was paid for through an $80,000 grant from the Statewide Planning office, and an additional $20,000 that was funded half by the city and half by the Pawtucket Foundation.
The entire downtown design plan is available on-line at www.downtownpawtucket.us .