PAWTUCKET — On the surface, a city with a vibrant river running through it should be able to boast about “location, location, location.” Yet, because the Blackstone River was long used and abused for the purpose of industry, the riverfront property in Pawtucket and neighboring Central Falls is far from anyone's idea of “high-end” real estate.
However, today's leaders in both Pawtucket and Central Falls are taking a different view of the river corridor and its potential to boost the region's attractiveness for economic development and tourism. To that end, Pawtucket and Central Falls planning officials and The Pawtucket Foundation have joined forces to have design experts look at the river corridor and come up with ways to capitalize on it.
Last Thursday, a public meeting was held on a River Corridor Development Plan that a consulting team has done to identify the best use of resources to improve the region and encourage investment. The study was funded through a state grant and is geared toward actions that can be taken to assist in the redevelopment of existing buildings and property and the development of vacant land surrounding the waterway.
Consultants from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., LLB Architects and Britt Page Consulting presented several strategies and recommendations for promoting the natural beauty and redevelopment potential of the riverfront property that runs roughly from Roosevelt Avenue and the Chocolate Mill Overlook in Central Falls to the Division Street/-I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge and Seekonk River area in Pawtucket.
Pawtucket Planning Director Barney Heath and Senior Planner Susan Marra said that about 50 people attended Thursday's meeting at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center to view the presentation. Attendees were also invited to provide input through “live” voting on several of the key ideas and on what projects should be prioritized. “There was a good response from the community and a lot of energy,” noted Heath.
Heath said that one of the major recommendations from the consultants was to improve the “gateways” to the river corridor and to downtown Pawtucket for motorists entering the city from Interstate 95. It was suggested that signage be placed at the end of the ramps at exits 27, 28, 29 and 30 to direct motorists to various local landmarks such as Slater Mill and the Visitor Center, City Hall and the downtown, McCoy Stadium, and the Armory Arts/Gamm Theatre District. Landscaping at these signage points and at traffic islands was also suggested.
The consultants also recommended adding more housing opportunities, particularly small condominiums and rental properties, through both new construction and the rehabilitation of existing buildings along the river corridor. Heath said this idea is particularly being considered for the failed hotel property on Division Street, where the city is in the process of drafting a “request for proposals.”
Along School Street, Heath said the consultants suggested a major clearing of the overgrowth of trees and brush that is currently blocking the views of the river. Enhancing the water views and adding a dedicated bicycle path along School Street is designed to connect the riverfront with the surrounding neighborhood, he said. A park has also been proposed as part of the I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge project, and it is suggested that the park be linked with a trail system along the river.
Enhancements were also suggested for Roosevelt Avenue in order to connect the residential end in Central Falls with the section running past City Hall and Slater Mill. More tree-plantings and other landscaping and clearly marked crosswalks will make the street more “pedestrian-friendly” and encourage more foot traffic into the downtown, the consultants said.
Other suggestions for energizing Roosevelt Avenue include building some type of commercial development in the parking lot across from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families offices and adding a larger commercial and/or retail development with a parking deck in the large municipal parking lot across from Pawtucket City Hall.
To enhance the riverfront park around Slater Mill, the consultants suggested new landscaping and sidewalk and overlook improvements. They also noted that “fish ladders” are in the process of being constructed there and suggested the creation of viewing stations for visitors. Connecting the riverwalk from the Apex property to Slater Mill Park was also proposed to enhance recreational opportunities.
The consultants looked at the current Rhode Island Public Transit Authority hub on Roosevelt Avenue and suggested moving it to the other side of the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center on High Street (across from the Tavares Newsstand). They provided a design rendering of a new bus shelter that would combine a cafe with a waiting area.
Additionally, the consultants suggested landscaping and other improvements to Front Street and to create a new overlook to the river. They also recommended exploring a shared bicycle lane on Central Street that would link bicyclists from Roosevelt Avenue to Front Street.
Heath said that another riverfront site in Central Falls slated for improvements is the Town Landing on Broad Street. He said Central Falls officials are in the process of putting out requests for proposals for the development of a dock and commercial building at the site.
Heath said the feedback from attendees will be analyzed and discussed with planning officials from both cities. Another public meeting on the river corridor proposals, including an updated status report, will be held in the spring.