Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan

Governor Chafee and Mayor Grebian discussing the Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan with architect Maia Small.

Bike Sharrows, the first in Rhode Island, have been added to Roosevelt Avenue linking the Blackstone Valley Bikeway to Providence as part of an affiliated project lead by the City and the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.


Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is a city of roughly 73,000 situated just a few miles north of Providence on the Blackstone River. Like many small New England cities, Pawtucket’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with history. It expanded with the industrial revolution in the 1800s, suffered an outflow of manufacturing in the 1930s, lost residents and density to suburbanization and urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s, and resurged with real estate growth in the early 2000s.

Many of these eras introduced plans to redesign Pawtucket’s physical environment, and the city today reflects these layered efforts. Its unused train station deteriorates slowly above a closed rail stop. Interstate 95 coarsely cuts off the downtown from its neighborhoods. The core of the city, once a meeting point of historic routes, is now a confusing set of one-way streets and inescapable loops.

In the spring of 2010, the City of Pawtucket’s Planning Department and the Pawtucket Foundation initiated a project to fix the downtown. Called the Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan, the project’s goal is to improve the city’s infrastructure and, as a result, foster sustainable economic and residential development. The city selected the Thurlow Small Architecture to lead a team that includes:  L+A Landscape Architecture; McMahon Associates, traffic engineering; Horsley Witten Group, regulatory consultant; and Highchair designhaus, graphic design and signage consultant, for the 10-month project to study traffic, public space, and zoning.

Before solving Pawtucket’s problems, the PDDP team had to better understand their roots. In 1790 Pawtucket presented a vision of America as an urban industrial nation to a receptive Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of Treasury, as he crossed the Main Street Bridge and visited Slater Mill. The city soon emerged as a dense urban hub connected to commercial corridor spokes. That clear pattern, though still evident today, was later interrupted by major projects intended to benefit the city, like the interstate and the northeast rail corridor as well as a succession of planning decisions that altered the function of short segments of roadway and intersections.

While presumably made with good intentions, these choices inevitably undid established connections. The design team found that linking existing routes, instead of reconfiguring them, could allow people to use their natural instincts to get around. All we had to do in a town developed during the textile era, was knit its original threads back together.

The Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan proposes five concepts in response to specific problems that look backward to move forward — not through nostalgia but common sense.

Problem  While Pawtucket is not congested, it is really hard to get to and move around downtown.

Concept:  The first concept reconnects the historic turnpike system, including the former Boston Post Road, so that travelers see clearly how to get to and from Main Street. This Turnpike System concept would first be implemented on Main Street and East Avenue Extension by opening them to two-way traffic, decreasing wide intersections, increasing on street parking, and enhancing both pedestrian and bicycle access.  Supportive details of this system include way finding and street signage that work from prior downtown signage programs, environmentally and business-friendly street furnishing options for Main Street, and the recommendation of a lighting replacement program. This project also encourages the use of newly available public space in key locations to be developed into special gateways to downtown.

Problem: The rail, the river, the highway, public transit and an upcoming Blackstone Valley Bikeway all come through but not together in downtown.

Concept: The second concept identifies Exchange Street as a true place of “exchange” between the highway, the river, the coming train station, and the delineated systems for bicycles, local car and bus traffic, and pedestrians. This concept would first be implemented on Exchange Street between Broadway and the Nathanson Bridge in the Armory District and near Tolman High School as part of an existing street improvement project currently underway.  The Exchange concept employs the sidewalk ribbon concept that employs a buffer space between pedestrians and traffic where public amenities, utilities and trees can be located as well as cycle tracks for bicycle use in high traffic volume areas. The Exchange also proposes two new bicycle loops, or bike circulators, that would use striping, signage, and bicycle amenities to safely link the coming bikeway and downtown to important historic sites, local schools and McCoy stadium. This concept also encourages the integration of new RIPTA rapid bus changes and future commuter rail pedestrian linkages into the downtown area as those projects move forward.

Problem:  Finding parking is downtown is perceived as a problem even though there is too much surface parking.

Concept:  The third concept is a “P”arking system that will discourage the creation of new surface parking and decrease the city’s environmental impact. Aspects of this concept include: encouraging future landscape systems that replace impervious parking surfaces with permeable options to decrease the heat island effect and improve water runoff issues; lighting replacement strategies to decrease energy use and light pollution; signage to improve way finding and enhance use; and the encouragement of specific areas of on street parking limit enforcement to allow the downtown system to work better as is.  The concept also encourages the introduction of two-wheeled motor vehicle parking to support more environmentally-friendly transportation.

Problem: The river is a vital resource, but not very publicly accessible.

Concept: The fourth project develops a River way that supports public spaces along the mostly undeveloped river and connects them to local neighborhoods. This concept proposes that specific existing areas of public land be developed into public parks and viewpoints to frame the river for residents and visitors, connected to each other and the coming Blackstone Valley Bikeway. Two parks have already been designated adjacent to the new Bridge 550 project, Bridge Park East and West; a design proposal for the latter is included in the PDDP. As well, this project encourages the incorporation of sustainable practices in downtown, including the adoption of a tree ordinance and a green street network initiative to increase the tree canopy.

Problem:  The current regulatory process relies on special use permits and variances.

Concept:  The final project, Downtown Guidance, cleans up zoning and land use issues to encourage the pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development the city wants and discourage the car-dominated, low density it doesn’t. This concept assists the city in changing its current regulations to offer mixed use and multi-tenant commercial by right, removing parking requirements for the Commercial Downtown District, reduces allowable maximum height restrictions in downtown and offers development guidelines to support appropriate and compatible urban design and architecture.

The PDDP concepts are broad in ambition, but detailed and organized into a list of projects that address short, medium and long-term phase implementation. While each project can be completed individually, they also add up to a bigger more productive vision and will require coordination between local and state level agencies, continued political and community support, and funding from federal, state and local levels.

Inevitably, the Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan is not really a single “plan” so much as a set of ongoing projects. These efforts may not fix everything about downtown, but they will give the city a solid infrastructural base that provides healthy and clear ways to get around by allowing the city to leverage its many strengths. Pawtucket is what so many places are not — a small, walkable urban center filled with new and old buildings, neighborhoods of people from all over the world, hardy entrepreneurs, and accessible city government. At just one corner, Fountain and Exchange streets, you can find a world-class theater, a silkscreen company, a high school, a renovated mill full of design companies, a historic armory, and, just across the adjacent river full of wildlife, you reach City Hall, a post office, a public library, and a historic site soon to be the center of a new National Park. In developing the downtown plan, the PDDP team found that the best design direction was simply to make a place evident to itself and others.

News Links:

Pawtucket Times / February 22, 2011
Downtown Design Well-Received

Providence Business News / December 23, 2011
Thurlow gets awards for Pawtucket

GoLocal / January 30, 2011
RI’s Downtowns, How are They Doing?