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Crowded is good

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Robert Whitcomb: Crowded is good

Sunday, October 3, 2004

The plans by "developers" to tear down three buildings in central Providence might undermine their own long-term interests. That's because they might make the city where they do business uglier, and a less agreeable place to buy and sell goods and services, not to mention rent and buy and sell real estate -- that is, unless the developers put buildings, hopefully beautiful ones, in place of the ones to be torn down, instead of leaving cavities in the form of parking lots.

Granoff Associates wants to tear down the old Providence National Bank Building, with addresses at 90 Westminster St. and 30 Weybosset, and the first Federal Savings and Loan Building, at 110 Westminster St., thus ripping apart the old-fashioned cityscape next to the sublime Providence Arcade! Meanwhile, Pat Cortellessa wants parking to replace an old commercial building at 100 Washington St.

Adding yet more downtown parking lots would make one of the city's most distinguishing and saleable qualities -- a semi-intact old-fashioned center with lovely old mercantile buildings -- less attractive, and more like fabulous downtown, er, Worcester. Not a prescription for economic growth.

The problem with downtown Providence is not "lack of public parking" or "too much traffic." Traffic bespeaks prosperity and vitality. Crowded cities are healthy cities. Besides Providence, I have lived in several big municipalities -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Paris -- and it's clear to me that the more crowded they are, the better they are. I remember the creepiness of Center City in Philadelphia, because so many streets were empty at night except for random criminals.

The biggest problem in downtown Providence -- which used to be wonderfully crowded and vital back when it was one of the more important (and perhaps the most prosperous) burgs in America -- is a lack of businesses that employ locals and pay property and other taxes, which, in turn, pay for municipal services. Many companies have been scared away by municipal corruption, inefficiency and a related problem: sky-high taxes. The municipal labor contracts have been a masterpiece of special-interest politics. But don't blame my friends in the labor movement -- blame politicians eager to pay off a well-heeled and powerful group. (Full disclosure: I have been a member of four unions -- in the private sector -- at one of which I was the grievance chairman.)

Of course, some businesses have simply left for the ambiguous charms of the suburbs, which are rapidly turning into fields of asphalt while losing the purported advantages of cheap space and easy mobility they once had. Actually, compact Providence is far more convenient, in time and distance, for shopping and most other errands, than are most suburbs, and certainly far more interesting. And much of it is lovely -- albeit less so with every additional parking lot.

We need to lure many more employers from Boston and New York to make use of Providence's many charms. Start by getting more back-office operations of Boston-based financial firms. And some light-assembly operations, too. (Maybe we can again make a lot of jewelry, and other high-design stuff, what with all the designers about . . .) Then work on getting more corporate headquarters.

If more businesses could be lured to downtown Providence, the parking problem would take care of itself: There would be more incentive to improve mass transit (assuming that the state can finally deal with the sweetheart public-union contracts that undermine every attempt to improve RIPTA) and more companies to finance the construction of parking garages -- which, I must say, look a lot better than parking lots; indeed, some of them can be made to look a bit like the old buildings being torn down.

And why not establish more concentric rings of bus and trolley service, which would make it easy to get close to downtown and then walk in.

Providing good public services at a reasonable level of taxation would let Providence's many strengths -- in manmade and natural beauty, location between New York and Boston, and institutions -- triumph in creating a vibrant downtown. There's no reason why Providence cannot be a major city again: It's a problem of will in developing a civic culture that doesn't revolve around getting a job for your brother-in-law and that looks ahead to further than next week.

Fix the civic culture, and you'd have the best city in the East.

From The Providence Journal

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