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An empty lot stirs hope and anger in Olneyville

Providence's "Second Downtown"
By LIZ LEE  |  February 5, 2014

0207_TJI_Oville_top.jpg 
PLANNING STAGES An overhead view of the site.

Imagine for a moment that you’re traveling west on Westminster Street in Providence, under the Route 6 overpass, and into Olneyville Square. Now if you’re in a car, you’re probably stuck in traffic at this point. And if you’re on a bike, most of your energy is being used to avoid getting hit by that traffic or falling into a pothole. So for argument’s sake, let’s imagine you’re on foot.

If you keep walking through the square — maybe stopping for tacos at La Lupita or taking a moment to admire the spandex pants at Hot Fashion Corner — you’ll eventually come to the corner of Dike and Plainfield streets, where you’ll see the legendary Olneyville New York System, and across from that, an empty, fenced-in lot. A sign on the fence reads “Olneyville Square: Culture. Industry. Nightlife.” Another reads “Capstone Properties.”

The lot was cleared of its previous structures in January of 2013, and two weeks ago, thanks to Jef Nickerson’s Greater City Providence blog (gcpvd.org), we learned that the property’s developers have plans to lease it to a McDonald’s and a Family Dollar. At face value, this is unremarkable news; fast food chains and purveyors of cheap plastic things are a familiar presence in struggling neighborhoods. More remarkable is the controversy surrounding the plans, and the effort that residents have put into making sure that, at the very least, these corporations respect the neighborhood they’re moving into. Some view the development as a step backwards and an affront to the hard work that’s been done to preserve and restore Olneyville Square’s historic urban environment. For others, it’s a welcome addition signifying new jobs and growth. Nickerson called it “the suburbanization of Olneyville.”

In early January, Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15) and other community members met with members of the City Planning Commission (CPC) to review the developers’ plans, which requested that the buildings be set back further from the street than is normally allowed. (Zoning in the area currently requires buildings be brought to the street edge.) The applicants also sought to attain a special use permit for a drive-through. The CPC rejected this first plan, ostensibly because they saw the error in both building a drive-through window at the edge of a perpetual traffic jam and creating a new parking lot in a neighborhood that has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the city, according to data from The Providence Plan. The developers then revised the building proposal, and their request for Master Plan approval was the subject of a CPC meeting Tuesday, January 28.

At the meeting, representatives for Capstone presented a new plan with some small concessions, like one row of parking in front of Family Dollar instead of two, and a brick facade for the building as opposed to a concrete one. But in a neighborhood that prides itself on its historic character and urban tradition, the design still leaves much to be desired, according to Paul Wackrow, director of preservation services at the Providence Preservation Society. “Based on the city’s goals, it doesn’t seem to correspond with making the area walkable and pedestrian friendly,” Wackrow says.

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