Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Providence: The Suburbanization of Olneyville by Jef Nickerson

[ Providence, Rhode Island was spared some of the worst of the urban renewal disasters and has a lot of intact neighborhoods. But there have still been some not entirely positive changes in the urban fabric in others. One such neighborhood is Olneyville. As you can see in this aerial, there’s an old mostly intact neighborhood commercial center at the core, though with areas of demolition. The area is also cut off by a freeway.

In the piece below Jef Nickerson discusses a proposal for a strip mall in the area that would further degrade the urban fabric. (It’s near the bottom left of the photo above). This is sadly what happens in many struggling areas where a desperate city approves suburban style “redevelopment” that’s actually destructive to the only things giving the neighborhood appeal in the first place.

As an aside, I believe this development is across the street from the legendary Olneyville New York System Wieners. Somewhat oddly, the term “New York System” actually means “Rhode Island style.” Here’s a picture of the classic, complete with cheese fries and coffee milk (like chocolate milk, but made with coffee flavored syrup – another Rhode Island classic).

– Aaron.

Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.

After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.

The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.


Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.

According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.

The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, them the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.

The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.

This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.

This post originally appeared in Greater City Providence on January 15, 2014.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Sustainability, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

7 Responses to “Providence: The Suburbanization of Olneyville by Jef Nickerson”

  1. John Morris says:

    Olneyville once had amazing old mills and a crazy organic art scene with collectives like Fort Thunder.

  2. Gene says:


    Remember, nobody in government makes any money unless buildings are torn down and replaced with new ones.

    The home of “Kelo” of the famous SCOTUS decision is still an empty lot.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I agree with your article and feel strongly against the current plan. Olneyville is fresh with flavor. I had the opportunity to purchase a beautiful graduation cake from a young professional baker who was operating his business from his mill apartment. I find a romance in this that made me more intrigued about the area. I would not pursue suburban development in this area. I would pursue more community-oriented structures and programs that would benefit the existing residents. How about a beautiful indoor pool with gardens inside and around containing programs for all ages?
    http://www.swimempowerment.org is a new initiative that was just setup during the end of 2013.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The money for an indoor swimming pool with beautiful gardens is coming from where exactly?

  5. Anonymous says:

    http://www.swimempowerment.org was just setup during the end of 2013. It may be a zero return investment but altruism is still prevalent in our society. I like to stay positive.

  6. It saddens me to see cities go down this path, but it’s also standard operating procedure pretty much everywhere. I think a lot of it comes from the notion that “anything is better than nothing” but in looking at the costs associated with the suburban style of development it may in fact be worth waiting for something better to come along. I’m not sure there’s really a good solution to that problem, though removing the suburban-oriented zoning codes that require excessive parking and such would be a good start.

    I think the most important lesson though, something which is actually pretty intuitive, is that the city can’t out-suburb the suburbs. By their very nature cities are relatively high cost, if for no other reason than being in the prime locations, but also because of the amount of infrastructure and services they provide. So in a high cost environment they have to provide a lot of value to justify that cost. They’re not going to be cheap enough to be competitive with low cost auto oriented suburbs with ample cheap land. Since cheap suburban-style development only erodes the tax base anyway, it just makes the costs for providing city services more expensive, while also sabotaging the walkability and convenience of agglomeration of activities that differentiate cities from their less dense outskirts.

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