Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation plans to use extra federal transportation funds to replace the stodgy old Henderson Bridge – a span that not only looks like a highway overpass but is a highway overpass. It was originally built in 1969 to carry Route 44 over the Seekonk River, but the rest of the highway was never built, at least not there.
Watch out! You can still see the dead end as you climb the final exit ramp.
The Ocean State has a tradition of building elegant bridges that are a pleasure to cross. Newport Bridge. Mount Hope Bridge. Washington Bridge. In relinking Providence’s East Side to East Providence, the state can not only build a bridge that will make us feel proud but a new waterfront community on land freed by removing the Henderson’s network of on and off ramps.
This could be East Providence’s answer to the capital city’s innovation corridor, but instead of planting a new dead zone as the state has done in the Jewelry District, East Providence can plant a lively, lovely mixed-use district along the banks of the Seekonk.
Unfortunately, RIDOT seems intent upon ramming the process through, as if the dollars from Washington will suddenly vanish if the state asks the public for input on what to do, which is not in the plan. What RIDOT appears to have in store for East Providence is the type of missed opportunity suffered by Olneyville, one of Providence’s poorest neighborhoods, when the state shoved aside an enchanting boulevard proposal for the 6/10 connector and substituted a build-in-place plan to reconstruct the bummer boulevard we already have heading in and out of downtown from the west.
The plan for the Henderson Bridge – called the Red Bridge by many, after the 1895 swing bridge that preceded it – looks to be to plop another highway overpass atop of the tall existing bridge pylons instead of straightening out its slantwise course over the Seekonk’s narrow passage to link Waterman Street in Providence with Waterman Avenue in East Providence.
What a natural!
The plan already calls for slicing off the unused highway bulk of the bridge to create a much narrower span – possibly a pair of lanes, one in either direction. Good. But even better would be to remove the existing stilts and lower the bridge deck to a more pedestrian-friendly height, with landings on the banks of the river itself. It should be similar, in urban concept, to the 1990-1996 replacement of the Crawford Street Bridge (once noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as, at 1,147 feet, the world’s widest) with the beautiful set of low, arched bridges that cross the Providence River between downtown and College Hill.
Alas, it appears that the bold and thoughtful RIDOT of 1980 to 2010, which saw not only the River Relocation Project but the I-195 Highway Relocation Project, no longer exists. RIDOT piggybacked aesthetic improvements with local tradition in mind on the back of what would otherwise have been a plain vanilla transportation infrastructure project. Life in Providence was improved for all. Then RIDOT led the way to kick Route 195 from between downtown and the Jewelry District; the fact that the state, starting in 2011, has misunderstood the point of reknitting those two historic parts of the city back together does not impugn the genius of moving the highway. (Both the river- and highway-relocation projects were conceived and led, in their design and accomplishment, by the late architect and planner Bill Warner. He must be rolling in his grave at what has been done in the I-195 corridor.)
RIDOT seems to be running a race to continue missing opportunities in Rhode Island. But the Henderson Bridge replacement process has only just begun. Here’s hoping to slow it down to a more thoughtful pace.