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Study: Arts, entertainment keys to Main Street growth

February 28, 2013

Photo by Ernest A. Brown

WOONSOCKET – A new plan designed to foster economic growth on Main Street recommends that the city do more of what it’s already doing well – arts and entertainment.
“It specifically builds off the existing businesses and strengths of Market and Monument squares by promoting the growth of additional restaurants and performance spaces,” the plan says. “The squares are already home to several restaurants and performance venues, which attract customers and visitors from Woonsocket and beyond.”
The Woonsocket Main Street Livability Plan is the work of The Cecil Group, a Boston-based consortium of consulting engineers, architects and urban planners. Using a federal grant, the city hired the company to configure a strategy for pumping new life into a downtown plagued by poor traffic circulation, vacant storefronts, and underutilized resources, including the Blackstone River.
The Cecil Group developed the plan in partnership with a 13-member steering committee that included area restaurateurs, merchants, artists, educators and city officials.
The 87-page plan is available for review at City Hall. City Planner Jennifer Siciliano is accepting public feedback for a while longer before the plan is aired during an open hearing on April 1 in Harris Hall.
Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik, who served on the steering committee, praised the plan, saying it embodies a time-tested truth from the annals of economic development: it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel to make things happen.
Downtown, he says, is already doing fairly well around Monument and Market squares – Main Street’s bookends – where venues like the Stadium Theatre, River Falls Restaurant, Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining, Le Moulin, the Museum of Work and Culture and others are already doing yeoman’s work of drawing in visitors. The challenges are revving up the level of activity on the expanse of Main Street that lies between the squares, improving the flow of vehicular traffic and making the area more pedestrian-friendly.
“What we’re talking about is how we can configure Main Street to be a more pleasant place for our existing customers and maybe additional customers going forward,” said Wojcik. “So often economic development plans become derailed because they seek to do something completely new and out of character with the prevailing atmosphere.”
With the cash-strapped city struggling to avoid going into receivership, some may wonder if the time is right for yet another study designed to lift Main Street from its economic lethargy. But Wojcik says it would be irresponsible not to plan for a brighter future at a time when it seems like the worth of Main Street’s real estate assets appear to have hit rock bottom.
“Anything we can do to try to improve the neighborhood long term is going to add value to those assets,” he says.
The Cecil Group actually charted a course for the redemption of Main Street along three different paths, including one focusing on the development of “creative businesses” and another in which Main Street is promoted predominantly as a residential zone.
The former would encourage businesses like woodworkers, furniture makers, clothiers, light industry, high technology and others that produce “small consumer goods.”
The consultants also float the idea of filling in the underutilized midsection of Main Street with a combination of market-rate and affordable housing.
But they overwhelmingly recommend that the city follow the path of arts and entertainment to lift Main Street from its doldrums.
“By promoting these types of uses, the Main Street area could become widely known as an arts and entertainment district that focuses primarily on the performing arts,” the consultants said. “Cross-promotion between the restaurants and venues could be strengthened, and coordination among the uses and events could create a more cohesive district character.”
The activity at the squares could also be supported by additional arts-related uses on Main Street, such as artists' studios, lofts, galleries, “live-work” spaces and museums. Outdoor recreation spaces and performance venues are also encouraged.
These facilities could enliven the atmosphere downtown and heighten its profile as a destination for arts and entertainment, the study says.
The planning study looked at an 88-acre swath of the central downtown area, from the north end of Social Street to River Island Park. It offers several key logistical strategies for supporting its recommendations, including changes in zoning, creation of dedicated bikeways and pedestrian routes and reconfiguration of traffic patterns.
A number of major thoroughfares in the area should be converted from one-way to two-way traffic arteries, including all of Main Street, Clinton Street, Social Street, High Street and Arnold Street.
“The conversion from one-way to two-way traffic is expected to improve connectivity within the downtown and improve access to businesses,” the study says. “It would require the reconstruction of several intersections, restriping of the roadways, installation of new traffic signage, traffic signal modifications, and the relocation and redesign of existing bus stops.”
The plan also advocates the conversion of the Truman Bypass from a four-lane, divided highway to a traditional two-lane street by transforming the lanes east of the median into a linear park encompassing the Blackstone River Bikeway. The west side could be converted into a two-way traffic lane.
“Truman Drive is an underutilized asset that occupies valuable riverfront space,” the consultants say.

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