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Ideas for Reviving Providence’s Legendary Rail Tunnel

Last week, these SAAHP students presented Governor Chafee with ideas for reactivating the East Side’s long-abandoned underground tunnel
Photo by: Virginia Rice
A rendering from the "invisible city" envisioned by SAAHP student Virginia Rice, which would mirror what’s happening on the surface via the physical extension of selected East Side buildings into the ground.

Editor's note: This story is part of the 10 on Tuesday series, which provides a fresh take on interesting university initiatives, research projects, campus happenings and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When the 10 students in ARCH 416.02, an architecture design studio that Visiting Assistant Professor Jonathan Bell titled Invisible City, began exploring the reactivation of the abandoned rail tunnel that runs under Providence’s East Side, little did they know their ideas might capture the interest of anyone beyond the RWU campus.

But on a Thursday afternoon in September – after Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee donned a hard hat, toured the 5,080 feet of the tunnel and noted that “with a little imagination and can-do attitude, I’m sure [the tunnel] could be serviceable again” – the Invisible City classroom assignment suddenly had a very real-world audience.

“It’s pure coincidence,” Bell told the Providence Journal after Chafee’s tunnel tour. “The notion is that there is this thing that exists underground that few people know about and fewer have been in. But it has rich connections to Brown, North Main Street and Fox Point, and there is a lot of potential for this tunnel.”

Last Friday, Bell’s students had the chance to share their ideas with Governor Chafee in a presentation at Capitol Hill in Providence. And while no single idea will be implemented wholesale, they may play a part in shaping a credible, feasible adaptive reuse project for the East Side tunnel.

From underground shops and skate parks to a light rail system and even a pneumatic tube kids ride, here’s a snapshot of what the Invisible City students came up with:

  • Dominic Skrajewski proposed a Primove light rail transit system, powered by rooftop solar panels on a Gano Street parking garage, that would link to streetcars outside the tunnel and connect the East Side to Kennedy Plaza, the hospital district and more.
  • Drew Pennell designed an underground bike path that would include garden areas that connect to the surface of College Hill through open-air reflective light shafts, allowing the tunnel to breathe with light, air and community.
  • Timothy Pranaitis created a bike path in the tunnel that combined with an associated bike loop through Fox Point, would offer a 3.5-mile pathway; a separate level in the tunnel would include a bar, a bicycle shop and a health and wellness retail store.
  • Nii Oko Kwame Tetteh applied moldable plastic panels to create a series of networks, patterns and sizes that would lend a consistent feel to three specific program sites – a cinema, a student center for the East Side’s college population and an underground skate park.
  • Preston Hennes imagined a community space that would include a public library with exhibition spaces and lecture halls as well as a recreation center featuring squash courts, swimming lanes, a walking path, a skate park and trampolines.
  • Cody Sanborn proposed an underground commerce space that would attract visitors, provide a unique space for local businesses and boost the state economy; highlights include a retail area for arts, crafts and gift shops as well as a permanent farmer’s market.
  • Borislav Dafov devised a glass-tube ride, in which children and families travel in a pair of tubes while a series of projection screens on the tunnel’s walls and ceiling illuminate the space, with the ability to use the screens to create different themes depending on the season.
  • Caileigh Bailey-Ricci recommended that the tunnel become a transportation artery, with  battery-powered Ultra Global pod vehicles making three stops along the route; among other highlights, she proposed a hotel, entertainment center and underground “Burrowed Brewery.”
  • Brendon Roderman created a subterranean sculpture park called “The Sublime,” that offers a place of contemplation and an escape from the daily life of the urban neighborhood above the East Side tunnel.
  • Virginia Rice envisioned an invisible city that mirrors what’s happening on the surface via the physical extension of selected East Side buildings into the ground with creative spaces that step down into the tunnel; a 1,500-seat performing arts theater would be an underground highlight.

Each week, the 10 on Tuesday series provides a fresh take on interesting university initiatives, research projects, campus happenings and more. Have an idea for a 10 on Tuesday? Email