The front page of the Providence Journal today shows an architect with a pasteboard rendering of the new student housing he has proposed for the Route 195 Redevelopment District. It could have been swiped right from the 195 commission’s Toolkit for developers. If the commission aims to drive the city and state even deeper into the economic pits, the proposed six-story dormitory design could not be better suited for the job.
But wait! There’s more! The developer announced that he is interested in buying land just across the street from the dorm parcel (No. 28) and intends to add another dorm of six stories on that site. But that site contains a nice old building that would have to be torn down. The building is one of those gently elegant background buildings noticed by few but which give old cities their abundant charm and air of neighborly comfort. (Providence Preservation Society, call your office!)
As for the proposed dorm, it looks like a traditional brick building trapped in a girdle of thick concrete slabs. It is intended to startle and yet to still put on an air of compromise with those who want architecture on the 195 land to fit into the setting of the downtown and the Jewelry District on either side of the corridor. Examples of such compromise buildings, which look cheap and satisfy nobody, are cheek by jowl in the Toolkit.
The 195 corridor of vacant land, created by the relocation to the south of a swath of Route 195 that sliced through downtown in the late 1950s, is a great opportunity for the city to embrace a truly unorthodox strategy of urban planning. Instead of suburban “edge city” modernism, the 195 commission should urge developers to reknit the severed parts of downtown together. That was in fact a large part of the stated agenda for relocating Route 195 to begin with. But aside from reconnecting several old streets, they are ignoring the more important idea of restitching the historic fabric shredded long ago.
City planning in the U.S. has been driven by an ideology that considers the idea of building in styles that please most citizens as beneath the dignity of architects. Planners have begun to move away from this sort of arrogance but they often remain eager to show their artistic mettle by encouraging urbanism that insults the community. As with many engineers, they seem satisfied with the sloppy seconds of architects’ celebrity.
This may explain why such an ugly building has been proposed for the 195 land, and why the commissioners are drooling with glee over not just this travesty but the expected demolition of a nice old building to make way for yet another travesty.
Governor Raimondo and Mayor Elorza can turn this around, I think, merely by expressing their displeasure. Developers do not want to do battle with governors and mayors. They already have enough on their plate with commissioners and bureaucrats. Raimondo and Elorza are smart enough to recognize that what is on tap for 195 is not what people want. This is not a choice between jobs and beauty; the beauty will make it easier to create even more jobs by selling the new district as part and parcel of the heritage of the city and state within which it exists. Let our public officials step up and lead on behalf of the public.