What is wrong with this picture? The Providence Journal published a front-page story, “R.I. pursues the perfect pitch.” State officials seek a “‘top notch’ marketing team to set Rhode Island apart, encourage more visitors and convince people that the Ocean State is a great place to start a business.”
Then, on page 7, this headline: “Proposal for ‘premier’ property to be announced,” under an illustration (above) of an ugly development proposal for Pawtucket, along the banks of the Seekonk River. The developer is Colin Kane, the recently ousted chairman of the state’s I-195 Redevelopment District Commission.
Kane ought to be ashamed of himself. No wonder he lost his chairmanship.
Before his stint on the commission, he specialized in residential mixed-use projects on East Providence’s Seekonk embankment. Their designs generally tended to blend modern and traditional architecture – an aesthetic strategy that satisfies nobody but members of municipal design-review panels. Such compromises undermine local character just as surely as straightforward modernism, though the fingernail scraping the blackboard is not quite as painful.
Over four years, Kane presided over no shovels in the ground (except for a college project already in the works) – and no wonder, since the Developers Tool Kit his commission handed out was a guidebook of hurdles they must leap for approval to do a project in one of the worst business climates in the nation. And the things the Tool Kit suggested that a developer build were so ugly (as described just above) that it’s no wonder the various proposals for the I-195 corridor had generated little public enthusiasm.
The few proposals green-lighted by the commission so far are ugly, as is the proposed park on the west bank of the Providence River, to be linked to the parcels on its east bank by a pedestrian bridge, also ugly and now apparently on hold. The development parcels are lined with newly installed standard ugly highway cobra-head lampposts. A lovely Beaux-Arts white-elephant electrical plant near the 195 land is being rehabbed to house a nursing school – but as if to mask its beauty, an ugly garage and dormitory are proposed for the site.
What’s going on here? It looks as if the state is planning to ensure failure.
A new governor, Gina Raimondo, has appointed a new commission with a new chairman, a new secretary of commerce and a new slate of public subsidies to turn things around. The search for a new PR team to come up with some new words and images to sell Rhode Island is part of this latest turnaround effort. But it will amount to a mere spinning of wheels if some sort of new idea is not found to jumpstart the Rhode Island economy.
I have suggested such an idea many times over the years in my former Providence Journal column as a member of its editorial board (for three decades), in this blog for a decade and more directly in 28 weekly columns for GoLocalProv.com this past winter and spring.
The idea is to ask (not require) developers to build projects that will strengthen Rhode Island’s brand, which includes both natural and urban beauty. Most developers care little for one style of architecture over another. They just want government to be on their side, and would probably agree to a polite request from a sitting governor to build their projects in traditional designs that add to rather than diluting the state’s historical character.
So she should call up Colin Kane and ask him to have his architects give that new design for Pawtucket another shot. Make a number of similar calls to developers interested in doing projects on the I-195 corridor and elsewhere. The governor could make the development process here less grinding and generate a buzz about how Rhode Island wants to really distinguish itself from all other states, which are still building ugly and proud of it.
Why should Rhode Island continue to put its unique beauty at risk by copying other states’ mistakes in a matter so basic as the look of its built environment? Do something different!
This idea is easy, fast, cheap and requires no new legislation. Just do it, Gina!