Joel VanderWeele, an architect at Union Studio in downtown Providence, has posted an excellent essay – “The I-195 Land: Subdivide & Conquer” – on the firm’s “unofficial blog.” It is about the development of the vacated Route 195 land on the edge of the city’s central business district. He argues that dividing the land up into large parcels is asking for trouble, and that difficulties for developers and the city are baked into a process of that sort. He argues that development would be both faster and better (and I would add less costly) if the large parcels are subdivided so that they were affordable to a wider range of potential entrepreneurs, including local people. He also argues that subdivision would be reversible case by case if need be.
Although he focuses mostly on process issues facing the development of large parcels, VanderWeele’s description of why the streetscapes that result would inevitably be tedious is devastating.
Even if the commission did manage to attract the big time developers (which they’re struggling to do) and have them all succeed (which is unlikely), the results would be ugly. Literally ugly. Ugly and boring. Architecturally speaking, buildings that take up entire city blocks are difficult to design well, especially when you’re on a tight budget. I take the highly detailed design scenarios developed by the commission as an implicit acknowledgement of this difficulty. When every side of the building is essentially a “front,” the budget for the exterior is stretched pretty thin, usually resulting in a boring building with at least one “front” that looks very much like a back. By contrast, look at nearly every building on Westminster, or any commercial street built before 1950, for that matter. Thanks to party walls and alleyways, the exterior budget could be focused on one or two sides of the building, resulting in dignified buildings that contribute to the beauty of the city.
The cobrahead lampposts that now besmirch the 195 corridor suggest how low official expectations are, and these expectations are clearly evident, too, in the several design proposals already accepted by the 1-195 Redevelopment District Commission. Low standards are spelled out in the commission’s Tool Kit for Developers. Fortunately, there is plenty of time to correct all of this, and if Governor Raimondo wants the public to back the commission’s efforts, she should see to it with all deliberate speed.
Phil Bess, who alerted me to Joel’s essay, held a charrette about the 195 land and also about the 6-10 connector issue over this past week. I will report on the charrette results as soon as I can.