Tower with, not against Prov

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Hope Point Towers, left; Route 195 Corridor, right. (Fane Organization)

Unsurprisingly, the Providence Journal editorialized today in favor of the three residential towers, dubbed Hope Point Towers, proposed by New York developer Jason Fane. On the same day, in “Man behind Providence high-rise proposal has gotten well connected,” ace reporter Kate Bramson described at length how the developer has worked behind the scenes to massage the local political system, building up a network of lawyers and lobbyists to help him develop on the Jewelry District’s vacant former Route 195 land.

Who can blame Fane? Rhode Island is still Rhode Island. The director of the Route 195 corridor, where the three skyscrapers of 33, 43 and 55 stories would be built, Peter McNally, told the paper, in Bramson’s words, that he “has never met or worked with a lobbyist.” Take that assertion with as many grains of salt as you like, it is beginning to look as if the three towers are a done deal. Or at least its proponents think they are.

Maybe not. The Journal editorial, “Rhode Island needs towering aspirations,” took on its critics by trotting out a classic false choice: unless you back the proposal as it stands, you are against economic growth.

Not so. In fact, there is a middle way between  doing something offensive and doing nothing at all. Like any entity at an early stage, the proposal can and should be changed to fit better. Then out popped a most astonishing assertion in the Journal’s editorial:

All of us must understand that it is the nature of economic growth to change the “character” of a marketplace. If we insist on having only old (and empty) buildings, and reflexively oppose all forms of innovation, modern structures and low-cost energy, we will surely be left with an old and dying economy.

Okay, so let’s give the heave-ho to one of Providence’s chief competitive advantages – its beautiful historical character – in favor of a proposal plainly ugly and out of character and, beyond that, of uncertain benefit to the city’s competitiveness.

The passage is not just wrong but wrongheaded on so many levels. First, the idea behind opposition to this project is not to stop change but to direct it wisely. Nobody is insisting on having “only old (and empty) buildings.” Nobody is reflexively against innovation or modern structures. And finally, we already have an old and dying economy.

The Fane proposal, as it stands now, is conventional in every regard. Its design is a typical modernist combination of sterility and glitz, unlikely to charm most Rhode Islanders and inherently unsustainable environmentally. It is typical in its overkill regarding its cost and height. Genuine innovation – the unconventional wisdom – would involve designing more structures of lesser height, closer to the center of downtown and more in keeping with the character of Providence.

Developer Arnold “Buff” Chace was quoted in the Journal editorial:

The scale is a problem for sure. Buildings of that type are not part of the character of our city. … We need housing, no question about it. The part I don’t understand is why you would come into a city that has a need and then suggest something that has no relationship to the wonderful character of Providence.

He is spot on. The Journal editorial pointed out, correctly, that Chace and Fane would compete in the same market for residents. But Chace recognizes, and maybe even the Journal editorial board intuitively understands, that a more dynamic downtown of higher density would be good for the bottom line of all firms involved in building up the city. That is why the city should invite Fane to move his project downtown, and erect it not on the former 195 land but in Capital Center or, better, on the parking lots that extend from Washington to Weybosset streets, or even better still, on those parking lots between the Financial District’s existing towers and the Providence River.

Whether they go up downtown or in the Jewelry District, the towers should be divided into smaller buildings. Their design should be traditional – so that they could incorporate the features old buildings once used to regulate the climate’s influence on comfort levels. Operable windows, colonnades, wall width and ceiling height, and many more such features go back to the pre-thermostat age. They enabled building users to regulate the indoor environment without today’s massive injections of carbon. New buildings in traditional styles can and do incorporate all of these features. Buildings make up about 40 percent of energy use in America, and yet one of the chief strategies against climate change is off the table because it is inherently injurious to the interests of the architectural establishment.

Clearly, Jason Fane has bulked up on lawyers and lobbyists because he recognizes that his plan will face a powerful opposition with logic on its side. He would rather come in, have his proposal accepted without any fiddling around to accommodate local needs, and make the killing that, in America’s free market kidnapped by crony capitalists, is the expected privilege of those who are already rich.

Rhode Island leaders skeptical of the steroidal quality of this plan should work with the Fane Organization to promote changes in the project that would help it succeed for itself and for all of Rhode Island by strengthening rather than undermining the character of its capital city, Providence.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to Tower with, not against Prov

  1. Steve says:

    Build them!!! They are easily within scale and will pull more development south of the core downtown.

    This is Providence – New England’s second largest city – not Portsmouth.

    Like

    • Their being out of scale may be a limited argument against them, but there is no doubt that they are out of scale. How can you assert otherwise? What does the curious phrase “within scale” mean to you? Providence is not Portsmouth, but it combines a small city’s pleasant historic character with a larger city’s economic strength and possibility. That combination can help Providence grow, but that prospect could easily diminish if the proposed tower or towers are built in a location that creates a divisive geographical duality rather than strengthening the center.

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  2. Lewis Dana says:

    Oh, did I leave out the part about cliched modern splinter architecture as the curse of today’s cities. Tiny lots with toothpicks soaring upward. Ok for gothic cathedrals, but for the grace and coherence of an urban landscape, nope.

    I also neglected to point out that that massive heap will put the urban park in complete shadow all day long. No one will go there.

    Like

  3. Steven Semes says:

    The quote from the editorial is astounding. How paradoxical that a call for “innovation” should parrot the cliches of fifty years ago in a world that is now being driven by entirely different needs. Sustainability, walkability, and preservation of local character are now the main spurs to economic rejuvenation in those cities wise enough to promote them. This proposal and the editorial board of the newspaper seem to have emerged directly from the mid-1960s. Have they looked at what is happening elsewhere in their own city and in others that are benefiting from a more progressive and enlightened attitude toward managing growth and change?

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    • Steve, it does truly beggar the imagination how such silliness can prevail even in such a city as Providence, with its extensive fabric of historical architecture and its experience with major 1960s modernist civic rejuvenation plans that failed ignominiously. You will see that my book, “Lost Providence,” addresses these issues. Due out next spring.

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  4. Lewis Dana says:

    I take great pleasure in championing modern architecture in the face of your classic-minded onslaughts… but for once — YES! — I agree with virtually everything you say here.

    In scale, location and economic purpose this project is all wrong for Providence.

    It is worth quoting the official mission statement of the 195 Commission: “To foster economic development on the I-195 land and beyond and generate job creation opportunities that embrace the city’s demographics by creating an environment that encourages high value users to build well-designed structures that enhance the value of surrounding neighborhoods and augment the sense of place.” (Okay, inhale)

    How does this triple towered behemoth generate a single man-hour of “job creation opportunities” for anyone beyond the construction workers who build it, rental agents and custodians who will sell and maintain it and a few restaurant waiters and shop clerks?

    Not incidentally, for a city that is celebrated for its walkability, this monster is a more formidable obstacle than thirty-foot Interstate retaining walls or outfield fences. (How soon we forget the battle of the ball park that tried to seize the mandated riverside park.) This new scheme will put a 600-foot, 33-, 44-, 55-story barricade between the public and the park. Pedestrians crossing the new footbridge will arrive on the west side en route to work and classes and dining out and have a choice: make a football-field-length trek south or north to reach the alleyways that will get them around Fane’s Fantasy and out onto Dyer Street.

    Worst case scenario: Mr. Fane says he plans to build in phases. What happens when he builds his great plinth, puts a 33-story tower on it and halfway through building the 44-foot tower realizes the market has dried up? Where will that leave Providence?

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    • All very good points, Lew. I’m just curious why, if other modernist travesties are okay by you, what’s wrong with this one? Too big, of course, but if you are okay with its design then you really don’t entirely agree with me on this!

      Like

  5. Rick Schwartz says:

    Sort of amazing that the two smaller buildings don’t look more like the adorning testicles they’re meant to be, celebrating yet another architect who only cares about his (or her) masterpiece, not the community around it.

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