Hearing on Hope tower(s)

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I-195 commission hears consultant report on Fane proposal. (Photo by David Brussat)

The I-195 commission gave thumbs up to the Hope Point Tower(s) project yesterday, but its preliminary, Level 1, approval was conditioned in ways that developer Jason Fane might find hard to swallow. They are that the original three-tower concept is out, the one tower now proposed cannot take more than 40 percent of Parcel 42, and a detailed budget for that tower is required that might be irksome to assemble prior to a Level 2 design proposal.

The Providence Journal’s story by Kate Bramson is “I-195 panel says 1 high-rise tower, not 3, under consideration in Providence.”

Part of the commission’s ruling seemed to reflect alternatives laid out by the commission’s consultant advising on this project, who also urged favoring a single north tower that would minimize shadows and a disruption of view corridors to the river. It is only pure speculation, but the commission seems to have soured on the Fane proposal now that it has been pared down to one tower – one tower in the commission’s thinking: apparently not so in Jason Fane’s thinking. He still appears to consider the project as the first of three buildings. He probably recognizes that one tower is a sore thumb rather than the new iconic city skyline he originally proposed.

Your intrepid correspondent spoke in opposition to the project at the hearing portion of the meeting. I pointed out that the word iconic, which Fane and his architect repeatedly invoked, is misunderstood. It is taken to mean unique in a large way, but since all cities consider every new building to be “iconic,” the actual meaning is just like every other city – quite the opposite of unique. In fact, the two main definitions of iconic are relating to an icon, or, in art, executed according to a convention or tradition. Look it up.

But that is the direction in which the I-195 commission is headed, and not just on Hope Point Towers. Fane and the commission both seem to think that “the future” calls for architecture from the Jetsons cartoon. Fane actually seems to regret Providence’s genuinely unique quality. He has criticized its historic districts as “cutesy.” (If Benefit Street is cutesy, Beacon Hill must qualify as cutesy-wootsy.) So Fane does not understand Providence, but neither, it appears, does the commission. Most project opponents at the hearing spoke in some degree to the desirability of maintaining Providence’s historic character. The commission evidently disagrees. Perhaps the hearing comments will serve to educate its members.

In my comment, I urged Fane to respect the city’s historic character, and noted that architecture that does so strengthens the state brand. This would require just as many construction workers as architecture that undermines the city’s historical character and the state’s brand, at any rate, its natural brand of historic beauty – for who knows, after such churning in the last year or so, what the state’s official brand is now.

Unfortunately, my inexperience at speaking before public hearings – for decades my role as a journalist at the Providence Journal forbade it – caused me to misjudge my three-minute time limit. So I concluded without reading the two quotations I had brought with me. At least the commission was kind enough, as it shut me down, to permit me to summarize them. They are both from the city’s 2014 zoning ordinance, emphasizing the importance of protecting the city’s historic character.

The first is from Chapter 513, Article 6, Section 600:

The purpose of the D-1 District is to encourage and direct development in the downtown to ensure that: new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown.

The second is from Section 603 on developer incentives in the D-1 District:

The purpose of these incentives is to encourage development that will be compatible with the character of Downtown and carry out the goals of the comprehensive plan.

In short, protecting historic character is the law in downtown Providence. Over the years, the law has been largely observed in that portion of the old downtown widely known as the Downcity (a term widely misused to mean the entire downtown). It has been basically ignored, however, by the I-195 commission, a sad fact that is even reflected in its Developer’s Toolkit.

The ordinance features a map of the I-195 portion of the D-1 District:

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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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