Perhaps this comes too late to affect either the Route 195 corridor project (now renamed the Innovation & Design District) or the plan to rebuild the Route 6/10 connector. The former has been advanced (if you can call it that) using architecture that seems expressly designed to diminish public interest in the district’s success. Planning stages for the latter had entertained the possibility of the highway being replaced by a boulevard, but safety concerns supposedly forced the state to rush into a rebuild-as-is strategy for replacing the old connector, crumbling into decrepitude as you read this.
Too bad. Still, good advice is never to be spurned, so here are some recommendations generated last fall from a studio held here in Providence by Notre Dame professor Philip Bess and five of his graduate students at ND’s School of Architecture. Their ideas, under the title “Building Durable Wealth,” have now been released to the public. Below are passages from the report and more illustrations.
Building Durable Wealth addresses two similar-but-different sites in Providence, R.I. The 195 Redevelopment District is the site of a former urban freeway. The 6/10 Connector is the site of an existing urban freeway. This academic project by five architecture students is a counter-proposal to what is currently being proposed for each, undertaken in service to long-term durable urban recovery in Providence.
Regarding issues of architecture and planning it states:
[T]he adaptation and renewed construction of historic local buildings and building types (especially the urban apartment building, the loft building, and the occasional mill building – for which students did individual designs), on urban blocks sub-divid- ed into smaller lots, is central to our entire proposal; and this not least for their long-term environmental performance and sustainability.
The report describes the 195 project’s genesis in the relocation of the portion of highway running through the Jewelry District and the creation of a commission, in 2011, to oversee its development by reknitting the streets severed by the old road and inviting companies and institutions to buy and build on very large development parcels. It reads:
The I-195 Commission has specifically targeted institutions engaged in medical and scientific R&D, and also developers of mid-rise urban housing; but the former especially come with institutional programs almost invariably resulting in block-sized buildings characterized by large floor plates, ‘gizmo-green’ technology, flat roofs, lots of glass, and packed with offices, laboratories, and long corridors.
It would seem self-evidently pointless – and against the language of the 2011 law – to restitch the old street pattern while ignoring the old design pattern. Yet that is what is being done. The report continues, contrasting the very successful natural patterns of development during the 19th and early 20th centuries with the patterns now being promoted, which supposedly epitomize the way cities are built in the 21st century:
Providence has many urban assets, including excellent streets defined by handsome, durable and altogether exemplary background buildings – a city built incrementally, by local builders, with local money. By comparison, given the multiple parcels being offered for development, the City’s current fiscal condition, the general uncertainties of the global economy, and the dubious durability and lovability of the architecture and urbanism that crony-capitalist financing typically produce, Providence’s current approach to 195 District development seems a high-risk / dubious-reward venture.
Our incremental urbanist counter-proposal would have Providence promote the manner of building-and-finance that created those parts of historic Providence that everyone most loves, by further subdividing the new 195 blocks into smaller lots and encouraging updated versions of known and durable ‘background building’ types culturally continuous with the best building traditions of Providence and adapted to modern institutional programs.
As for the 6/10 connector, Professor Bess and his students discovered that there was no intact urban fabric in existence that was ripped apart by the highway like the Jewelry District and downtown were severed by Route 195. Nor, they found, was the terrain amenable to a relatively straight boulevard. So instead of proposing a version of the boulevard proposed previously in lieu of rebuilding the old highway, or worse (as originally proposed by the state), they proposed a parkway, which typically winds through a more variable topography and is even more landscaped than a boulevard.
Our own study of historic maps of Providence indicates there never was a pre-existing urban fabric the 6/10 Connector rent asunder, and that an urban boulevard stitching several neighborhoods together at grade is not really possible owing to topographical constraints, the varying widths of the 6/10 ROW (165’ – 400’), and a long antecedent and immediately adjacent [Amtrak/MBTA] rail line to the west. Nevertheless, the 6/10 Connector provides irregu- lar opportunities for development. Given the impossibility of a boulevard, we think a 35-mph-design-speed parkway with better street & bridge connections across the 6/10, as well as strategic recreational and mixed-use interventions where the 6/10 ROW- width allows, is both possible and a better long-term solution than a simple (but costly) rebuild of the 6/10’s existing freeway infrastructure.
And as some of the illustrations below attest, Bess and his students were able to figure out how this could be done in a pleasant, satisfying vernacular style.
My guess is that this parkway, like the boulevard supported by several local community and urbanist groups, and initially supported by the city, would turn out to be far less expensive and time-consuming than rebuilding the nine bridges of which the current connector consists. That would make it the safest option. And it would be a relief to people long inured to the problems of a limited-access highway cutting through city neighborhoods. But the state has decided not to offer that. The reason probably has less to do with safety, and rather more to do with something much more prosaic, say, maintaining the flow of federal dollars to RIDOT.
As we in Rhode Island know all too well, roads, bridges and other infra- structure end up costing a surprising amount of money when they are not properly maintained. And unless they are loved by the public, the public is unlikely to care to bear the cost of their upkeep, and unlikely to put enough pressure on state government to bear that cost, which will be kicked down the road until safety finally does force the issue.
Yet, as is well known at Notre Dame but at very few other universities with architecture and planning programs, there are ways to satisfy the needs of populations and their desire for beauty that cost far less than the typical deferred-maintenance policy.
Why don’t these types of program make sense automatically to everyone involved in the fields of architecture, planning and development? It’s as if the entire world, or at least the entire set of related building professions, has had a massive brain fart lasting decades and, instead of simply ducking away from its odor and breathing in clean, healthy, efficient and beautiful air – instead of moving forward into the future on sweet tried-and-true fumes – it has kept its foot pressed hard on the accelerator as the garage fills with a poison that it fully recognizes as such, with the world seemingly helpless to stop it.
Here are several illustrations taken from the study. Below these illustrations is a list of what the students learned through their investigation of the two projects, with all their urbanistic differences and similarities.
Among the lessons learned were these:
1. The merits of full blocks subdivided into half-block-depth lots with 20-30 foot street frontage. These include:
a. a finer grain of ownership for more varied urban activities and street life
b. lower barriers to development entry, which encourage local investment, require fewer publicly-supplied financial incentives, steadily add properties to the city’s tax rolls, make possible better architecture, minimize the consequences of bad buildings (big and small), and create a more active and vibrant cityscape.
c. the ability to purchase multiple lots when necessary to have a large footprint building, but retain the small footprint building as the default condition.
2. Importance of background buildings: a.) as shapers of streets and squares, b.) as durable and adaptable buildings, c.) as aspirationally handsome in their own right, but properly deferential to grander works of civic and religious architecture.
3. Linking proposed plazas and squares to local public bus routes.
4. The adaptability and environmental sustainability of durable construction and lovable urban building types. (Ironically, one of the paradigmatic, iconic, durable, handsome loft-type background buildings we “discovered” in Providence turned out to be the RISD School of Architecture.)
5. The topographical logic of urban form generally, and industrial city development in particular. There are reasons the 6/10 Connec- tor is where it is, between a hill and an existing rail line, which itself is where it is because of the hill and the adjacent creek / tributary that drains it. This required students to think about the 6/10 ROW reclamation not abstractly, but rather mindful of the peculiarities of the varying site conditions encountered along its length.
6. Awareness of the role of land banking and speculation in boom-and-bust real estate cycles and the increasing unafford- ability of market-supplied urban housing. This suggests to us a need for greater urbanist attention to strategies of implemen- tation for a Land Value Tax at appropriate jurisdictional scale.
By the way, Philip Bess and his students can hardly imagine the degree of irony involved in the discovery described in the fourth lesson learned!
I cannot resist suggesting that although the barn door may be closed for both of these well-studied districts, cooler heads could prevail and end up offering warmer versions of each. There is time. Stranger things have happened.