‘Transforming Providence’

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WaterFire event on relocated and reopened Providence River. (waterfrontcenter.org)

Yesterday’s announcement of the publication date of Lost Providence brings to mind that Transforming Providence, by Gene Bunnell, a professor of city planning at SUNY/Albany, has just been published. I am pleased that he has weighed in on the redevelopment story here, and hopeful that the creative tension between our two books will generate interest in both. Long ago I read his 2002 book Making Places Special: Stories of Real Places Made Better By Planning, especially its chapter on Providence.

Bunnell’s latest book is a thoroughgoing update of that chapter, bringing us very much up to speed on the latest developments. Transforming focuses more on the planning process than on the design process, and therein lies the major difference between our books. His book furthermore recalls the excellent Providence: The Renaissance City (2004), by Mark Motte and Francis Leazes Jr., a more in-depth study of the same topic from the same planning-centric perspective. I leaned on Renaissance bigtime in writing my chapters about the last half-century or so of redevelopment in Providence.

Because Bunnell’s specialty is in planning rather than design, his assessment of projects such as the Capital Center project and the I-195 Corridor finds more to applaud. These are basically urban-renewal projects except for one big factor – almost no old buildings, commercial or residential, were razed to open up the acreage for new development. Providence managed to dodge the cannonball of urban renewal half a century ago, and for precisely that reason it is an unusually beautiful city among its U.S. sisterhood. Regarding urban renewal in other cities, Bunnell sensibly opines:

[T]he development was often mediocre and generic, and did little to enhance the character and vitality of the community. More often than not, the developments that came about were starkly at odds with the historic character that had once provided the basis for local identity and a sense of place.

Bunnell does not transfer that judgment to Capital Center or the I-195 Corridor. But hey, that’s my job. What he does do is identify the lead players and institutions, both public and private, involved in specific development projects. He correctly spotlights the Providence Foundation, an arm of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. The foundation has been behind almost every smart redevelopment idea since the 1970s. He emphasizes the need to think longterm, to take good ideas from past projects that failed, and to pinpoint the commonalities of successful projects. He drills down to reveal key challenges to all development in Providence. For example:

[C]osts of construction in downtown Providence are roughly the same as those in downtown Boston, but the rents commanded by commercial and residential properties in Providence are signifi- cantly lower than those in Boston.

Bunnell cites key pots of money that can help bridge the gap, such as state and federal historic preservation tax credits and the investment incentives passed by the state to help sell off its I-195 Corridor parcels. He appears to recognize that such devices, unpopular as they are with voters, are required to make up for the city’s and state’s poor climate for business. I would add – and I wish that Bunnell had engaged this subject – that bridge funding would be less unpopular, and projects would be easier to implement, if developers offered project designs more popular with the public. Still, Bunnell has his finger on the most important economic and administrative issues facing Providence and other cities today.

So Transforming Providence deserves a place in the libraries of all who need or want to know about how Providence became the excellent city it is today.

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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