Smarting in Woonsocket

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View down Main Street, Woonsocket. (RE/MAX)

Grow Smart Rhode Island held its annual awards ceremony in Woonsocket yesterday. Before the awardees were celebrated at the Stadium Theater, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and deputy planning director Rui Almeida led a tour of the city’s awesome Main Street. The street bends through a topographical wonderland decorated by beautiful buildings.

I have visited Woonsocket and floated upon its charms many times. Some members of the tour group were from elsewhere, and were astonished at the beauty and intact quality of Main Street’s fabric.

If it were not for Woonsocket’s enviable historic character, the Stadium Theater would not have been renovated and the city would not today be planning a push to further enhance the appeal of downtown Woonsocket. Officials would have to dig much deeper to offer inducements to renovate historic buildings, assuming any actually remained, or erect new buildings on vacant lots. Downtown today would be scarred by many more down-at-the-heels buildings and many more gaps in the civic fabric. It would be harder to convince such organizations as GrowSmartRI to embrace the challenge of Woonsocket, but if they did throw out a lifeline, it would be much harder for them to enable Woonsocket to qualify for state and federal programs designed to help old cities – ones that still can claim some remnant of historical character – attract development by leveraging their beauty.

Without its historical character, Woonsocket would have to try to pull itself up by its bootstraps – without bootstraps.

So I was dismayed, and frankly astonished, to hear of plans to offer a level playing field to modern architecture as proposals for development emerge under the city’s award-winning downtown overlay district. An overlay district is a planning tool that loosens some zoning rules in the hope of encouraging development. To seek architecture that undermines Woonsocket’s beauty today will only make it harder for Woonsocket to continue its revitalization efforts tomorrow. Hard to swim against the undertow modern architecture always generates by interrupting the flow of historic character.

It is said that good modern architecture can be fit into a traditional streetscape without undermining its character. In theory, perhaps, but in practice almost all such efforts are failures. Even a well done modernist building, which excites admiration via contrast with its setting, does so only by undermining the higher value of the district’s symphonic cohesion.

I challenge anyone to name a building of modernist design anywhere in Rhode Island that does not interrupt the aesthetic DNA of a historic block. Indeed, find me one anywhere in the world that, if it is in a historic setting, does not act as a parasite, snuggling up to beauty to distract from its own ugliness. Regardless of how many cities try it, triggering a “wow factor” of sculptural design is not an effective planning strategy. Many cities try to imitate the success of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Very few succeed.

How startling to learn, then, that Woonsocket, of all places, was heading in this direction. After the tour, we returned to the Stadium, and after some hobnobbing sat down in the beautiful auditorium to watch the ceremony, emceed by GSRI chief Scott Wolf. I hope the mayor stayed after making her speech. Maybe she and her team will take the presentation of Grow Smart winners as a warning not to “go there.”

Each award was presented after a video celebrating its winner. The winners were chosen based on ten Grow Smart principles. Most appropriate here is “Capitalize on existing assets to protect or create distinctive, attractive places and public amenities.” The awards opened with Al Valliere, an affordable housing developer lauded as an exemplar of the Smart Growth philosophy, and concluded with a special founders’ award for recent GSRI chairman Howard Kilguss. In between, there were awards for five projects and an award for a plan. That went to the Rhode Island Woodlands Partnership’s strategic plan for 2016-2020. Last year, the award went to Woonsocket for its downtown overlay district. The five winning project awards went to:

  • Blackstone Valley Gateway
  • Bristol Industrial Park
  • Sankofa Apartments, Providence
  • WaterFire Arts Center, Providence
  • Westerly Education Center

The Valliere video showed new affordable houses traditional in style. Four of the five award videos showed projects that featured traditional architecture, old buildings given new purpose in life. The last project video did, too – or so a viewer might think, as traditional buildings in Westerly came on the screen one by one, mixed with interior shots of the Education Center, as if to hint that, like the other projects, it also re-used an old building.

Anyone might think so. But then, in the last few frames of the video, the modernist cat was released from the bag.

Think about it. Brief reflection suggests that within the niche development world of repurposing old buildings in old cities, those cities’ historical character is not just a nice feature but the fundamental advantage on which rests the logic for investing money in old cities. Preservation development strategies differ from the conventional development world, whose sterile architecture forces most citizens to try, as a sort of defense mechanism, to ignore their built environment. Boston’s Innovation District is an example of that. In Providence, city and state officials are striding, their blinders firmly in place, toward the same error in its I-195 corridor. The state capital might survive such a cannonball to the foot. Woonsocket? Not so much.

Development is a tough job, with the permitting process a long, costly, hair-raising adventure. If cities asked developers to propose designs the public might like, they might do so, and projects would go down like an oyster.

Most developers, I think, care more for whether local authorities support their project than for matters of architectural style. There is no reason for the leaders of cities with valuable historic character not to encourage developers to submit project designs that reinforce rather than undermine those cities’ brand. Attacking one’s own brand is not a helpful development strategy.

The developer of a private commuter railway in the works that would stop at Woonsocket’s train station on its way between Providence and Worcester – he is Vincent Bono, of the Boston Surface Railroad Company, who gave a presentation on that project to conclude the tour – surely understands the important principles involved here. Let Woonsocket be Woonsocket!

I really think I must have heard wrong at the outset of the tour, when this notion of mixing of the old and the new was voiced by our tour guides. At the time, I think I was trying to decide whether I should open my umbrella. Maybe I was distracted and heard wrong.

But as Churchill said, “First we shape our buildings; afterward, they shape us.” If Mayor Baldelli-Hunt and her team want to set Woonsocket on the path to 1984, or Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, or Blade Runner, here is some advice: Don’t go there!

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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