R.I. State House at risk

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Providence Station with State House at left beyond. (cdnassets.hw.net)

Rhode Island transportation officials want to spend millions in tax money to accomplish a goal achievable for mere thousands, and to do so in part on the State House Lawn. The Capital Center Commission, which has overseen the development district’s degradation for over three decades, seems suddenly reluctant to allow this latest desecration, which has mushroomed in cost and ambition, threatening views of the vintage 1901 State House in violation of the commission’s own bylaws.

The Department of Transportation first proposed a subsidiary bus hub to take pressure off the main bus hub at Kennedy Plaza and to provide a link to Providence Station, built in 1986. The work was to be done with $35 million in bond money approved in 2014, ostensibly to build the sub hub atop Amtrak’s rails as they emerge from beneath the station heading north. But now the plan has changed. The sub hub will be the main hub, replacing rather than relieving the hub at Kennedy Plaza. The proposal has grown to include private investment, which has morphed, at least partially, into space for state offices – that is, DOT was unable to locate a plausible private participant in the project. Last month, the state re-issued its call for developers to partner with the state.

This evolution seems to have taken place largely under the radar, with little input from the public. Either that, or coverage of the issue by the shrinking Providence Journal has been extraordinarily sparse.

Today’s story on the latest plan is “Grounds for debate: Capitol-area development project would be built on land including State House lawn, trees.” Written by Patrick Anderson, the article makes no mention of a proposed “skyline-altering” tower, mentioned in a June 12 story, the last one published on this topic. Troubles with the tower and other aspects of the proposal were noted in an April 17 story. The possibility of a tower was first mentioned in a Sept. 2, 2016 story. One can only hope it went unmentioned in the latest story because that part of the project has evaporated.

The original goal of the bond was mainly to provide a link for train and bus passengers who now walk a long three or four blocks between Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station. That could be achieved with a bus or trolley loop from the plaza to the station at a cost of mere thousands annually.

Instead, we now have the prospect of a major development project consisting of several new buildings in open space on either side of Providence Station, blocking views of the State House. Renovating Kennedy Plaza seems to be on the back burner, after changes that removed the beautiful Art Nouveau bus waiting kiosks in 2015. I have heard no word at all – or seen any mention at all on relevant official websites – of the lovely plan by Union Studio for Kennedy Plaza. Has it been “frog marched” out of the picture, as I said in a 2014 column, “Let’s ruin Kennedy Plaza“?

Buses will apparently still run through the plaza, but if it is not to be a major bus depot, what will become of the Intermodal Transit Center built there just a decade and a half ago?

At least one cynic fears that the whole charade has been intended to clear out the plaza’s homeless, panhandling or otherwise riff-raffy population, a suspicion that recently grew after the city passed legislation to ban tobacco smoking in and around the plaza. (I have spent years walking and taking buses in and out of the plaza without being troubled by this element.) Where will these people go? Will they remain blissfully unaware of where the buses are going? Will the city and state have to devise new social and legislative strategies to prevent them from migrating north to nearby Capital Center?

As an aside (but one that picks at one of my usual scabs), I note that today’s Journal story quotes DOT’s description of the new bus hub’s architectural program, which is to:

create a smart and enduring bus facility that from a design perspective complements the historically significant Rhode Island State House and surrounding Capital Center, but stands out with an aesthetically attractive design that alters the traditional perception of a bus terminal.

Huh? So it complements the State House and its setting but alters the traditional perception of a bus terminal? This smacks of the confusion that has driven development in Providence for decades, and more particularly those who oversee it. You can’t have it both ways, and if you try you will irk both sides. But the sentence does helpfully suggest that Ocean State design apparatchiks realize they must contend with two opposing forces around here – those who favor tradition (the public) and those who generally object to tradition (the design elite). Governor Raimondo should know which side her – and her state’s – bread is buttered on.

But alas, she does not. If she did, the process of economic development would become less cumbersome and enervating at the snap of a finger. Let’s hope she thinks for one minute about this. Development that strengthens Rhode Island’s natural brand of historic beauty instead of undermining it would save both time and money. Something has gone wrong in this new public/private project near the State House, and it would be easy to set it right. But is that likely to happen? Of course not.

Former Capital Center Commission chairwoman Leslie Gardner, who was at Tuesday’s design review meeting, was quoted by the Journal as calling the plan “a little bizarre.” She is correct, but it seems bizarre coming from  the same Leslie Gardner who, after she and the commission spent 1995-2000 approving for the district architecture of traditional style that does fit into its setting (such as Providence Place), then called on developers to instead offer something “different.” The GTECH (now ITC) building and other disasters near Waterplace Park were the result.

At the end of the article, she remarks: “When the rivers were moved, there was a hue and cry of what would be at risk, would it be compatible with historic structures, particularly the State House.” Good grief! Now she gets it?

I myself would be more inclined to support this plan if the new architecture along the east side of a newly realigned Gaspee Street were designed to pay homage to the old and new architecture along the west side of Francis Street. A view up Francis Street of the State House visible between two sets of classical buildings, as great buildings in Europe often pop into view suddenly, could well be worth losing the open space at risk today.

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Suggested buildings (in gray) on open space near State House. (RIDOT)

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Red lines show land contemplated for new buildings. (RIDOT)

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This is not the plan but a map from a charrette for the Providence 2020 masterplan, included here to convey the distance from Kennedy Plaza to Providence Station. (designcollective.com)

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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2 Responses to R.I. State House at risk

  1. Thanks for your comment, Barry. I have thought there was something fishy about this whole setup since the first announced changes in KP in 2014. And as the uses for the $35 million bond issue continue to shift, the boondoggle factor has become thick enough to cut with a knife. The problems of so-called riffraff at KP are overstated, and a scare tactic. The city can combine bus service and a more active, programmed, socially inclusive set of uses for the plaza (combined with Burnside Park). Those at the bottom of the social ladder would then be less obvious and their presence would be taken in stride by most visitors to the plaza, be they bus patrons or patrons of the arts living in the Superman Building. (I also think making KP more beautiful using architecture and street furniture (benches, lampposts, waiting kiosks) that is more beautiful will make KP more workable on a lot of fronts, but that’s just me.

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  2. barry says:

    David, thanks for again calling attention to this. I’m reminded of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” someone must start to question the idea of a $35 million+ bus hub when we not only already have a bus hub in Kennedy Plaza (where most passengers want to go) – for those few using the train too we already have an intermodal hub there too called the train station! Routes 50, 55, 56, 57, R already provide very frequent service between the station, KP and beyond. Also coming: bike/pedestrian improvements to Exchange St, and a $17 million RIPTA scheme (the Enhanced Downtown Transit Corridor, this should be another story) to have 6 or so of their lines go all the way from the rail station to the Hospital district.
    As a lifelong transit user and conservationist, I come to this more from a urban revival-environment perspective than as an advocate for beauty and traditional design in our buildings, but I think the goals are highly related.
    Wanting to kick RIPTA out of Kennedy Plaza reflects the problem that the powers see the buses though worth supporting, are basically just for the poor. That attitude has been reinforced by the long, vocal campaign to keep the free rides for seniors and disabled, now about 1/3 of the passengers. But the other 2/3 are there too!
    I think the state is right to try to take advantage of our location on the Northeast Corridor with good rail connections to Boston and New York. How to do that better than we do now is worth a discussion., but it shouldn’t have to cost $35 million!

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