GoLocalProv.com has a story complaining about the paucity of cranes – not birds but rigs to lift heavy construction loads – in Providence compared with other cities. “Top 12 U.S. Crane Cities Have Nearly 300; Providence Has One” is the GoLocal headline on its story, based on a report by the construction industry consultant Rider Levett Bucknall. Go Local’s business team writes:
The cities range from the top crane city — Seattle, Washington, which has 58 active major crane projects, followed by Los Angeles with 36 and Denver with 35. One big surprise is that Portland, Oregon, a city much closer in size to Providence than Seattle or LA, has 32 cranes.
Whereas Providence has one crane up now, at the site of Providence Station Commons, a residential project next to Capitol Cove along the Moshassuck River where Canal Street crosses Smith Street near the State House.
The GoLocal story describes local projects that have been slow to get off the ground – for example, the Procaccianti hotel on the site of the demolished Fogarty Building. Its developer wants even more public money. The First Bristol hotel project on Parcel 12, at the northeast corner of Burnside Park, is one of several others, mostly hotels, whose slow progress toward breaking ground irks some observers of development in Providence. The Jason Fane proposal for three high-rises has been shown a cold shoulder, and has now been downgraded to one tower, if it survives at all. The innovation corridor’s relative abundance of high-tech proposals have also advanced through the process at a sluggish pace.
The RLB report describes a 43 percent increase in cranes operating in Seattle, which causes GoLocal to pout: “And if Seattle’s data is not depressing enough for Rhode Island, RLB’s report from Toronto, Canada is cataclysmic.” Toronto expects to see over 260 high-rises go up in the next few years.
In this city, the low crane rate may reflect the fact that developers here shoulder costs of construction equal to those in Boston but expect a return on investment only half that of Boston in terms of lease income, rent and other types of profit. On average, at least, it doesn’t pay to build here. The state’s generous development subsidies are meant to narrow the gap.
Providence also festoons its state and local development tools with all sorts of strings on construction by way of local hiring percentages, number of minority and female-headed contractors and other such well-meaning requirements that often add to administrative costs and delays. Not to mention the expensive and convoluted path that a project must travel through the design review and permitting boards.
Frankly, however, I would like to think that citizens of Providence, and elsewhere in Rhode Island, have a deep-seated recognition and regard, often inchoate, for the extent to which their quality of life is enhanced by civic beauty. Cranes often generate anxiety about whether that beauty is likely to survive the ravages of “progress.”
Providence has a far more than typical degree of historic fabric, built before modern architecture spurned beauty in favor of pure utility – abandoned now in favor of sheer goofiness. Because of its beauty, this city gets rave reviews from tourist and livability sites far beyond what its size suggests.
Since most projects no longer try very hard to maintain much of a pretense of adding to the beauty of a place, most people around here react to projects by shrugging their shoulders. Those who try to oppose insensitive projects do so in a bureaucratic environment that, in spite of the ingrained modernist proclivities of individual committee members and staff, may be a bit more mindful of citizens’ concerns, at least compared to other places. After all, their positions often depend on politicians, many of whom have some sense of what voters want.
This may slow the growth of jobs and population, but as Mark Motte and Francis Leazes say in their brilliant 2004 book Providence: The Renaissance City, reluctance to embrace a decade’s worth of unwise major development proposals in downtown and on College Hill in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the preservation of the capital city’s unusual beauty:
The failure of the Downtown Providence 1970 plan to generate interest contains an important early lesson concerning renaissance activities: sometimes the decision not to do something is more important than actions undertaken. … It was a fortunate inattention to downtown renewal planning and the eventual demise of federal urban renewal that would mark the 1960s as a critical epoch in the future of renaissance Providence. Downtown Providence remained intact.
Maybe that is what is happening today in a more piecemeal fashion. Citizens are not wrong to cast a gimlet eye on what passes for civic improvement these days.
Once the top level of Providence and Rhode Island authorities starts to encourage development that strengthens rather than weakens the brand of the city and state, the chilly local attitude toward projects will defrost, and we will get development proposals that find it easier to make it through the permitting process because they come off as doing more to improve the quality of life in Providence and Rhode Island instead of just making it bigger. Yes, we want cranes, but not wrecking cranes.