A new apartment building planned for Westminster Street outside of downtown, well beyond Route 95, is going through the design process. The Journal’s story, “5-story building gets go-ahead in Providence” describes tough going for the developer, Michael Lemoi, whose project was opposed by some in the neighborhood. At a hearing, they objected to “the building’s size, scale, massing and design,” according to reporter Christine Dunn.
This is in the Armory District, a well-preserved, mostly residential West End area that runs up Broadway between Westminster and Atwells Avenue.
B.J. Dupré, who lives on Broadway, said that the five-story building “is going to really start to change the character of the neighborhood” – in a bad way, I think he means. Dupré is a founder of the Armory Revival Company, which has restored many old houses on the West and South Ends. He added that “everybody wants to see something there” instead of the decaying storefronts. “No one is saying, ‘that’s a killer building.’ ”
“A killer building.” Is that good or bad? Does it refer to the proposed building or the existing building? It’s hard to tell. The proposed building, by Eric Zuena of ZDS, is poorly designed, an effort to give a modernist building a traditional twist (or vice versa). Like most attempts to bridge the gap between “the old” and “the new,” it is likely to satisfy only those with a commercial aversion to the idea of architectural taste.
Dupré’s colleague Mark van Noppen added, “It’s shock therapy to the neighborhood.” To clarify, he thinks it is too large.
Starting out with a bad hand when he took over the planned hotel project on Parcel 12, next to the northeastern corner of Kennedy Plaza, Zuena did a pretty good job turning the tedious original design into something more demonstrably traditional. (That project and prior iterations have been dragging and dragging for years, since the demolition, if I recall, of a postal building that transmitted mail to and from trains via a shute extending over the railroad tracks. Now, following a process of compacting the land on the vacant site, there sits a small backhoe. But a sign depicting Zuena’s design has been removed. Does that mean construction will – or will not – start soon?)
Regardless of what I’ve stated above, the proposed building by Zuena is actually quite pleasing – because the single-story building it will replace is starkly modernist. So the building will follow in a long path of honor. Recently, the Fogarty Building, a relatively tame Brutalist office building on Fountain Street downtown, was demolished to make way for a traditionally-styled hotel (a design that started out starkly modernist). Going back further, the Mickey Mouse law offices that once housed a plate-glass store at the bottom of Thomas Street, across from the First Baptist Church, was replaced in 1997 by the largely traditional brick condo building with a round tower.
Both of those buildings, along with the proposed five-story building on Westminster, will be larger than their predecessors. This suggests that building height and mass do not always provide the surest indicator of what fits best into an existing stretch of older buildings. In all three cases, despite being larger, the buildings improved (or will improve) the neighborhood. That is because quality trumps size in context.
And the quality need not even be all that high to achieve a positive effect, as the Westminster building suggests. Even its current mishmash is an improvement on what’s there now. Let’s hope that its design evolves – that is, moves more toward traditional style – as the process moves along. Thus will it assist in reviving Providence’s former high standards of civic design – in abeyance for merely 60 years of its three centuries of history. And yet, what a setback to beauty that has been!