It appears that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission may vote Monday to grant initial approval to a hotel proposed for a parcel along the Providence River embankment just east of the shore. Earlier reports say that the modernist design of the proposed hotel – a 1970s retread – might be redone to better reflect the historical character of the area.
I hope so, but the commission ought nevertheless to reject its so-called Level 1 approval and delay the hotel in light of a better idea that arrived at the commission’s doorstep before the hotel and deserves prior consideration.
The idea was delivered to the commission last spring by Bob Burke, owner of the Pot au Feu restaurant in the Financial District. His proposal would move the Welcome Arnold House (circa 1785), on Planet Street in Fox Point, to the site of the helicopter pad next to the river, where the hotel is to be located.
The owner of the Welcome Arnold House has withdrawn his application to demolish it and now wants to rebuild it. Since the interior is gone already, let him build an entirely new house, inspired by the original one, and let Burke move the shell of the existing exterior a few hundred feet down to the river.
Why? Because Burke, who is a historian at heart, wants to reconstruct the interior as it might have been in 1785. The house would become a nonprofit educational center – providing an experience for students and tourists of how New Englanders lived during the early days of our nation. It is difficult to believe that such a facility does not exist in this historic city.
But wait, there’s more!
Burke also hopes to reconstruct at that location a replica of the original 1636 homestead of Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder, on what is now North Main Street. The house was demolished as late as 1840 to make way for the James Hazard House, which still exists at 235 North Main. An exercise of historical imagination would be required, since we know no more what Roger Williams’s house looked like than what his face looked like.
Both parts of this plan are incredibly exciting, and Burke says that he is ready to move on it, if the 195 commission will let him. The two structures would take up a fraction of the footprint of the proposed hotel, and leave the water’s edge open to the public.
As Burke points out, the Rhode Island Constitution’s Article 1, Section 17 protects Rhode Islanders’ right to access the shore, and Burke argues that the hotel would limit the public’s access to a degree that could be actionable. All sorts of documents provide evidence of this: the site’s designation as historic, the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the relocation of Route 195, the Old Harbor Plan officially proposed well before Route 195’s removal was planned, and statements from the State Historic Preservation Office delineating its protected status.
Burke, while he quivers with pleasure at how his plan would serve history and the public, is somewhat miffed that the commission has not yet bothered to address his proposal, which it had before the hotel proposal. Why?
Well, perhaps because the hotel, as a business, would generate more revenue for the state through taxes. But such an expectation may be unwarranted. If you subtract the hotel project’s state subsidies and add the value of Burke’s proposal to the state’s tourism potential, the latter could add more to the state’s economy and its coffers – not to mention its delightfulness – than the hotel. Either way, that does not justify discrimination in the handling of a serious – indeed, a scintillating – public proposal that was first in line.
All of this suggests that a responsible due diligence would require that Bob Burke be heard at Monday’s commission meeting, and that his proposal’s suitability be adjudicated before the commission considders the hotel.