The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission gave Level 1 approval this afternoon to a hotel proposed for the water’s edge east of the Providence River, a place from which the colonists’ assault on the British revenue cutter Gaspee was launched, drawing first blood in the American revolution. The land deserves a more public-spirited purpose than a hotel.
Bob Burke, owner of Pot au Feu restaurant and an activist historian, stood up before the commission and cited other reasons this bit of waterfront is historic, and he was seconded by the state’s historian laureate, Patrick Conley. Burke still hopes the land can be used as a welcome center and museum for the city and state. One of the original 13 colonies, Rhode Island is the only state that has no such facility.
Burke would relocate to the site a small nearby building, the Welcome Arnold House, built in 1785 and now under threat of demolition. He would use it to house a museum to explain Rhode Island’s revolutionary role and how Yankees high and low in status lived in that period. It would also serve as the headquarters for his Independence Trail, an active nonprofit that is comparable to (and often confused by the 195 commission for) the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Importantly, Burke’s plan would take up less than 15 percent of the footprint of the hotel, which would be at least five stories tall and and plug-ugly to boot. More suitable to an airport access road, I’d say; someone liked my “1970s retread” description from Friday’s post, “Better idea for I-195 riverfront,” but that understates its carbuncularity.
Several commissioners pooh-poohed the design. When the commission’s consultant was asked for more specificity on how design changes could render the hotel more agreeable, he hemmed and hawed but said nothing to suggest that he even knew how to fudge the answer plausibly.
And yet state Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, in remarks just before the vote, insisted that “architectural design is extremely important,” building hope that the design might evolve in a positive direction. Still, members of the commission and its staff seem tone deaf to the beauty of Providence, let alone why it’s so beautiful, and lack any apparent willingness to protect its historical character, as city zoning requires.
Section 600 of the Providence Zoning Code reads:
The purpose of the D-1 District [downtown, now extended into the Jewelry District] is to encourage and direct development in the downtown to ensure that: new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown; historic structures are preserved and design alterations of existing buildings are in keeping with historic character.
But nothing the commission has approved thus far pays even lip service to this zoning language, which has the force of law. So I have little confidence that a redesign will improve the hotel significantly. It might end up featuring a faux-historical look, like a CVS in a town that has sought corporate design relaxation; it would end up pleasing nobody. Or the developer could hire an architect who knows how to do it right. Stranger things have happened.
Unfortunately, zoning here, as in most places, is designed not to frame the public’s sense of how their city should look and operate, but to help developers ignore such frivolous concerns.
As important as the hotel’s design is, its size looks largely irreducible, and thus it implicitly violates the concept of view corridors, which properly informs the I-195 development guidelines. Under those guidelines streets form the district’s view corridors, but the Providence River itself forms the city’s most natural and obvious view corridor. The hotel would break the uncommonly straight “street edge” formed by the building façades along South Water Street on the river’s east side.