Battle of the 195 riverfront

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The proposed hotel would sit just north of the east end of the wavy footbridge in this illustration of what the 195 district could look like – minus its regrettable new buildings. (The River Church)

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.

The Burke plan might be feasible along a more southerly stretch of the river, perhaps on land devoted to the district’s abundant string of parks. Even so, the proposed hotel is a sucker punch to the Providence River. It should be stopped – barring the extraordinary unlikelihood of a design so good that it would moot concerns for the view corridor.

 

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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13 Responses to Battle of the 195 riverfront

  1. Pingback: Don’t copy Boston’s tech hub | Architecture Here and There

  2. No vision! Where are the visionaries who see this as a Renaissance II opportunity? And – did you catch that the commission head – resigned yesterday?

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  3. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    I am baffled by the developer’s approach not simply by the awful, anachronistic design -it is hidious and if built as proposed will embarrass the city- but because the proponent previously developed the beautiful Mary Prentice Inn near Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. The Prentice included historic preservation and new construction, and fits remarkably well; indeed complements surroundings very similar to those adjacent to the Providence River (see: http://maryprentissinn.com/history/ ). This disconnect -the inconsistency- is profound, and may demonstrate how Providence planners and its official civic design monitors (to the extent they exist) will need to strengthen their resolve to ensure this prime historic waterfront is not ruined by rapacious, inconsiderate development.

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    • In looking up the developer Fandetti, I came across a photo of its project in Kendall Square and went all a-flutter at the possibility of an improved new design for the proposed 195 hotel. Then I saw that it was not their design but rather a renovation of an existing historic building. I suppose the large (and quite nice) part to the rear is what was added. Does Cambridge have stronger language protecting not just historic buildings but historical character? It could hardly be stronger than that of downtown Providence, which, however, in the 195 corridor at least, is honored only in the breach.

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      • Michael J. Tyrrell says:

        Well, David, yes, I believe it is stronger, but then again the City of Cambridge is a good listener. Boston has its Boston Civic Design Commission, and that entity helps when it’s not a rubber stamp. For this project to succeed the Fandetti operation needs to get in touch with the vernacular -the historic precedent- immediately nearby. Wouldn’t you agree?… They could easily peruse the web pages of the Institute of Classical Architecture, New England Chapter, for inspiration. Nothing should prevent them from creating another great contextual architectural asset for the area, but they need to do their homework… That Timothy Love -the planner you mentioned on the article- could not direct them rhetorically (given his role) is most unfortunate.

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        • Michael Tyrrell says:

          Hi David, how are you? Hey, I had a typo in my last post. Any effort to correct that would be hugely appreciated! Drinks soon? Cheers, Michael

          Sent from my iPhone

          >

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        • Got it, Michael. Also, I hope that Fandetti will indeed do what you suggest, except he might be directed by the 195 folks to consider the Heritage Building, the brick behemoth just to the rear of the site, as the primary jumping off point for context! (Even that would be better than the existing p.o.s. (to quote another on-target commenter). It’s sad that experts like Love fear to offer the simple answer that a trad context requires a trad building. So easy, yet so perilous to his career.

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  4. That p.o.s. would be a discredit to Jefferson Blvd. in the 1970s, never mind to such a highly visible location.

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  5. Daniel Morales says:

    From your trumpet to their ears.

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  6. Mr. Downturn says:

    Wish you’d stop writing good columns I just have to read. Bully, too, to Gov. Raimondo for calling out The Journal for what it has become. Mr. Downturn

    Like

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