Hand-to-hand fight for 195

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Rendering of Spenser Providence project for east end of the I-195 corridor. (Piatt Assocs.)

The Battle of I-195 East did not erupt last night but the night before.

The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission planned to hear two new proposals vying for land up for grabs east of the Providence River. But the meeting was postponed at the last moment. A day before, however, the Jewelry District Association hosted the same two developers hoping to topple the Carpionato Group’s plan for the same land.

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On this map detail, Parcels 2, 5 and 6 are the three largest on the east side of the river. (I-195)

The first of the new submissions at the JDA meeting was the Post Road Residential proposal. The developer was unprepared to present its plan. Illustrations of the design were not revealed, at least not in any cogent manner. Prior projects that were illustrated showed its claim to “a high level of design” as risible. It is suburban schlock. The developer said it “connects” with Fox Point “in a very pedestrian manner,” words that seemed to express more than was intended.

The second proposal, called Spenser Providence, was much more enticing. The developer and its architects, Piatt Associates, did their homework and did come with illustrations. A drawn man walked his drawn dog engagingly through images of the drawn setting. The historical character of the neighborhood was consulted and was reflected in the illustrations that it presented to the meeting. They attempted to reproduce the fine grain that makes Fox Point so enchanting, and largely succeeded.

{Piatt submitted, in 2003, an attractive complex of interconnected buildings around a courtyard at Waterplace; a pair of ugly towers went up instead.)

Too bad one of the presenters promised that the Spenser project would not consist of “slavish historical buildings.” That’s what they should be – not in those words, of course, but in a spirit of respect for the history of Fox Point and the beauty of its vernacular architecture.

The “slavish” bit may have been a throw-away line designed to placate the commission, whose members seem to know or care little about Providence, its history, or why respect for that history would be good for its economy. Any project acceptable to the commission should strengthen the city’s brand, not weaken it. In fact, that is the law, but neither the commission nor the city planning office has shown any interest in protecting historical character as commanded by city zoning. (Chapter 513, Article 6, Section 600 [Page 49]) The number of cranes on the skyline means little if the result undermines the city’s own competitive advantages, as it is now doing in spades.

After the presentations, attendees at the JDA meeting were surveyed about the three projects, each vying for overlapping stretches of the same land. The Spenser proposal’s 24 “preferred” votes got more than thrice the support of its rivals combined. That the Post Road proposal got four “preferred” votes to the Carpionato’s three is surprising. The Carpionato proposal, despite recent diminishments, remains equivalent in design quality to Spenser Providence. Perhaps Carpionato’s reputation for poor follow-through on past proposals in Providence played a role in its lagging popularity.

The Jewelry District Association has put together a string of meetings that have kept citizens aware of what’s happening in and near its neighborhood. Whether the JDA advocates (or should advocate) particular projects or even particular principles of urban design is hard to say, but either way, its work is in the highest tradition of civic engagement. Its meetings are noble, free and open to the public.

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A part of the Spenser plan that picks up on Fox Point’s slapdash historic development. (Piatt)

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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8 Responses to Hand-to-hand fight for 195

  1. Edgar says:

    Unfortunately, although the Spencer Road proposal had the most going for it architecturally speaking (and yes slavish historicism is to be avoided in keeping with Historic Preservation guidance that seeks to allow one to distinguish contemporary additions from historical fact), I hardly think that the 195 commission will look fondly on the idea of allowing federal and state dollars to be used to move a highway only to have it replaced with townhouses. The Hotel I can live with; however, no matter how tasteful, this is not at all reflective of the density needed to recoup the enormous investment in taxpayer dollars that went into this effort. The idea that this property could go for the benefit of a wealthy few leaves a bad taste in my mouth. What a wasted opportunity!

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    • Edgar, that Interior Dept. guidance is ridiculous. A sign on an exterior wall noting the date is sufficient for additions to historic buildings. And traditional architecture is perfectly acceptable for new buildings in historic districts and anywhere else. Otherwise, we would have to admit that all architecture from ancient times up to the advent of modernism – which before that all involved “copying the past” – is illegitimate. The important thing is not to stroke the needs of scholars but to please those who find the original architect’s work alluring, and do not want curatorship butting in its ugly head.

      In any event, the Interior Dept. backed away from the extreme differentiation mandate back in the 1990s.

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      • Edgar says:

        To imply that Alberti or Michelangelo or Richard Norman Shaw, etc were simply involved in communicating codified dictates of history or style is a total misunderstanding of history itself, These people were all ground breaking artists who built on their interest in history (and theory in the case of Alberti). Secondly to suggest that we should have to rely on a sign to tell old from new is insulting to anyone with an artistic bone in their bodies. Carpionato’s plan is by someone who designs escapist theme park restaurants.I think the Spencer Road proposal shows a promising blend of old and new. One thing I hope we can agree on is that Providence deserves more than pure fluff.

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        • Edgar – Great architects do not slavishly obey the canon but push its expansion, evocatively building on the past rather than rejecting it. You say so yourself, apparently not realizing that your analysis contains its own contradiction. A sign with a date would be preferable to letting architects build additions to historic buildings that reject and even destroy the original architect’s conception. I am not against differentiation, only against radical differentiation. Copying the past, to use the modernist phrase for building in the spirit of the past, is certainly not fluff or escapist if it is done with quality and dignity.

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          • Edgar says:

            As a moderate I suppose my views could be framed as contradictory from either of the extremes. I find the modernist rejection of history hugely problematic, so am perfectly comfortable with the idea of building on the past and pushing or expanding the field; the problem is when people remain traumatized by the sins of the past and remain stuck in a nostalgic loop that refuses to recognize a full 100 years of that past. It is here that your own contradiction comes into play. The Classical or Renaissance of the Classical language as we know it was a break from the Gothic and vernacular styles of the day. The Victorian was a rejection of “foreign” architecture in favor of a more place conscious mode of expression that celebrated local materials and craftsmanship. So we need to be precise in recognizing what makes some of these breaks with the past more acceptable than others and to not just slam just 100 years of architectural history by labeling people as “modernists”. If by modernists you mean people that reject the past, I suppose we are on the same page; but if by modernists you mean people who are trying to reflect our links with the past while also reflecting a contemporary spirit I would ask you to look at the contradictions in your own argument. After all who knows what Michelangelo would be doing if he had been born in the 1975 rather than 1475.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I remember Piatt’s design for the Waterplace complex, and think of it every time I walk by that mess which is there now. Sigh… what could have been!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Tyrrell says:

    This is most encouraging, David. Thank you for the update! Let’s hope the Commission is listening and Spenser Plan gains traction.

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    • Michael, the Carpionato plan seems better, if only because it takes up all three parcels rather than just two. Although I would in theory rather have each parcel designed by a different architect, and in fact would rather the parcels be subdivided even further to permit the participation of many architects, the risk is too great under the Spenser plan that a modernist would be allowed to screw things up on the third parcel. We have plenty of crap going up on the west side of the river. Otherwise, the two are equivalent designs – so far. Carpionato could dumb itself down further and end up beyond the pale, but so could Spenser.

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