The Journal’s angry editorial

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View from Providence’s downtown up to College Hill. (Sprudge)

The Providence Journal today published an editorial, “Saying no to a bold future,” that castigates opponents of the proposed Fane tower as “insiders,” a term usually applied to those who manipulate the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This turnabout is not accurate and not fair play. The editorial continues to turn truth topsy turvy until its very last sentence.

Developers have long avoided Rhode Island not because they face resistance from an overly negative public but because they face a very harsh business climate here. Today, the national and regional economies are so strong that developers are coming back anyway – in part because the state’s economic development incentives, like them or not, mitigate the disincentives of its tax and regulatory environment, as they are designed to do.

Much of the public opposes the Fane tower not because they are insiders seeking to avert competition, or have some mythical “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody)” attitude but because they see the proposal as undermining the public’s own vision of the city’s future as mapped out by its comprehensive plan, which the public helped write.

There is nobody among the public who, as the Journal feigns to imagine, does not want a robust economic future. The comprehensive plan places gradually rising height limits between the riverside park in the I-195 district and the string of parcels along I-95. Such urbanistic gradualism would create a more people-friendly district. Nobody opposes the Fane tower’s height in and of itself, but only because its height in the front rank next to the park turns the tables on the public’s vision of the district’s future. The Fane tower would also make it harder for the state to develop the parcels behind it.

Unmentioned by the Journal, Fane seems to have rejected appeals, including appeals by the I-195 commission, to relocate its project to one of the parcels that already have greater height limits. Others think it could easily go on an open lot downtown. In any such location, relaxing the higher limits would garner precisely zero opposition from the public.

The public has not, so far as I know, been informed of the reasons why the staff of the I-195 commission – who are among the real insiders – considers a 600-foot tower on a parcel limited to 100 feet to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out the comprehensive plan.

An earlier editorial, “Soaring addition to the downtown,” scoffed at concern for the large shadow that the Fane tower would cast. “A shadow? … You don’t say!” That’s a low blow. The Journal did not deign to mention that the shadow would cast a pall on a public park for much of the afternoon. That’s a dastardly omission worthy of Snidely Whiplash.

Speaking of landlords, one of the opponents at whom the Journal seems to be directing its ire is downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace. “Many of the most vocal opponents of the project have glaring conflicts, since they do not want more housing units on the market competing with their projects.”

Buff Chace has high-mindedly and almost single-handedly revived downtown with his loft renovation of old buildings. As the Journal knows, the bottom line of real estate is “Location! Location! Location!” The most profitable gas stations are those located at the four corners of a major intersection. Why? Because competition generates business. More buildings with more units will create an even more robust apartment market. More competition means greater opportunity for profit. That means growth. This is Business 101.

The Journal’s pretended assumption that Chace opposes the Fane tower because its units will compete with his units is of a piece with its editorial’s switcheroo of insiders and outsiders. Fane is the ultimate insider, lawyered up and eager to grab as much public money as he can while snookering the public into accepting a plan that would undermine the public’s own vision of the city’s future.

The Journal refers to opponents’ “gross indifference to the apartment crush in Rhode Island. We need units!” But there is no crisis in the sort of luxury units proposed by Fane. The crisis is in affordable units, of which Fane offers none. The City Plan Commission’s 5-to-2 vote that triggered the Journal’s tantrum involved a condition that would have linked the increased height to a requirement that 15 percent of the building’s units be affordable. Fane probably sees such a requirement, advocated by the sainted CPC staff of the Journal’s imagination, as no less a project killer than a rejection of the increase in the height limit.

No doubt the Journal is perfectly aware of this, and also that the 195 commission has questioned whether the Fane tower can profit even without the 15-percent affordability set-aside. The editorial writer – the insider of insiders – is too smart to have so glibly turned so many facts on their heads without understanding the true interests involved.

The real reason so many oppose this project is that, despite the money invested in the city and the addition of so many units to its market, the project rejects the city’s vision of itself. Soon after arriving with his first plan for three towers, Fane sneered at the city’s “cutesy” historic districts:

If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront. … Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date.

Of course, it is precisely the city’s great swaths of intact historical character that make Providence uniquely livable and deeply amenable to intelligent expansion. What Fane proposes is merely a copy of what cities in America and elsewhere, from Toronto to the capital city of Dubai, have been doing for half a century, undermining their livability and in many cases their economy.

Those whose opposition arises from what Fane calls his “iconic” design are more sophisticated about cities, and especially Providence, than are the true insiders – the CPC staff, architect Friedrich St. Florian, the editorial board of the Journal. Standing up to the real insiders who truckle to the conventional wisdom of sterile modern architecture and “bigger is better” planning is to resist urban orthodoxy at its most toxic. That orthodoxy has no rightful claim to be the future. The future of a city looks like what it chooses to look like, not what design insiders at Brown and RISD want it to look like.

The design insiders and hip wannabe city planning insiders want Providence to embrace what amounts to GMO architecture. The city should reject that, and if it will not, citizen activists should make them reject it. A Providence that charts its own future as evolving gently from its past, learning from its history, is more likely to thrive than a Providence that copies the recent past of glass-and-steel blotches of God’s wrath on architecture.

[W]here are the Rhode Island leaders who should be carrying Mr. St. Florian’s banner — of thinking boldly and looking to the future?

Friedrich St. Florian is a delightful man who made his name designing traditional architecture: Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial. His designs respected the past – and broke from his prior career of unbuilt abstract modernist architecture. Now he wants to regain the respect of establishment insiders by talking up architecture that can be loved only by the mother of the architect. The Journal states that St. Florian “literally changed the city with his idea of opening up the Providence River.”

No, that was Bill Warner.

It was the late Bill Warner who knew how to look into the future by thinking boldly. His waterfront design was a break from decades of ugly modernism approved by the architectural establishment. Busting away from that was bold then and would be even bolder today. St. Florian’s support for the Fane tower is not bold. He has it upside down, and the Journal has swallowed his error, hook, line and stinker.

The public’s rejection of the Fane tower is true boldness. The public must hold the city council to the high standard set by Providence’s history, not the false standard set by those true insiders, including the Journal, who do not understand the city or its best interests. The city’s true best interests are to follow the public’s intuitive support for a city whose future respects rather than rejects its beautiful past.

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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24 Responses to The Journal’s angry editorial

  1. petervanerp says:

    The worst part is the six story parking garage overshadowing the park and the street. If you like the new garage next to South Street Station, you’ll love the longer garage looming over the street in this proposal.

    Like

    • Since they probably would have found it hard to argue for demolishing the South Street Station, they are doing the next best thing – using modernist shit to block views of it.

      Like

  2. Lesley Maxwell says:

    Excellent points although I’m not creative. I read the Planning Commission’s opposition & questions and they were valid points. Even those of us who know nothing about architecture could tell by the drawing that it just doesn’t ”fit”. It violates the plan to restructure Providence, connecting the city from east to west. The bridge is already in process, the park being used as a staging area for the equipment. The bridge (not being built by the usual RIers who never get things done) have been out there in every kind of weather – a friend photos the progress every week. Suddenly, the green sign is changed – it was on time and now it’s not. Why? I would guess the change came when Fane said he wanted a piece of the park – the timeline is too much of a coincidence. Projo’s article was contradictory. It’s true – we lack affordable housing. Everyone knows that and Projo pointed that out. Projo blew it in their 1st paragraph – they’re ”luxury” apartments, not meant for the middle class.
    The cost doubled as Fane added more height and his ”sensuous” architecture. While I like modern and one can mix the modern with the old, if done correctly, this design would be out of place anywhere in Providence. What is this ‘thing’ – a monument to Fane himself? Hopefully, the City Council will follow the lead of the Planning Commission – there’s no way that building will ever be filled, that it’s a disruption to the landscape that’s been planned for years.

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  3. Lewis Dana says:

    David, I have often quibbled and even forcefully disagreed with you on architectural style — modern versus traditional. But right now, I salute your clear-headed assessment of the Fane fantasy. This is not about a lack of vision on the part of the heinous, self serving “insiders” of the Projo’s fevered imagination. It’s all about the Pro-Fane folks’ complete lack of understanding (or interest)(or caring) about all the things that make Providence a wonderful, right-sized, walkably charming place to live and work. Bravo! Encore!

    Like

    • You should know that the last thing modernists want is a right-sized, walkably charming place to live and work. The prospect of turning society away from modernism is by far the most important task of architecture and urbanism – everything else will follow naturally.

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  4. barry schiller says:

    I’d like to add my name to the praise of David’s post which deserves wide distribution. It touches on much more than this specific building, it suggests at a way of looking at development more generally.
    With world population still growing rapidly, i am in general a fan of density, both in Providence and generally, as the only way to accommodate growth while still keeping natural and agricultural lands. But this proposal has problems of design, location, and, it seems, financial plausibility.

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  5. Maxwell says:

    Good article, Mr. Brussat. I posed a question a bit ago about how, if Rhode Island has to ‘bribe’ people to come live here with incentive packages, who exactly is going to be living in this luxury development at the price they were expecting to get? I had a laundry list of issues that went unaddressed, but that’s neither here nor there. It seemed this was more like Fane’s big vanity project, like “look what we made!” I couldn’t help but see it as a 600′ tall flipped bird to the city of Providence. I actually started getting steamed about it and nearly did a backflip when it got voted down. Am I an insider now?

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    • I think all of your string of reactions are valid, along with your perception of Fane’s attitude toward the city. And you are right to doubt his prospectus. Even if he can find enough wealthy folk to populate his units, which may be difficult, he will make it harder to develop other residential buildings there and elsewhere in the city. Not a good idea. It reminds me of the period in the 1990s when so many donations were going to the Heritage Harbor project (as a museum) that donations to other worthy local causes declined to a trickle.

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  6. The Journal editorial board does not know that Bill Warner drew the napkin sketch!?

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    • Maggy Madarentz says:

      The napkin sketch is drawn by both. Friedrich St Florian and Bill Warner during a lunch time at the restaurant. Friedrich has the original. Bill has a photocopy.

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      • Maggy & Jeff – They both my have sketched on the napkin, and likewise Irving Haynes. My understanding is that they discussed various strategies for getting new traffic from Capital Center through Suicide Circle, but did not discuss opening or moving the rivers. That came later, through work that Warner was doing while on the committee set up to consider the problem. I think it was an evening of drinks at the Blue Point. Peggy (soon to be) Warner was also there. I have no way of knowing which story about the napkin and its results is true. I discussed it in my book but my conclusions were tentative.

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  7. Jonathan says:

    You nailed it, David!

    I’m not anti-tall, anti-condo, and certainly not anti-development. We need something on that site which respects the (eventual) adjacent park, the river, the city’s character, and the rest of the skyline!

    Like

  8. LazyReader says:

    Maybe people don’t realize that the era of the Skyscraper is over. Except in a few major cities. The age of the skyscraper is coming to a close, they’re not built to the development boom and bust cycles of conventional real estate. A building half the height with classical design would be far less visually intrusive. Low rises (35 meters or less), Mid-rises (less than 150 meters) We don’t need highrises (150 meters or more). Worse buildings this massive, 600 foot tall juggernaut are impossible to demolish without being deconstructed an expensive process and impossible to retrofit for adaptive use. Economists have found large new skyscrapers to be a negative economic indicator, as these buildings often open on the verge of bad economy. Much of the study on this phenomenon was done in 1999 by Andrew Lawrence, a research director at Deutsche Bank who created the “skyscraper index,” originally as a joke. But later discovered a true phenomena that these towers open often during economic problems. Examples like The Singer Building which opened during the Panic of 1907 40 Wall Street, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building built during the Great Depression the World Trade Center and Sears Tower built during the 1970s economic flop the Petronas Towers built during the Asian Crisis of the late 1990s
    the Burj Khalifa built during the late-2000s recession.

    Like

    • If more skyscrapers were designed like the Singer Building, there would be less outcry about their various demerits. But they take so long to build that the boom that generates the money for them often runs out just as they are seeking tenants.

      Like

  9. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    DONT’ HOUSTONIZE PROVIDENCE!

    Milton

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  10. Fred Roses says:

    Bravo David, soup to nuts. Every paragraph here rings with insight and truth.

    Like

  11. Eric Daum says:

    Great Job, David! I’m infuriated by this ProFane proposal. The Journal’s editorial is hugely irresponsible.

    Like

  12. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    You tell it Dave !!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  13. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Bravo, David!… Spot on.

    Like

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