Monday afternoon’s meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee was the city’s first official look, in a public setting, at the design of Jason Fane’s proposed luxury condo tower. The meeting was pure theater of the absurd. It was as if the committee members and the Fane team were on different planets.
DDRC chairwoman Kristi Gelnett told the Fane architect:
I do have to say that six hundred feet in a hundred-foot zone is hard for me to swallow, and it’s way too tall for the location. … If it does happen, I would like it to be not such a complete departure from the character of the city itself.
Clark Schoettle, retired director of the Providence Revolving Fund, told him:
I think anything that can be done that can reduce the scale and height of the building and make it more compatible with nearby buildings would be important.
In the late fall of last year, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza had vetoed legislation raising the 100-foot height limit to 600 feet for the tower, largely because Fane refused to give the city final say in the design of the project. His veto was overriden by the city council, however, so the city’s role will be advisory only. On Monday, the committee expressed regret at the tower’s height and design, but showed no inclination to challenge either. And Fane’s architect, Gianni Ria, of the Toronto-based firm IBI, obliged the committee members by ignoring these complaints, focusing his remarks not on the building’s height or design but on changes in the six-story garage on which the tower – resembling two humans in coitus – would sit. (See “Fane’s Copycat Point Tower.”)
Unlike the garage’s appearance, the appearance of the allegedly “iconic” tower is widely familiar – though its style is by now a modernist skyscraper cliché. Its ilk exists in abundance around the world. But, hey, nowadays the word iconic means nutty, so let’s be nice and allow Fane to call his tower “iconic,” at least for Providence.
As for the garage, images available thus far to the public barely reveal its appearance, or it is masked by trees. Ria showed images of a new garage design that aim to portray a look resembling the Wexford technology center across the street. Whoop dee do! But the new garage design, however sterile, still looks nothing like the erectile blobs cavorting 40 stories above it. We should be thankful for small favors.
Let’s speculate what might have happened if Fane had agreed to Elorza’s demand for final say over the tower’s design, and so the mayor had not vetoed the bill raising the height limit. What would the DDRC have done?
It would surely have objected to the design of the tower for its failure to protect downtown’s historical character, as mandated again and again in the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code. Members would have asked Fane’s architect to return to the next meeting (April 8) with a brand new design. Since downtown’s historical character mainly reflects architectural trends from 1870 to 1930, committee member Clark Schoettle, former head of the Providence Revolving Fund, would urge Fane to consider a redesign “inspired by the Flatiron Building, in New York.” Schoettle could point out that “Mr. Ria actually cited the Flatiron in his testimony as an inspiration for his tower here.”
Only kidding! That would never happen. What would happen is that the DDRC would encourage Ria to make the sort of changes that he described yesterday. And next time, the DDRC would ask Ria to consider moving the entrance curb cut to the garage around the corner, to increase the size of the fins extruding from the lower façade from six to eight inches, and to add some detail to the opaque glass panels on the lower stories of the podium to relieve their monotony. For the city to ask a developer to design a project to strengthen rather than weaken its brand is simply beyond the pale.
Design review panels in Providence are historically uncomfortable asking developers to make more than pro-forma changes in modernist designs.
After all, no official objections of any significance have been made so far to the designs of the Wexford monstrosity, the two dormitories almost finished at South Street Landing, the appalling but gargantuan garage on its other side, or any of the projects in the I-195 corridor pipeline. The Design Review Committee of the Capital Center Commission has never called for any major changes in the projects of that district, unless the designs were traditional in character. The evidence for this skittishness goes back before design review even existed in Providence.
And in fact, how would the design reviewers have any basis for seeking substantive changes in a modernist design? To make such changes, a design needs a coherent architectural language, which modern architecture does not have – even though it is a century long in the tooth.
No, it is impossible to imagine the city making any major changes to the Fane tower’s design even if it had the authority to do so. So Providence is doomed to get uglier and uglier from now on – unless the city, maybe under pressure from its own citizens, decides to get out of the modern architecture business altogether and embrace our beautiful historic character, as the city’s laws say it should.