Dr. Downtown, David Brussat: Free Advice for Raimondo

Monday, November 24, 2014


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Here’s some free advice for Rhode Island’s new governor-elect, Gina Raimondo. Not just freely offered but free in the implementation. 

As governor, she should urge developers to comply with state laws that protect its historical character. The legal codes of Rhode Island and its 39 cities and towns are festooned with such protections, but they are honored mainly in the breach. If Rhode Island is to use its major asset of beauty to promote its economy, that should change.

The governor need not invoke those laws. She need only remind applicants seeking to build in Rhode Island that the state considers its historic character as a vital asset to its economy. If the state’s “Beautiful Rhode Island” brand is to work, she should urge all developers to build in ways that are a natural outgrowth of our beautiful heritage. That means preferring traditional to modernist design - as most people do. 

Most developers worry more about cost and profit than about the style wars of architecture, and would be receptive to friendly outreach from the new governor. Developers want clear direction, and are willing to accommodate a state’s priorities. First, however, the state must make sure those priorities are understood by developers – not to mention the permitting authorities in all 39 cities and towns. 

This should be a key initiative in the flurry of recent proposals to expand Rhode Island’s economy, and yet it appears in none of them.

Ms. Raimondo should explain why growing Rhode Island’s beauty is as important as promoting it, and why this may be the least expensive and most straightforward path to job creation in the Ocean State. Speech! Speech!

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Our innovation district

Last week the Route 195 Redevelopment District Commission approved its first sale of land to a developer. Soon, our innovation district will be on Gov.-elect Raimondo’s plate. In preparing her friendly advice to developers in Rhode Island, she should read Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell’s Nov. 16 article, “Innovation District needs human touch.”

Writing of Boston’s robust version of Providence’s Knowledge District, he considers “what it is like as an experience for the people who work and will live there. Dare we use the word charm? The Innovation District has all the charm of an office park in a suburb of Dallas.” He takes its architecture to task: “[Y]ou might see a few stories of a building bumping forward, like a box hung on an otherwise flat façade. Or there may be a vertical slash of glass cut into a façade, like the leg slit in a fashion gown. This isn’t architecture. It’s accessorizing.”

We don’t yet know what the proposed student residence in our Knowledge District will look like, but if Ms. Raimondo peeks into the “Developers Tool Kit” at the Route 195 commission’s website, she will find that it – and we - could be headed for the same suburban sterility that Mr. Campbell warns against.

Hotel or not hotel?

Last Wednesday’s meeting of the City Plan Commission delayed ruling  (until Dec. 16) on a legal question that will affect how Leonard and Paula Granoff can dispose of their land on Blackstone Boulevard. Before this on the agenda that evening, however, the commission did rule on another interesting legal dispute on a far less – dare I say it? - charming plot of land.

Value Place, which pioneered the extended-stay hotel concept nationally, wants to put one on Corliss Street, near the nation’s first automated post office - the mammoth Quonset hut that serves as the Main Post Office off of Charles Street. But with an expected four to six employees, does it qualify to sit on land the city has designated a “Jobs District”?

Tom Moses, who argued on the same evening that the Granoffs can divide their property “by right,” argued that Value Place was not eligible to build its “hotel” because it was not proposing a hotel, not even an extended-stay hotel, but an apartment complex.

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Is it a hotel or is it not a hotel, that was the question. The commission heard both sides and ruled it a hotel. The intended clientele of Value Place are not middle-management types in for a long run of meetings. Rather, they are families waiting to move from an apartment into a new house, or who have been ousted from their house by fire or other disasters (such as mean landlords), or they were kicked by a spouse, or fled his (or her) familial bad behavior. Their vacation at Value Place is supposedly temporary, and probably represents all they can afford – a room for a week for less than what most hotels around here would charge for a night.

Okay, but to achieve such rates Value Place has shaved its business model down to an absolute minimum of employees. So the question is whether it has any right to be in a so-called Jobs District. The commission said yes. It is not totally beside the point that the hotel’s impoverished design argues against its being in Providence at all. Yet this district – it is hardly a neighborhood - may be drab enough for even a Value Place to fit in.


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