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Dr. Downtown, David Brussat: Raimondo’s Graffiti on the Wall

Monday, February 02, 2015

 

Proposed 195 District student housing, courtesy of gcpvd.org

Colin Kane, the only chairman the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission has had since its creation by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2011, resigned last week. He saw Governor Raimondo writing something on a wall. So far, however, beyond nixing the commission’s alleged reliance on market forces to guide development, the message is secret.

Market forces seem to be using invisible ink, too. Nothing has been built on the 195 land. Only one project has been approved: two dormitories, one on empty land and another across the street that would require demolishing a nice old building. Both new buildings would be unabashedly ugly, and student housing is not exactly what leaders hoped to see on the 195 land. 

A plan that further rips the fabric of a district that was intended to weave the fabric back together cannot be what Raimondo has in mind. Certainly not in exchange for development that has little to do with the “Knowledge District” theme the state has concocted for the land. But so far, that’s what the market has coughed up. Maybe that’s why she has been writing on the wall and sending rejection slips to commissioners. She lacks confidence in both the market and the commission.

Waiting for Elorza

The two proposed dormitories are not exactly signed, sealed and delivered yet. Before breaking ground, a tax-stabilization agreement with the city is required. A TSA is one of the many ways to tweak business conditions so that market forces do not run away screaming as fast as they can. 

The past year has seen older TSAs coming to an end. The last mayor, successor Jorge Elorza, and the city council have been grumbling about tax cuts for developers, but really the city has no choice but to offer them. Property taxes for business are already onerous enough, but on top of that businesses must also pay an inventory or “tangible” tax on equipment and furnishings - due quarterly and administered by the Tax Assessor’s office with a Neanderthal brutality.

Rehabbed buildings on Westminster Street, courtesy of providencedailydose.comm

Providence often promotes its low rents compared with Boston, but low rents only mean it takes developers more time to make a profit for themselves and their investors. For the fact is the cost of construction is as high in Providence as in Boston. No development would take place in this city were it not for incentives designed to offset this gap. The invisible hand of market forces keeps a steady eye on what government does or doesn’t do to improve business conditions.

Recasting the TSA program so that the property-tax abatement rises only gradually to the full rate, creating standardized qualifications for TSAs and their extension, and better monitoring of compliance, are steps being mulled by the city’s political leaders. They are long overdue.

Developers like Buff Chace, who have risked money to bring life to downtown, face a cliff of suddenly steeper property taxes as TSAs lapse on one redeveloped building after another. That is ridiculous. If the city wants Chace and others to continue to invest in its revival, a reformed TSA is mandatory. Someday, after the city eliminates the inventory tax and reduces the property tax on businesses, it will be able to kill the TSA and still compete with Boston.

Custom redevelopment idea

If the governor believes that she wants to replace market forces with government leadership, she may play at doing so by subdividing the 19 development parcels in the district. The 19 parcels are too big. She should also revise the Toolkit the commission gives to developers. It is filled with bad advice, complex procedures, unnecessary regulations and unacceptable examples. 

Local academic and medical institutions the state had hoped would step up to create jobs and attract technological and innovative business have politely declined to throw their hats into the 195 ring. Smaller parcels might be more attractive to smaller investors, but also offer bite-sized growth opportunities for institutions that have so far been coy. A revised Toolkit that reflected that would deter far less prospective development.

At left, 32 Custom House St., courtesy of city-data.com:

The latest ideas in planning and development urge growth that replicates the biological processes that are found in nature. Most old downtowns grew organically, reflecting the full range of scales that make it easier for people and money to react to changing conditions. In America, many cities lost their innate flexibility as networks of smaller buildings were razed and replaced by far larger structures that thwart the adaptive reuses by which cities evolved for centuries. Providence is among the few that have retained most of its highly adaptable, fine-grained downtown fabric.

Indeed, a developer now wants to put apartments in 32 Custom House St., the quaintly named Real Estate Title Insurance Co. Building, erected in 1875. Five stories tall, it is across from the old Custom House and next to Pot au Feu. Who would not want to live there? On Monday, Feb. 9, the Downcity Design Review Committee will consider the proposal. Governor Raimondo should send a spy to the meeting with orders to figure out why the best possible model for redeveloping the 195 land is not downtown Providence.

David Brussat was an editorial writer and architecture critic at the Providence Journal for 30 years, and now writes an independent blog, architecturehereandthere.com. He lives in Providence.

 

Related Slideshow: David Brussat, Dr. Downtown’s Roses and Raspberries of 2014

Here are Dr. Downtown's roses and raspberries of 2014. 

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Raspberry

A raspberry to outgoing Mayor Taveras for not stepping in to stop the demolition of half of Kennedy Plaza. Replacing the Art Nouveau waiting kiosks with sterile, utilitarian kiosks only shows the role of beauty in vibrant city places. But that is less than half of why the city (and RIPTA) deserve this putrid award. They have undermined a perfectly good transit hub to create a new civic square when a perfectly good civic square already exists right across the street in Burnside Park. The doctor is not impressed.

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Raspberry

A raspberry for the transit bond issue on the ballot last month. Demolishing Kennedy Plaza (see raspberry above) before the public vote on funds to build new transit hubs at Providence Station and the Garrahy Courthouse violated basic standards of management. Whether the two new hubs are built will influence the logic of renovating Kennedy Plaza. Moreover, a nonstop bus loop linking the station to the plaza would be more inexpensive, expeditious and effective than a new hub built over railroad tracks. As for the other hub, a long-promised parking garage at the courthouse would solve far more problems sooner than a bus hub. But that would put the horse before the cart, which strikes the doctor as out of step with current planning methods in Providence.

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Rose

A rose to city and state officials for arranging to renovate the South Street Station just north of Point Street Bridge on the west side of the Providence River. Amid continuing public skepticism, the deal would rescue one of the city’s most beautiful neoclassical buildings by developing a nursing school for URI and RIC and administrative offices for Brown, with a dorm and a parking garage nearby, all kitty corner from Brown’s medical school. The doctor was startled to see such a fancy maneuver performed under the aegis of the twin ineptitudes helming the state and its capital city.

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Raspberry

A raspberry to the state for the waste represented by the recently adopted RhodeMap RI plan. On the one hand, its opponents insist it is not an economic plan at all but a social policy. On the other hand, its advocates insist that with no budget and no programs, it is no more than a bunch of lofty aspirations. Dr. Downtown suspects that RhodeMap RI will earn a rose next year for gathering dust on a shelf at the State Planning Council.

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Rose

A rose to Buff Chace, for getting Providence named America’s Favorite City 2014 by Travel + Leisure magazine. Wickenden Street and Thayer Street give the city enough dred cred to attract Millennials and GenX’ers, but it was Chace’s developments along downtown’s Westminster Street that put Providence on the edgy-city map.

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Raspberry

A raspberry duplicating last year’s to Buff Chace for shutting down Tazza Caffe, the coffee place that sparked the Westminster Street renaissance. Tazza remains unoccupied. Before giving operator Michael Corso the boot, Chace let him frost the windows so you couldn’t see in or out. Great for business! Can Corso’s dislike of transparency be linked to his role in 38 Studios? The doctor can only guess, but he would rather put Chace on the couch to plumb his depths in search of his apparent dislike of occupied retail space.

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Rose

A rose to Vincent Geoffroy for continuing to develop his Providence G project in the old gas company buildings downtown. The new restaurant Garde de la Mer in the wee twee Teste Block building adds to the billiard drinking parlor, the rooftop café and the 56 luxury apartments already on tap.

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Rose

A rose to the new Dean Hotel, formerly the Sportsman’s Inn, which leaves, in the doctor’s patently forgivable opinion, only one whorehouse on Fountain Street.

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Rose

A rose to the city for instituting a new historic district overlay to give a minimal level of protection to buildings, such as Brown’s Ladd Observatory, that fall in none of the city’s eight local historic districts. (See raspberry below.)

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Raspberry

A raspberry to Brown for proposing to demolish three very nice houses on Manning Walk to make way partly for a new building for its engineering school, but mostly for more grass on Manning Walk. Barus & Holley, the engineering building that should be condemned merely for ugliness, gets off scot free. The city cannot tax Brown but it should curtail the  school’s institutional authority to tear down buildings, which it has used irresponsibly. Hinckley House, at 37 Manning. and the other two should instead be listed on the city’s new historic district overlay. Let the [expletive deleted by the doctor] work the [expletive deleted by the doctor] around it.

 
 

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