Providence: expand the tax base above all else?


While walking around Providence's Capitol Center some months back, I was struck by the sharp bifurcation between the beauty of the city's old buildings clustered downtown and the prosiac qualities of the newer structures increasingly filling the vacant space between Kennedy Plaza and the State House. David Brussat had touched on this subject -- what might be called the uglification of Providence -- in a previous column, and his words echoed anew.

Now, as the City of Providence prepares to move ahead with its Downtown Charrette, Brussat is on the mark once again (for some of my related coverage on dissatisfaction with planning + development in the city, click here and here):

Next week, the future appearance of downtown Providence will be considered at a four-day charrette sponsored by the city Monday through Thursday, Oct. 27-30. Civic leaders, neighborhood activists, city planners, architects, residents and others will hear and respond to ideas of how downtown should evolve. Evening sessions will sum up the progress made during the daytime sessions.

The charrette will look at how to go forward in Capital Center, the old “Downcity” core of downtown, the new Old Harbor District created by the relocation of Route 195, and the “edges” between downtown and the East Side, West Side and South Side. The definition of downtown has expanded in the eyes of the city’s planners beyond its traditional boundary to include the Promenade District and the Jewelry District. The idea of downtown is changing, becoming more complex and difficult to grasp. The compactness that has made downtown easy, both for people to walk and planners to plan, is as much at risk as the historical character that has long been been central to its beauty and its appeal.

City policies under Mayor Cicilline have exacerbated these trends, and there is little indication that he or his administration regret them, let alone that they intend to address them constructively.

Shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness seem to be the chief characteristics of the city’s urban policy. The highest priority seems to be to increase the tax base. In a time of multiple challenges to the city this is understandable, but it fails to recognize that in the long run, development that respects the city’s historic character and the priorities of its neighborhood communities would make it easier to solve the city’s problems. So far, the neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning process seems intended more to buttress the administration’s desire to hasten even ill-conceived projects than to embrace community input. Friction rather than cooperation is the predictable result. At the same time, pressure from the most influential participants for modern architecture that erodes historic character and spurns public taste is likely to slow the pace of development and delay any bonanza of property taxes.

“Innovative new buildings will stand in contrast to preserved and renovated commercial, industrial and residential structures” is a key “shared vision” of a study done for the Jewelry District’s neighborhood group. Is that supposed to be a good thing? I doubt most people who live and work in the Jewelry District share a desire for contrast rather than harmony in their streetscapes. Yet that assumption typifies the attitude that guides the process.

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