Downtown Design Review Committee Review: Plugging Holes Near RISD

Did you know all downtown construction must receive approval from an unelected body of architects, developers and preservationists? They are known as the Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC) and the Downtown Design Review Committee Review (DDRCR) reports the latest and greatest from their monthly menagerie.

 Yeah, I know the title’s crass, but that’s how I’m getting you to read a lefty column about surface parking infill in 2018, you little centrist perv.

Well, I can assure you the dirty jokes end here. We’re talking about a mere three buildings this month and none of their designs can be easily sexualized.

Cutting The Edge

My father (Gloucester, Mass-based) used to joke that Providence is the parking capital of New England. That’s until he parked behind the library in November and a thief broke into his mini-van. Now he just calls Providence a “shithole.”

Plans to supersize the Elizabeth Building (100 North Main St) into a development spanning two adjoining parking lots will further damage Providence’s illustrious reputation, at least in the eyes of my father. However, if you care about things other than the price of dumping your car downtown, then this development is probably fine.

Before I tell you why I like “Edge College Hill”— a partially-approved 439-unit development squeezed into one historic building and two new ones — here’s a little refrain on why Providence has so much parking:

Downtown Providence was built before automobiles (ie, densely), but as urban real estate lost value in the midcentury car craze, many beautiful (ie, expensive to maintain) buildings were torn down so people could park next to the more profitable structures. This left us with a patchy downtown not unlike post-war London or Berlin, except our planning decisions were made by developers and bureaucrats rather than enemy militants (a smaller difference than many of us would care to admit).

Now here’s my long-awaited refrain on why the Edge is chill: Surface parking is the devil and it should be eradicated at all costs, especially with housing.

However, my journalistic ethics would be remiss if I failed to report that close to 30 residents of College Hill accompanied me at the January 22 DDRC meeting. With the exception of a construction union rep, the crowd heckled Edge’s application to build 15 stories in a zone that, without a variance, allows for 11. The slight irony is that the 15-story, 202-unit Phase I of Edge College Hill is already approved and under construction. It’s the wider, equally tall Phase II (237 units) that residents now have the opportunity to protest.

The crowd’s primary concern seemed to be their endangered downtown vistas, though they also fumed at the developers’ general neglect of area parking politics. A promise to market to car-fearing millennials could not keep the crowd at bay and the DDRC, perhaps in deference to democratic will, tabled further public discussion until their next meeting (Feb 5).

My one concern was not broached, though why would it have been? The state’s allocation of $4 million in tax credits to this luxury development was signed into law last May.

You’ve Got Mailroom

Isn’t there a cliche about executives working their way up from the mailroom at the company they’ve come to rule?

Here’s to hoping RISD’s new mailroom galvanizes similar upward mobility in a city that, according to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, has a “relative mobility rank-rank slope” of 0.333. Obviously take this with a grain of salt — I flunked out of Brown’s econ department — but the accompanying map’s color-coding suggests that mustardy Rhode Island has a middling rank within the economically fire-toned United States.

This isn’t my other column, “Doc Digresses,” so I’ll cut to the chase. RISD is “plugging a hole” at 10 Washington Place. “Prov Wash,” as it is known colloquially, is a neocolonial, U-shaped building with a dumpster and a parking lot in its concavity. Within a year, a futuristic red bean will fill that hole, and that is where the art students will receive their mail.

Bad Journalism

Wow, did I make it through a whole month with ultimately positive takes on downtown real estate development?

Almost.  Keep your eyes peeled for a forthcoming “Doc Digresses” on the demise of The Providence Journal headquarters (75 Fountain St) from four-floor citadel to one-floor rental, as told to me by David Brussat, former architecture critic for that building’s namesake tenant. I promise his story is a metaphor for, um, journalism at large, if anyone still cares.

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