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Downtown Design Review Committee Review: The Cambridge Innovation Center

 

The Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC) meets monthly to approve all renovation and construction in Providence’s D-1 zoning district.  The Downtown Design Review Committee Review (DDRCR) relays the meeting’s highlights and introduces the public to the movers and shakers of Providence real estate development.

 “The CIC’s mission is to change the world through innovation by developing ecosystems that allow exceptional entrepreneurs to create new products and companies better and faster. We do this by providing infrastructure (high quality, flexible office space) and by actively building startup communities in the premium locations of future-focused cities.”

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Before I scrutinize the CIC’s ad copy, I’ll confess that I too am guilty of overhyping Providence to Bostonians. I recently connived two childhood friends into signing a Federal Hill lease with me, and my promises of cheap rent, restaurant work and RISD girlfriends have proved only 2/3 true with a month left on our lease.

But at the DDRC’s latest meeting on April 10, a team of developers and designers presented conceptual designs for the Cambridge Innovation Center’s latest “premier location”: a dusty wasteland outside of Providence’s Jewelry District formerly occupied by Interstate 195.

Furthermore, any city short of a ghost town is “future-focused,” so who’s the bigger liar here?  To lump Providence in with Boston, Miami, St. Louis and Rotterdam — the CIC’s existing locations — under such a meaningless term is nothing short of misleading. (Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port and St. Louis has two major league sports franchises and twice the population of Providence.)

Now that I’ve jaded you to the half-assed doublespeak that passes for community engagement at these meetings, I can walk you through the I-195 District’s latest development with less bitterness.

The development comes in two parts. The first is the Innovation Center and the second is a hotel that shares a plaza with the Innovation Center.

Sharing Is Caring

Providence isn’t short on co-working space, especially co-working space geared toward entrepreneurship. There’s Sprout, Hatch,  Social Entrepreneurship Greenhouse and Founders League. There’s also Brown’s Innovation Dojo on College Hill and Johnson & Wales’ Larry Freidman International Center for Entrepreneurship, which are student-oriented.

Based on a conversation I had with an entrepreneurial friend and a handful of cursory Google searches, I’ll posit that Founders League’s ad copy accurately describes the Providence market: “For anyone who wants to get out of the coffee shop or home office without a long-term commitment.”

The CIC, on the other hand, is far larger — 191,000 square feet in all — and charges far more rent than its competitors — an average of $1,500 per person per month. Meanwhile, the deluxe co-working package at Sprout costs $650 per person per month, and a two-person private office at the Social Entrepreneurship Greenhouse would only run you $250 each a month.

The question is, will Cambridge Innovation Center offer enough to justify charging roughly triple the rate of their competitors?

Another question is, will Cambridge Innovation Center offer enough to justify the state’s decision to sell them I-195 land for a negligible sum of money? Hot info regarding land prices comes from a trusted City Hall informant.

I imagine the CIC can afford to pay market-rate for an I-195 parcel, but if you’ve read this column before then you’ll know that no large-scale construction projects get done in this town without public subsidy.

More from the informant: Development in the I-195 District has been slower than anticipated, to say the least. The state probably sees the CIC as a catalyst for construction in the area, and the CIC can also make the case that it alleviates Providence’s so-called “brain drain” epidemic, which may amount to a public service depending on how much you like Brown students.

An Ivy League entrepreneur won’t stay in Providence for a glorified coffee shop, but they might stick around for space in the CIC, which cleverly preys on the elite entrepreneur’s fear of appearing illegitimate to peers and investors. The CIC will also provide things like desks, office chairs, conference rooms, internet, receptionists and a gorgeous postmodern building, which tend to cost small businesses a lot of time and money when they’re starting out.

Providence has been courting Boston’s sloppy seconds for years — GE being the most recent company to open a satellite office in Providence — and the CIC will likely expedite entrepreneurial spillover. Imagine starting a business at the original Cambridge Innovation Center and finding that the same exact thing exists 50 miles south where the rent is half-price and the people are twice as chill.

To round out the potential public benefits of the subtly subsidized CIC, CEO Tim Rowe claims that his business bolsters economic resilience. His success during the Great Recession makes a convincing case. As he told the Boston Globe in 2010, “In downturns people don’t go away. People need to eat. So downturns are not only a good time for us, they’re a good time for entrepreneurship. People don’t have a job and they don’t want to sit around at home, so they start new businesses. It’s that simple.”

Hotel City

My informant at City Hall tells me there are actually five hotels under development in Providence right now. Does that seem like too many?

I’ll run through their locations and leave it at that: a Homewood Suites at Exchange Terrace and Memorial Boulevard; a Marriott Residence where the Fogarty Building once stood on Fountain Street; a Glo budget hotel on Washington Street west of I-95; and a Holiday Inn on Pine and West Franklin streets.

The hotel across from the CIC will be managed by Aloft.  Its design — drafted by a different architecture firm than the CIC — is ugly in a safe, postmodern way.  The developers are trying to attract a restaurant for the bottom floor.

Parks and Parking

The Cambridge Innovation Center and Aloft Hotel will share a leafy courtyard, which is an exciting concession to City Walk, a loosely planned pedestrian corridor slated to connect Roger Williams and India Point parks.

The section of City Walk along Broad Street will be a souped-up sidewalk, so there must be substantial infrastructure before City Walk crosses over the Providence River (via pedestrian bridge) if it’s going to be noticed by anyone but the most severe planning nerds.

In short, development on I-195 land will determine the success of City Walk. Wexford has set a progressive precedent with regard to City Walk, though there is another development parcel between them and the planned riverfront park. An insensitive design on this parcel could sever City Walk’s continuity.

The Wexford parcel has the misfortune of falling under the jurisdictions of both Providence’s DDRC and the state-appointed I-195 Commission, meaning its design must be approved by both boards before construction can begin.  The 195ers have ultimate discretion over their land, though in this case the DDRC will essentially make the decision for them via recommendation.

At around 5:45pm on April 10, the DDRC recommended approval. The meeting concluded with approval for a planned parking structure behind the Garrahy Courthouse.  The state is bankrolling the parking structure — which will lease spaces to future Jewelry District developments — in the hopes of stimulating economic growth on I-195 land. Of the DDRC’s five agenda items, three were postponed, including, for the second month running, the Providence Public Library’s LED mural.

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