In Providence, think big? Tall shadows of prosperity in Boston

  Photo by Sam Weber

Photo by Sam Weber

From Robert Whitcomb's Nov. 24 "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal24.

“They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they're fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin’’

From the ‘ 30s song “They All Laughed,’’ with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira.

A bit of what’s wrong with Rhode Island popped up recently in remarks by Arnold “Buff’’ Chace, a Providence real-estate owner/developer and a scion of an old southeastern New England family. (One of the family’s enterprises became internationally known after Warren Buffett turned the family’s old textile company, Berkshire Hathaway, into a huge, and hugely successful, investment company – a sort of mutual fund for the affluent.)

Mr. Chace said of New York developer Jason Fane’s  recent proposal to put three skyscrapers (one 55 stories high), with condos and apartments, on Route 195 land in downtown Providence:

“The scale is a problem for sure. Buildings of that type are not part of the character of our city, and I think it would be a big mistake.’’

First, let us bear in mind that these buildings would compete with Mr. Chace’srental units.

But more to the point, why would it be bad if such towers changed the “character’’ of the city and state.  Is the current “character’’ all that good? Wouldn’t construction of such towers tell visitors and residents alike that Providence was becoming an exciting and dynamic place on the move instead of an often depressed, fiscally fragile place that has seen very little economic growth for years? And what’s wrong with skyscrapers? They are a symbol of hope and aspiration that would look great indowntown Providence and could be seen for miles around. Thank God for the little old skyscrapers that downtownProvidence has now that tell visitors that the city once had a thriving economy and so might have one again.

“If I were to do the same project in New York or Toronto, people would love to live in it. And it would be easy to finance, but it wouldn’t particularly stand out,” Mr. Fane told the Providence Business News. “This is where Providence would have an opportunity to change its self-image.”

Of course,  it’s healthier if local wealth and job creation come before residential development, or at least simultaneously.  Big real estate development usually follows local wealth creation, as do  the “hospitality industry’’ and philanthropy.  The big long-term wealth creators are: Inventing things, manufacturing things, growing and catching things, investing things and shipping things. So we hope that, for example, bio-tech, design and other job-creating sectors finally move into the Route 195 area to provide the income with which people could buy or rent in the likes of those towers.

But let’s not throw cold water on a proposal that could give people the hope that Providence can become a major and prosperous metropolis again.

When John D. Rockefeller Jr., assisted by his son, Nelson, built, and battled to fill, huge Rockefeller Center, in midtown Manhattan, in the Great Depression, many thought  that they were on a fool’s errand. But the expression of faith in New York demonstrated by the spectacular project helped turn Gotham around.

Providence needs to show similar energy and faith. The three-tower plan might or might not work, but  in any case the city desperately needs big, dramatic projects, which will bring in smaller ones, too. 

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Booming Boston, for its part, is so rich that it has the luxury of dealing with  a multitude of real and proposed high-rise projects. Consider the 340-foot tower proposed for near Fenway Park. The Red Sox oppose the current version of the project.

 “We have strong concerns that this proposed project would create an unacceptably tall and impactful 29-story building in very close proximity to Fenway Park, and which might have significant negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood as well as our historic ballpark itself,” David Friedman, the team’s senior vice president for legal and government affairs, told the Boston Planning & Development Agency.

It’s part of the growing controversy in Boston over proliferating skyscrapers putting some buildings, parks and other places in shadows for some of the day. But the owners of these proposed buildings can pay so much in property taxes in what has become truly a world city that it’s hard to tell them to go away, and most Bostonians seem very happy to have them anyway. Compared to Providence, it’s a nice problem to have. “The Hub’’ has become a very exciting city, especially compared to its Dickensian dreariness in the ‘50s.

Maybe beggars, such as Providence, can’t be choosers.