Timidity has ruled Providence’s most radical redevelopment project. Beginning in the mid-1970s, planning for improvements to the northeast rail corridor focused on the development of high-speed service and more effective station facilities. The sharpest curve on the rail line between Boston and Washington occurred at the rear of Providence’s large Union Station complex, a facility by then perceived as old, and, from Amtrak’s perspective, out of date. A new rail alignment and a new station were clearly on their way when the Providence Foundation – the Downtown-development arm of the Providence Chamber of Commerce – and in particular its executive director, Ron Marsella, began to see the rail relocation as an opportunity to remove the viaduct that visually and perceptually separated Downtown Providence from undeveloped land on the back side of the station at the foot of the State House lawn. Doing this would link the State House more formally with Downtown, and create desirable development parcels. This proposal was issued when many large offices historically located Downtown were beginning to move to suburban office parks with large-footprint, open plan buildings. An extensive public review investigated the potential impact of the rail-line relocation and its concomitant developments on environmental, economic, and historical resources.
The formation of the Capital Center Commission and the resolution of land-ownership questions arising from the planned reconfiguration followed the conclusion of the impact study in 1979. Composed of appointees from both the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island, the commission reviews proposals for development within the area for their adherence to building and design guidelines established at the time of the commission’s creation. A separate Design Review Committee provides technical expertise to the commission. As work began on the complex reworking of the area, local architects and planners Irving B. Haynes, Gerald Howes, Friedrich St Florian, and William D. Warner began to dream of moving the alignments of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers to make a more dramatic confluence, and also of rehabilitating the banks of those two rivers and that of the Providence River, which extends about a mile south from their confluence to the head of Narragansett Bay. The same impact-review process then began for river relocation. Capital Center was envisioned in the early 1980s as a project that would take twenty years to complete. Because of the economic cycles and changes in attitude toward what should be built in it (originally exclusively office buildings, for example), the project has become temporally stretched out. In the meantime, changing attitudes about what a Downtown redevelopment should be, as opposed to the original concept of an in-town office park, have encouraged the Capital Center Commission to re-evaluate and revise its guidelines toward encouraging a far more urban character than originally envisioned. Capital Center’s plan lacks the subtlety and nuance of the City Beautiful-planning construct that ought to have dominated it. But in the 1970s, of course, no one really knew what to do urbanistically with inner cities. The plan’s chief flaw is the head-on approach to the State House from Downtown, a perspective the State House architects would never have sanctioned. Controversial since first proposed, it continues to inspire lively, cacophonous, and occasionally unengaged debate among many disparate voices in the community about the use and appearance of buildings in this highly visible new precinct. The history of Capital Center, especially after it reaches completion, will be a fascinating tale of late twentieth-century urbanism. For now, a changed political climate in the City of Providence, an increasingly elevated level of architectural awareness among engaged citizens, and a responsive Capital Center Commission (which deserves much greater credit than the area’s constituent buildings would suggest at first glance) all inspire hope that greater finesse will be used in the development of the remaining parcels. If only there were developers with the architectural and urbanistic vision found among the Commission members and the local architectural community! If so, there may be reason to hope that the future will be better.
16 Gateway Building
The transitions in Capital Center unfortunately show immediate shifts from the best to the worst. This gangly building makes adolescence look appealing. It’s included here only as a fine example of what developers’ desires filtered through committee review can get you. Designed by Elkus/Manfredi Architects, Inc. (Boston), this is undoubtedly the gamiest building in Providence and, unfortunately, right at its heart, just across the street from McKim, Mead & White’s superb State House: the tattooed stevedore next to the bespoke-clad aristocrat. Perhaps best described as Gamy Chinese Modern, something better suited to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it should have encouraged rioting upon its completion instead of the almost bovine acceptance that it seems to continue to enjoy.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture