Column: Save the facade, and the Arcade, too8:25 AM Thu, Sep 23, 2010 | Permalink
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Illustrations: Above, the facade of the former Providence National Bank from atop the new Hampton Inn; below, the facade, with the side of the Arcade visible to its right, and the late Custom House Tavern at left; the facade from the rear, with the Custom House at left and the Unitarian Church on College Hill in the background; the Arcade; the east side of the Arcade next to the site of the demolished bank building; the roof of the Arcade from the roof of the Hampton Inn; the OneTen project, imagined between Industrial Trust and Fleet Center
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Downtown property owner and former Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. has argued that the city ought to take by eminent domain both the Providence Arcade and the lot behind the ruins of the Providence National Bank. In "How to save the Arcade" (Commentary, Aug. 31), Paolino suggested that the two properties be marketed as a single development opportunity.
I generally dislike public takings of private property, but the two property owners' deplorable inaction demands its consideration.
Consider Granoff Associates, which owns the Arcade, and O'Connor Capital Partners, which owns the lot once slated for a 40-story tower. Their reluctance to put their own properties to productive use may reflect a degree of business savvy appropriate to maximizing their bottom lines. My suspicion is that a sort of relaxed entrepreneurial spirit is the more likely culprit. Either way, their inaction puts the Financial District and the entire city at grave risk. The next mayor -- probably Angel Taveras -- has a duty to address the matter forthrightly.
Don't forget that O'Connor Capital signed a legal pledge to maintain the façade in return for permits to raze the bank (and the ugly Buck-A-Book). That pledge remains in full force. If the façade deteriorates to the point of being a public hazard, it will be because the property owner has failed to uphold its obligation. The next mayor must hold it to that promise. He should also seek laws barring the issuance of demolition permits without ironclad legal assurance that a developer is financially able to build his project or rebuild what it tears down.
As for Granoff Associates, don't forget that it has abandoned the stewardship it embraced when it purchased the Arcade from Johnson & Wales University back in 2005. The Arcade was built in 1828 and until Granoff shut it down in 2008, it was the oldest indoor shopping mall in the nation. (The first was the Philadelphia Arcade, built in 1827 and demolished in 1860; the oldest, now that ours is not, is the Paddock Arcade, in Watertown, N.Y., built in 1850.) Granoff's stewardship requires protecting not just the building (the Greek Revival structure is not at risk) but its historical significance.
Joe Paolino's suggestion that the properties of the two recalcitrant owners be taken by the city and marketed together, while sensible so far as it goes, fails to recognize the importance of the Arcade's landmark status or the beauty of the facade, and seeks to protect neither. He insists that the Arcade cannot succeed unless land behind the façade is used for parking. Yet it had thrived for 170 years until, under Granoff, maintenance slackened and the number of tenants fell from 33 in 2005 to 13 in 2008, with no effort made to find new ones. Granoff's difficulties are not sufficiently explained by either the lack of nearby parking or the decline of downtown. These are not explanations; they are excuses, and flimsy ones at that.
A new parking lot or garage next to the Arcade would be acceptable so long as a pair of liner buildings, or façades, mask it from Weybosset (done!) and Westminster, as required by law for new parking on "A" streets. Perhaps, with the city's power of eminent domain lurking in the background, the property owners can make this happen, or do something even better. Maybe one can sell its property to the other. Both are big enough to do what needs to be done, or to absorb the loss of getting out.
The city should inform Granoff that if it proceeds with its plan to lease the Arcade to a single tenant, the city will move to take the Arcade by eminent domain. A single tenant, however viable or alluring, would kill the building's historic significance. Granoff or a successor (possibly the city) should operate the Arcade as a mall of shops, as it has operated throughout its history. At least reopen it to pedestrian traffic between Westminster and Weybosset streets. Offer space free or cheap (for now) to artisans, musicians, strolling bards, glassblowers, etc. -- not to mention merchants, including the 13 so brusquely ousted by Granoff in 2008.
Ditto the Weybosset façade: Save it or lose it. O'Connor or a successor could turn the land to parking or other uses: a building less ambitious than the defunct condo tower, or temporary uses such as a park or a beer garden.
The goal of public policy here should not be to make very rich property owners even richer. The public good requires ensuring that property owners not profit by thumbing their noses at the city, its laws and its history. Savvy owners ought to be able to make a mint here, but breaking even satisfies the needs of stewardship. If that's not enough for the owners of these properties, then let them get out of the way!
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (email@example.com). His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.