‘Anytown Architecture’ Everywhere All At Once

There is some comfort in knowing that this crappy generic architecture is a countrywide problem — maybe there will be enough push-back to force these developers back to the drawing board. Providence residents have started noticing how the cheesy sameness of these new buildings is blighting the streetscapes of the city. In “America, the Bland” New York Times writer Anna Kodé looks into how and why these offensive structures have been proliferating:

Colloquially, people have referred to 5-over-1s as “gentrification buildings” or “fast-casual architecture.” Not all of them are built the same, however. Some are permanent affordable housing communities, while others hawk luxury urban living. Still, for many people, 5-over-1s have come to symbolize, in tangible form, the most painful aspects of today’s housing crisis — stand-ins for gentrification, corporate landlords and excessively high rents.

That’s in part why they’re so hated, and why it’s acceptable to hate them.

The Times looked into this phenomenon in Memphis, Denver, and poor Seattle where “vivid slabs of bright paneling” are deployed to meet guidelines promulgated by misguided city planners, who are hoping to avoid bland conformity. (In one photo, a building appears to have been decorated by first graders on Semaphore Flag Day. Yikes.)

Not surprisingly, corporate America has identified a growing investment opportunity and, “. . . a handful of real estate developers are now managing a disproportionate share of new projects across the country.” (Whether any of these players are behind the Providence projects is beyond the scope of this piece.)

I don’t really know what to do about the aesthetic challenges presented by these developers (and their architect collaborators who provide cover, if not any actual design). They sort of have an answer for every complaint: more windows . . . more detail . . . balconies, we need balconies. It’s just more of the ugly stuff, and it all ends up looking worse.

Affordable Housing

Yes, Providence needs more affordable housing, but these projects do not seem to be addressing that problem. Seen here is 1292 Westminster Street, the master plan for which was approved by the City Plan Commission five years ago (ProJo 8.15.17). The estimated rent on the smallest unit listed on Zillow (one bedroom, one bathroom) is $1569/month.

Wheeler Cowperthwaite reported in the ProJo last October at the hearing for the 386 Atwells Avenue property, at the corner of Hewitt Street.

According to a listing from realtor.com, at least one of the one-bedroom apartments in the building on Hewitt Street, at 432 square feet, is being rented for $1,825 a month.

Per capita income in Rhode Island for the last 12 months, in 2021 dollars, was $39,603, or $3300/month.

The Parking Issue

One common complaint from neighbors is that developers are not creating the parking spaces needed for these projects. In addition to the ground floor retail businesses, the building at 1292 Westminster has 35 residential units. Developer Michael Lemoi and Eric Zuena of ZDS Architects petitioned the commission to reduce the 43 to 22 parking spaces! They were not successful.

In Cowperthwaite’s report in the ProJo on last October’s City Plan Commission hearing regarding the Atwells Avenue site, the attorney for developer Choyon Manjrekar explained the odd design, saying they “did not want to combine the lots or the buildings officially into one because that would trigger parking requirements.”  They will be providing four bicycle spaces, as required.

Deputy Planning Director Robert Azar attended the meeting:

“I feel like this city is moving toward a place where we don’t make it a high priority to require private developers to provide as much parking as the market demands,” Azar said during the meeting.

K&S Development and Zuena went before that Commission with plans for the lots at Westminster at Knight (this parcel, near Ogie’s, has already been razed and cleared). This project also required a variance to reduce the number of parking spaces required from 41 down to 32. The ProJo reported that “No one from the public spoke against the project.”

These examples are all from the west end, but other neighborhoods are also dealing with this problem. It doesn’t look like community pressure will be enough to save this lovely 19th-century house in Wayland Square. And here come the cut-and-paste architects of ZDS.


3 thoughts on “‘Anytown Architecture’ Everywhere All At Once”

  1. So: we need affordable housing but not if a project does not provide homes for cars!

  2. Those cheap exterior panels could easily be cornices, friezes, gargoyles, what have you. Inside, it’s the same wooden box of rooms as have been built for ages. I think the worst crime here is projecting window bays with no windows on the sides. I hope retrofitting these bland buildings becomes a trend someday.
    Meanwhile, any proposal to decorate one with faithful replicas of 19th century ornamentation would be derided as fake, pretentious, poorly executed. Any proposal to decorate one in some original fashion would be nit picked to death as well. So bland is what we get, thankfully better than vacant lots and parking lots.

  3. Yes, this is more than a Providence problem. In any neighborhood, the public needs to care and show that they care. This has been made all the more difficult with the ways in which City Plan Commission meetings are scheduled and how public comment has been limited. Often, no one shows up — not because they approve of the project, but because the meetings are difficult to attend, at difficult times of the day, or have requirements to register ahead of time in order to make a comment known. These boards need to be more accessible to public comment. For anything to change, though, we have to start with caring enough. Better designs come from public comment and community pressure. If we do not demand better, we will not get better.

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