Innovation Ecosystem

Diversity, serendipity versus the pursuit of loneliness

Will the titans of industry define the shape of our neighborhoods and where we belong in the 21st century?

Photo by Mike Cohea

A winter moon appears to rise above the Providence skyline and the former Industrial Trust building.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/26/18
As Providence confronts two stark decisions about its future, whether or not to build the Fane Tower and whether or not to rehabilitate the former Industrial Trust building, larger economic questions loom about what determines the vitality of a city – and who gets to participate in the decision-making.
As both Boston and New York are confronted with massive congestion and the lack of affordable housing, what are the takeaways that Providence and Rhode Island can learn about the kinds of investment that make a city more livable? How does building place-based health from the ground up fit into the equation of new investments in skyscrapers? What kinds of investments in public transportation can Rhode Island make to limit dependence on cars in an urgent time of climate change? If the tech sector on the stock markets continues to fall, how does that influence future investment decisions by private equity firms and hedge funds? Does the state funding formula for local schools deny urban children equal access to an education as required by the 14th Amendment? Do corporate campuses, such as the one created by Citizens Bank in Johnston, create a new kind of walled corporate enclave?
The most recent revelations about Facebook that it hired a public relations attack firm, Definers Public Affairs, to discredit its critics in order to deflect public criticism about how it handled user data, may have a Rhode Island connection to a client that the state’s Congressional delegation may want to sort out.
Definers shares its office space in Virginia as well as a number of current and former executives with America Rising, a Republican-affiliated political action committee, and with NTK Network, a digital news aggregator.
In addition to the Facebook contract, Definers Public Affairs had also received a no-bid contract from the U.S. EPA to conduct FOIA requests on low-level bureaucrats at the agency who were deemed as “resistors” to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda. The contract was cancelled after it was reported on by The New York Times.
Here in Rhode Island, as noted in previous coverage by ConvergenceRI, the NTK network was actively placing “aggregated” news stories around the closing of Memorial Hospital, skewing the facts, for a yet unidentified client.
If Definers Public Affairs is asked to testify before House committees in January, it might be worth learning more about the client base in Rhode Island that was at one time purchasing ad space for the NTK network through GateHouse in The Providence Journal.

PROVIDENCE –The long, frigid commute to two separate Thanksgiving celebrations, one for lunch, a second for dinner, gave ConvergenceRI plenty of drive time to ponder the evolving nature of neighborhood, community, family, work and commerce as Rhode Island prepares to enter the third decade of the 21st century.

Why two separate Thanksgivings? As Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The musings were triggered, in part, by WPRI’s Ted Nesi’s provocative news story exploring the dilemma posed by the deteriorating condition of the “Superman” building, the former Industrial Trust Building, an Art Deco skyscraper, the tallest building in the Providence skyline, currently unoccupied, from the perspective of the lonely view at the top: from the window of the 17th floor office space of real estate mogul Joe Paolino Jr.

“The so-called ‘Superman’ building at 111 Westminster St. – its 26 stories looking gray, grimy and dark – looms over Paolino’s own tower next door,” Nesi wrote. “The ground floor of the structure, long known as the Industrial Trust Building, has scaffolding on its outside, giving a forbidding welcome to passersby.”

As Nesi reported, Paolino, one of the city’s biggest real-estate owners, argued the Superman status quo was intolerable. “You can’t let it be the way it is now,” Paolino said. “Right now, it’s stagnant. It’s tired. And it doesn’t give the city really a good view from anybody.” Paolino concluded: “This building vacant is a symbol of governmental failure.”

Was it a symbol of government failure? ConvergenceRI pondered. Or rather, was it a symbol of the changing definition of work in the digital age we live in?

High-rise corporate offices in downtown Providence filled with a hive of worker bees might be a real estate mogul’s enchanted vision of sugar plums dancing this holiday season, but it could also represent the ghosts of a post-industrial past.

What would a different vision of a future rehabbed Superman building look like, one that embraced Providence’s strengths – such as cultural diversity, innovation and walkability? ConvergenceRI wondered.

Where did the rising need for more affordable housing in Providence fit into the vision of what might happen with the former Industrial Trust Building?

More importantly, perhaps: How do these questions become part of the ongoing conversation about the future innovation economy?

Nesi’s reporting appeared to give full voice to Paolino’s concerns: “Few seem to disagree that 111 Westminster’s plight is a major problem for Providence,” Nesi wrote. “But there’s still no sign that political and private-sector leaders are close to coming up with a permanent solution to fill the 90-year-old Art Deco landmark, which has been vacant since Bank of America moved out in April 2013.”

Beyond political and private sector leaders, at what point do communities have a say about the shape of their future?

Further on down the road
A second trigger for the Thanksgiving drive musings was the decision reached last week by the lame-duck members of the Providence City Council to approve spot zoning for the proposed 600-foot Fane Tower, in an 8-5 vote, which would make the tower, if built, the tallest building in Providence, casting a huge shadow over the future vision of the city.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is now faced with a decision whether or not to veto the city council decision – but such a veto could create legislative difficulty for Elorza’s plans to monetize the city’s water supply system in order to offset the financial liabilities of the city’s unfunded pensions.

“If we do nothing, the city will indeed die a slow and painful death that could lead us back onto the brink of bankruptcy,” Elorza warned in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI. “And, if we ever find ourselves in bankruptcy court, the first thing that our bankruptcy judge will look to do is to sell our water system. And they will sell the water on their terms, not on the terms we’ve put together.”

After the city council vote, Elorza voiced his concerns about what he saw as the need for the city to have a say in the design process.

“As I have said from day one, the building’s design must be one that works for the city. For that reason, I would like the city to have final approval over the design of the project. If this building is going to reshape our skyline, then the city should be able to approve what it looks like.”

However, a written message to Elorza from the leaders of the R.I. General Assembly, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, made clear their support for the Fane Tower, suggesting that oversight of the design process belonged not with the city of Providence but with the commission overseeing the land development on the former Route 195 land.

Elorza has until Dec. 5 to make a decision whether to veto the city council decision. The question is: what legislative pound of flesh will be exacted from Elorza and his efforts to monetize the city’s water system if the mayor vetoes the zoning decision for the proposed Fane tower?

What does community have to do with it?

From Paolino’s perspective, no doubt accurately reported by Nesi, the problem is about filling the space, finding the “right” company that can be convinced to relocate and rehab the office building and restore it to its former glory.

Paolino, in turn, in subsequent tweets, praised the efforts by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Mayor Elorza to find a new corporate tenant for the Art Deco skyscraper whose future is in jeopardy.

But the larger, unasked, perhaps more important question, is: Why would anyone want to invest in an office building that reflects a 20th-century definition of work, commerce, and community?

Both the proposed Fane Tower and the former Industrial Trust Building share a common thread: buildings as sculptures, where form triumphs over function, as elaborate centerpieces of modern wealth and power and dominion. Call it the Robert Moses school of thought. [Moses was a controversial urban planner in New York City who championed highways over neighborhoods in the 1960s.]

Providence’s reputation as a world-class city – as an “awesome” place to live, learn, earn, visit and play, as one prominent resident recently tweeted – is much more in line with the Jane Jacobs school of thought, which valued human interaction at the neighborhood level. [Jacobs led the fight against Moses’ plan to build a highway through Greenwich Village.]

The latest rave review about Providence from different newspapers and magazines came in the Nov. 22 story in The Boston Herald, headlined: “Divine Providence: Rhode Island’s capital is brimming with hip art, culture, dining and holiday fun.”

The question that needed to be asked, ConvergenceRI mused, was this: What are the 21st century economic opportunities for the rehabilitation of the former bank headquarters that would open up new opportunities for community building?

A brief 400-year history
Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs? They were arcane historical references, no doubt, to the practitioners of innovation in Providence and Rhode Island.

Still, driving past the location of the rebuilt former Polaroid headquarters on Route 128, then the glass and steel structures of Oracle clustered around the highway in Woburn, ConvergenceRI wondered whether there were historical lessons to be learned from the boom and bust cycles of economic innovation.

In New England cities – Springfield, Holyoke, Worcester, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Fall River, Pawtucket and Providence, among others – there is a familiar pattern to the way in which the marriage of church and industry defined our past cityscapes.

In early New England history, the town green or common area was built around the church, the center of the community. Port cities grew up around the confluence of slavery, rum, whaling and the manufacture of textiles. The “city on the hill” was where the titans of industry and their families lived and prospered.

As the industrial revolution took hold, the landscape near the rivers was transformed into brick mills, and the workforce was drawn mostly of young women from farms. And, as the need for housing for workers developed, the urban areas around the mills were soon filled with wooden tenement buildings. As newly arrived immigrants became the new factory workforce, different denominations of churches sprouted up to shepherd each new flock of workers. [In Warren, R.I., for instance, within blocks of each other, there were separate Catholic parishes serving Italian, Irish, and French-Canadian families. Similarly, in Cranston, in the Knightsville section, there are two large Catholic churches next to each other, one Irish, one traditionally Italian.]

Even as the region prepares to enter the third decade of the 21st century, the remnants of each fading 20th century industrial era can be found still dominating most New England city skylines: smokestacks, church spires, and wooden, triple-decker worker homes; the dwindling remains of once vibrant urban immigrant neighborhoods divided by interstate highways to service suburban communities; the erection of tall corporate headquarters of banking and industry conglomerates, now struggling with occupancy; and, of course, the civic centers of the 1970s, envisioned as new hubs of commerce that never quite worked out economically as planned.

Life as more than work, work as more than a job
The former mills are now being repositioned as housing and entrepreneurial opportunities, connected to what is now being called innovation corridors: witness the plans for the Urban Innovation Corridor connecting Olneyville with downtown Providence. Or, the Providence Innovation District, in the former Jewelry District, soon to be home to the Wexford Innovation Complex, scheduled to open its doors in 2019. And, perhaps, the location of a new Innovation Campus, funded through state bonds, in partnership with URI, with an announcement pending from Gov. Gina Raimondo.

There are planned if not choreographed points of collision: the New England Medical Innovation Center on Chestnut Street, focused on medical devices; the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on Point Street, with its co-working spaces focused on health and food innovation; the relocation of the Mindfulness Center at the School of Public Health at Brown University to Davol Square, with its expanded activities centered on inner knowledge; and the planned opening of The Venture Café at the new Wexford center.

The overarching desire, it seems, is to create an engaged community for entrepreneurs [but not necessarily residents].

All these new venture incubators are being built with the expectation that there will be easy on-ramps from the academic research enterprise to the medical industrial highway toward commercialization, leaping from the bench to the clinic to the bed.

The economic calculation all works, of course, unless the business model for health systems – based upon health IT to leverage population health management analytics as a way to control ever-escalating medical costs – does not go south.

The proposed Fane Tower only promises to exacerbate the tensions around city resources: transportation, parking, schooling, access to health care, affordable housing, and congestion. Who is going to live in the Fane Tower? Who can afford to live in the Fane Tower? How many families will live in the Fane Tower? Where will the children go to school? Where will they play?

The proposal by Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, tying the Fane Tower project to specific investments in affordable housing, was defeated, but it will probably be raised again.

Building place-based health, from the ground up
Imagine if DESIGNxRI and RISD, working with a community development corporation, such as West Elmwood Housing, were given the task of rethinking how the former Industrial Trust Building might be repurposed and rehabilitated. The solutions might include the building serving:

As affordable housing units targeted toward young families and senior citizens, creating a new kind of urban neighborhood

As an urban vertical space to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a regular community marketplace.

As a new maker center for startups in industrial design.

As a new neighborhood health station combined with a new health equity zone, providing access to urgent and primary care needs and connecting residents to community-based opportunities.

As a new performance space for high school students in theater and dance.

As a training laboratory for companies such as Infosys.

And, of ourse, as an approved facility for selling recreational and medical marijuana, if revenue production is the goal, if the state follows the lead of Massachusetts in legalizing recreational marijuana.

Why not all of the above?

Where do we belong?
Thanks for your patience in reading this; it was a very long day of driving. At each of the Thanksgiving Day celebrations, ConvergenceRI asked the guests many of the same questions: What is your sense of community? Where do you belong? What are the connective tissues of family? Of neighborhood? Of work? Of community?

It was a great conversation to have at the dinner table.


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