The Providence Preservation Society: Advocating for the Preservation of Urban Neighborhoods and Landscapes

by Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA

State House, Providence, RI
State House, Providence, RI. This aerial image of the Rhode Island State House is from 1920 and shows the original landscaped grounds. A transportation hub was proposed for the area on the right side of the grounds between the State House and the road. In the 1990s some of the lawn area immediately to the right of the building was made into a parking lot for state legislators. / image: Rhode Island Photograph Collection, Providence Public Library

Many historic preservation organizations are founded to preserve a specific building or landscape. The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) was established in 1956 by leading citizens of College Hill in response to the threatened demolition of a number of early eighteenth and nineteenth century houses in Providence’s historic East Side/College Hill neighborhood. Had this demolition occurred, the entire character of this historic neighborhood would have changed and Providence would have lost a significant historic urban landscape.

The society’s mission is clearly stated on their website:

Our mission is to improve Providence by advocating for historic preservation and the enhancement of the city’s unique character through thoughtful design and planning.

The Providence Preservation Society was then and continues to be an advocate for the revitalization of neighborhoods. And within the past seven years, under the leadership of their current executive director, Brent Runyon, the PPS has led the charge for the preservation and revitalization of a number of threatened neighborhoods and significant landscapes within the City of Providence.

As the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) liaison for Rhode Island, I follow the advocacy work of PPS very closely, particularly with regard to threatened landscapes. The PPS was a strong partner with the Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA in 2017 when the RIASLA nominated the Rhode Island State House and its surrounding landscape for The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s annual Landslide program. This nomination was spurred by a plan for the placement of a transit hub on the east side of the state house landscape. The continued advocacy efforts of the PPS, along with other partners and the national recognition from TCLF’s Landslide feature, helped to stop the transit hub plan and preserve the context for Providence’s state capitol building, designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Providence’s riverfront is currently under threat from a number of development proposals. I contacted Brent Runyon by phone to inquire further about the PPS’ advocacy program and what he considers to be the key areas of focus for their organization.

Can you tell us how the Providence Preservation Society’s advocacy program works?

PPS’ advocacy initiatives have three main goals, which are noted on our website. These are:

  • raising awareness of Providence’s rich architectural and cultural history,
  • identifying threats to the built environment, and
  • educating the public on the importance of conserving historic resources.

Our approach to advocacy includes annual programs and initiatives that respond to immediate threats. Our Most Endangered Properties list is an annual program whereby the PPS solicits nominations for historic resources that are threatened by arson, vandalism, deferred maintenance, or abandonment. PPS also recognizes significant contributions to the preservation of Providence’s historic resources through its annual Historic Preservation Awards which are given to individuals, organizations, and businesses that have made significant achievements in the preservation of the city’s historical resources.

Our responsive advocacy initiatives involve our Planning and Architectural Review Committee, which includes local professionals in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, planning, preservation, and development. This committee reviews and advises on restoration and adaptive reuse projects, new construction in historic areas, and urban design issues. Our staff and members of the committee as well as partners in development, planning, historic preservation, and other areas have assisted us with some recent threats to proposed projects along the Providence riverfront.

What are some of the major issues surrounding these proposed riverfront development projects?

A New York City developer, Jason Fane, has proposed a 46+-story residential glass tower for an area along the Providence River known as Parcel 42. The proposed tower has been reviewed by the City of Providence Planning Commission and the 195 Commission because the parcel, which is within Providence, is located on land that was formerly part of Interstate 195.

The concern of PPS and many other advocacy groups is what a 46-story glass tower does to the long-term image and historic character of Providence. The concerns raised by the PPS and Providence’s Downtown Design Review Committee as well as other opponents include:

  • The overall mass, scale, and height of the building and its relationship with other buildings in the Downtown District, particularly in the adjacent D1-100 and D1-120 zones.
  • The opacity of the ground floor elevation facing an adjacent park.
  • The fact that the proposed building is a blatant violation of Providence’s Comprehensive Plan.

Although this project was approved to move forward by the 195 Commission, PPS and our partners continue to monitor and present substantive objections and to question the financial and market feasibility of this project as well as the environmental impact of such a structure on the bank of the Providence River.

This is a view of the existing pedestrian walk along the Providence River. The central downtown area is visible in the distance showing the skyline. The tallest building towards the left side of the skyline is the former Industrial Trust Building, also known as the Superman Building because it resembles the Daily Planet building shown in the Superman cartoons. Parcel 1A is the open area immediately to the right (purple sculpture visible). The PPS is advocating to keep this area as open space; there is a proposed hotel development for this site. / image: PPS

Another key development concern is a proposed hotel on Parcel 1A which will displace open space that is used for the annual Oyster Festival and also used every Sunday from April through November by the Providence Flea, Providence’s unique flea market. The taking of public open space for private development is an issue of social justice. We want to return the Providence riverfront to the public, to continue to expand public access to the riverfront.

Prior to COVID-19, there was a lot of news about changes to Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park, a central area in downtown Providence which serves as a major transit hub for residents who do not have cars as well as a major public open space. What role is PPS playing regarding the current proposed redesign of this area?

This area is a great urban landscape which has issues regarding pedestrian connections. This is also another urban area that provides open space and transportation access for lower income residents, so again, there are social justice concerns. The future of preservation must address both the preservation of history and the current lived experiences of Providence’s citizens.

Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA, is the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Principal Landscape Architect at Landscape Elements LLC.

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