Cities change. They're dynamic, organic places where buildings go up and come down and get replaced. And as long as you're not replacing a building with a surface parking lot or anything that looks like the Humanities Building, there's going to be an interesting and worthwhile debate on whether the new building is an improvement over what it replaces.
That debate is in play now with consideration of the proposed changes for Block 100 on State Street. Basically, the plan by Jerry Frautschi is to tear down the block, but rebuild some of the facades. Backers of the plan say it will add value and vibrancy to the block and improve the view from Overture. Critics contend that the block is one of the oldest in the city, and that leaving only the facades in place is faux preservation.
At the Overture Center's opening in 2005, I was standing alone with Jerry Frautschi, in our tuxes, looking out of the art center's massive windows facing the backside of the 100 block. Jerry was lamenting the view of fire escapes and rooftops. I didn't see it as bad at all. I saw it as urban and actually kind of cool. (Check out the view from Fresco, the restaurant on the roof of Overture. It's urban and funky in the same way.) But Jerry had just given the city a $205 million civic gift, and I wasn't about to ruin the moment by getting into an argument over fire escapes. I think my exact quote in response was something like, "Oh. Uh-huh."
So, I've never seen the urgency in changing the 100 block. And if what I understood to be the original plan to slick off the block entirely to create a view to the Capitol had ever been formally proposed, I would have fought it with everything I had.
But what's been proposed is interesting and worth a good hard look. Jerry and his wife, Pleasant Rowland, should be credited with trying to do what's right by that part of the city for the long run, not to mention producing a revenue stream that would help Overture's bottom line. On the other hand, those raising tough questions about it should be credited with caring about an important block in the city's historic fabric. There are no bad guys in this story.
We do need to be cautious about this kind of thing, though. What happened with Overture itself ended up being pretty unsatisfying. While the interior of the building is nothing less then first rate, the compromises we made as a community for the exterior resulted in a mishmash. The Yost-Kessenich faade doesn't really go with the sleek, modern new building it's attached to. Both are beautiful in their own right, but they don't go together. Kind of like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, I guess.
So which side am I on? I'm taking a firm Mike Verveer stance, which is to say that I'm not taking a position at all for now. Like the alder who represents the block, I want to see and hear more.