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Panel reviews $43-million proposal for hotel at Union Station complex

The project would be partially financed by GTECH, which is building corporate headquarters across the street from the site.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003


Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- If the Union Station complex downtown is a matching set of buildings, then a proposed hotel at Memorial Boulevard and Exchange Street would be the seventh and last piece of the set.

That was the unspoken understanding yesterday when developer Ron Marsella publicly unveiled a design for a nine-story all-suites hotel to a subcommittee of the Capital Center Commission.

Except for two major aspects, the hotel would largely mimic the other six pieces and continue the historical theme of the complex by dressing itself in orange brick with maroon trim.

The variations would be the height -- 23 feet more than the other buildings -- and the exterior treatment of the top two stories. Rather than brick, the top stories would be covered by a synthetic material in what Marsella described as a sandy rose hue that would duplicate that of the precast stone foundation.

The $43-million project would be partially financed by GTECH Holdings Corp., one of the limited partners in a general partnership that would build and own the hotel. Marsella, who would be the general partner, said the amount of GTECH's investment is confidential.

GTECH's participation fulfills a promise that it made to help finance a hotel and parking garage as part of a deal with the state and city governments in which it received an extended franchise to operate the state lottery.

Boosted by a city tax break, GTECH agreed to build its new corporate headquarters across the street from the hotel site. Marsella said an important part of GTECH's participation in the hotel is its commitment to book a substantial block of the hotel's planned 193 extended-stay suites.

Because the suites would have kitchens, the hotel would not have a restaurant, according to Marsella.

He said a hotel brand has not yet been selected.

Union Station, on Exchange Terrace, was Providence's railroad terminal from the completion of its construction in 1898 to its closing in 1986. The terminal and related buildings flanking it were redeveloped for office and restaurant space by Marsella, who also rebuilt the easternmost building, which had been destroyed by fire in the 1940s.

The railroad tracks behind the terminal were torn up, allowing the creation of Memorial Boulevard and a large rectangular parking lot along the boulevard. Part of the lot was used when Marsella, at least to outward appearances, added the Courtyard by Marriott hotel to the complex, at Francis Street and the boulevard. And now the rest of the lot will be taken up by the new hotel.

The Courtyard by Marriott has 218 rooms and a 372-car garage, compared with 193 suites and a 300-car garage at the new hotel. Being that the guest rooms are larger and the building site smaller than at the Courtyard by Marriott, Marsella and architect Richard H. Kuehl said the new hotel must be taller.

There were oblique references to an expected symmetry between the planned hotel and the rest of the complex at yesterday's meeting of the commission's Design Review Committee, which, as it happens, was held in one of the office buildings in the complex. Nobody suggested that the last building could significantly vary visually from the others.

That was a given since the decision in 1998 to make the Courtyard by Marriott, the sixth piece in the set, largely conform to the appearance of the rest of the complex, Kuehl said after the meeting. Kuehl has been Marsella's architect throughout the redevelopment.

Any construction at the site, according to the commission's formal guidelines, should harmonize with the scale, architecture and character of the other buildings in the complex.

Much of the committee discussion centered on the need to make the corner of the building at Exchange Street and the boulevard as exciting as possible. Marsella plans to have an art gallery there with changing displays in the windows. A street-level swimming pool would be located near the gallery, behind opaque windows.

Marsella made it plain that a gallery would only exist -- and be open for normal business hours -- to meet the commission's mandate that all buildings have as lively a streetscape as possible. The gallery tenant, he said, surely would be able to afford nothing more than nominal rent.

A 1,600-square-foot outdoor sculpture garden would be located on the Exchange Street side, separated from the gallery by a garage entrance.

Much of the hotel's street-level face along the boulevard would be devoid of interest to pedestrians and motorists because it would be a wall protecting a parking deck. As done at the Courtyard by Marriott, the wall would be punctuated by grille-covered windows.

"I've kind of given up on Memorial Boulevard," which will be dominated by largely blank walls and garage entrances, griped David Dixon, the commission's architectural adviser.

The hotel's main entrance, as at the Courtyard by Marriott, would be at the end of a ramp from Exchange Terrace on the south side. A secondary entrance would be located on the boulevard side, on the north.

Because of the tight configuration of the building site, Marsella said the garage would consist of three levels, each with its own entrance and exit and no ramps. That accounts for changes in the grade of the terrain and allows room for more badly needed parking spaces, Marsella contended.

Committee members told Marsella that there is a consensus in favor of the proposed height and massing of the building, and he said he would return shortly with more-detailed drawings.

The developer wants to begin construction in March.


Journal photo / Kathy Borchers

DESIGN UNVEILING: Architect Richard H. Kuehl, left, discusses the proposed nine-story all-suites hotel before members of the Capital Center Commission's Design Review Committee yesterday. A hotel brand has not yet been selected, according to developer Ron Marsella.


IN THEME: The hotel's historical design mimics buildings nearby.

From The Providence Journal

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The Memorial Blvd. wall isn't really as terrible as it seems. One side of Mem. Blvd. is the river and Waterplace Park. The plan for the area is that once Capital Centre (the area around Waterplace Park) is fully built out, people will walk along the river and pedestrians will have almost no need for Mem. Blvd. There's a project about to break ground across from this hotel site that would have riverfront retail that will help bring this to fruition. There is also a tunnel under Mem. Blvd. from the Union Station complex (this hotel's site) to Waterplace Park. There's really no need for anyone to walk on Mem. Blvd. The area where the gallery will be however is a surface level pedestrian zone (the opposite end of Union Station from the tunnel).

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