The former Aqua-Life Aquarium building was a bright spot of blue on the corner of Wickenden and Hope streets, its walls decorated with an underwater scene. But this past Saturday, the building was torn down to make way for a part retail, part residential building that has already been designed by a local developer and architect.
The building’s proposal was met with dismay by some members of the Providence community at a Fox Point Neighborhood Association meeting Wednesday evening. Members of the association expressed concern that the historic building, which was over 100 years old, will be replaced by a structure without that history or ornate design.
But George Goulart Jr., the owner of Aqua-Life and the former owner of 389 Wickenden St., strongly supports the new building plan. Goulart sold the property to developer Bahman Jalili in September.“I’m glad they tore it down,” Goulart said of his decades-old fish store. “They’re going to build a better building there — the same height, four stories. I got pictures of it, and it’s going to be a nice looking building.”
Goulart was born in the red house directly behind where his store stood and has lived in the area for more than 60 years. He said that he sold the building because he was paying taxes to the city that were so high, it made owning the property financially infeasible. He wondered if any local residents could actually afford to both own property and operate businesses within them in the neighborhood.
Goulart said that he could not afford to make the renovations necessary to bring the building up to meet the city’s building code. If he spent more than 40 percent of the property’s value on repairs in one year, the city would require him to bring the entire building up to code, which he said would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. After Goulart’s wife passed away in 2017, he decided it was no longer worth the financial struggle to maintain the property. “There’s a lot more to it than just taking down an old building,” he said.
Renovating the old building was not worth the cost, Jalili said. “The building was actually pretty much run down,” he said. “It didn’t matter how much money you threw at it; you couldn’t bring it up to code 100 percent.”
Jalili and architect Mark Rapp presented the pictures of the new building design at the association meeting. The new building will have a storefront along Wickenden St. that opens into a small retail space and an entrance to 14 one-bedroom apartments and a two-bedroom apartment on Hope Street. The one-bedroom units will rent for about $1500 per month, Jalili said, adding that the tenants will likely be young professionals and students. “I already do a lot of business with Brown (students). I get lots of med students,” he said.
Jalili and Rapp took questions about the plan after their presentation. Several audience members voiced disapproval of its modern design, raising concerns about maintaining the historical architecture of the area.
“There are a lot of historical properties in the neighborhood, so there’s a feeling of respect for the architecture and the history of the place,” said Association President Nick Cicchitelli. “We have to find a balance between preserving the old and modernizing.”
The association members were concerned that the new building’s proposed architecture would disrupt the roofline of the area, which currently includes many gabled roofs. The building’s minimalist design is a departure from the historical feel of the neighborhood. “You’ve got a lot of history here to just erase,” Cicchitelli said.
Community members also voiced frustration that their feedback had not been sought before the City Plan Commission approved the design. But Cicchitelli did acknowledge that the developer was not legally obligated to seek neighborhood approval for his building design.
Still, Cicchitelli would have liked the community to have had an opportunity to provide feedback. “That’s good process in my opinion,” he said. “When you get stakeholders involved, you show what you’re trying to do and then ideally be open to incorporating some of that feedback.”
Jalili is still open to modifying the design, particularly on the Hope St. side. “We’ll consider everything, and I always make a lot of changes on the fly, too,” he said.
“The guy that’s putting the building up, everybody’s giving him a lot of grief,” Goulart said. “But I am the only one that could have stopped it, and I didn’t, because I know it’s better for the city.”