High-fives aplenty greeted last night’s vote by the City Plan Commission to urge the city council to reject the Fane tower. The commission wisely ignored its staff’s argument that a 600-foot tower in a 100-foot zone is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out a city’s comprehensive plan. The Providence Journal could not find enough space in its story to even hint at what staff were thinking.
The staff did have conditions. The 100-foot limit should be changed, it said, only if the developer, Jason Fane, agrees to 1) offer 15 percent of the units at affordable rates, 2) abandon the possibility of a second tower, 3) abandon its plan to build on a slice of the park next door, and 4) accept a sunset provision on the 600-foot limit if the tower is not done in two years.
The recommendation to change the height limit was defeated by 5 to 2. The conditions were a project killer. Both the yes and the no votes amounted, as a practical matter, to opposing the tower. Politically speaking, a yes vote was a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who for some reason felt uncomfortable doing the people’s will.
All of that said, the decision remains in the hands of the city council. Critics of the tower should not relax. Council members have no more obligation to follow the commission’s recommendation against upping the height limit than commission members had to follow the recommendation of staff. The council can ignore the commission just as the commission ignored its staff.
There is a lot of talk about greased palms, but many proponents of the Fane proposal honestly believe that it will create jobs and help boost the economy. And maybe it will. There is a boomtown feeling around here that may or may not reflect reality, regardless of the crane population. Nevertheless, a proposal that fits into the character of the city will boost a truly booming economy more than a proposal that undermines the character of the city. A city does not seek to create a “brand” for no reason.
“We don’t need a 600-foot tower to propel us into the modern era,” said the Providence Preservation Society’s Brent Runyon in sensible contradiction to the assertion by architect Friedrich St. Florian that we “have to break the rules because we have to move forward.” St. Florian is a native of Austria, which spent four decades in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.* So the idea that you must break a few eggs to make an omelette should be abhorrent to him. America has spent more than half a century breaking its cities. It is time to stop.
Anyway, a comprehensive plan written in concert with the public mustn’t be abandoned under the sort of flimsy pretext represented by the Fane tower, whose dubious financials have already raised eyebrows among members of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. It is the commission’s job to successfully develop the land created by moving Route 195 downriver.
The height limit is a vital facet of the opposition’s case against the tower, but so are the objections of those who find its design disrespectful to the city’s heritage. Americans of our time lack a vocabulary to express disagreement over aesthetics much beyond “Yuck!” But beauty is important. It is not just in the eye of the beholder. Its rejection by modernist architects and planners has damaged our society and our quality of life. It is depressing that the Journal, in an editorial titled “Soaring addition to the downtown,” and Friedrich St. Florian cannot get their heads around these plain facts.
In this battle over urban form, citizens have exerted the power of citizenship as they must in a democracy, using facts to oppose a development project whose wrongheadedness is clear to most of the public. Last night’s vote of the City Plan Commission against the Fane tower was a great victory, but opponents should not relax until the city council has nixed the developer’s attack on the citizens’ own vision for the future of their city.
*The original version of this blog erroneously stated that Austria spent four decades under communist rule.