Fane tower = urban renewal

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Proposed 1950s tower as part of urban-renewal on Benefit Street. (Author archives)

I cannot attend Wednesday’s public hearing before the ordinance committee of the Providence City Council. The committee will hear testimony about whether to raise the height limit in the Route 195 corridor by a factor of six on behalf of the developer of the so-called Fane Tower. If I were going to testify, here is what I would say:

The Fane Tower, if built as proposed, will not fit in by look or by height. However, only height is at issue before the committee today. The developer, Mr. Fane, seeks to build a tower six times the height allowed by zoning. If the Council permits such a major shift away from the city’s comprehensive plan assembled by the citizens of Providence, then the city has no zoning and no comprehensive plan or civic character that a developer is bound to respect. Mr. Fane has called Providence “cutesy.” That remark proves he does not understand the city, what makes it tick, why its residents and workforce love it, or why visitors come here.

Nevertheless, it is said by respectable voices that Providence needs this project at the proposed size to boost the city’s growth. Most recently, this view was expressed in the Providence Journal by architect Friedrich St. Florian. On Sunday he wrote, “This tower could become the symbol of a renewed city.”

I respectfully disagree.

The tower’s ability to find a market of upscale residents is not certain. Let’s say it is built and fails to find that market. It will be a symbol of the city shooting itself in the foot. And if it does find its market, that great sucking sound you hear will be the air rushing out of that market for other developers. The number of residential projects going up now in Providence says we do not need to gamble with our future.

This is a medium-sized city that is alluring to residents, visitors and possible high-value employees because, as Professor St. Florian says, it has the attributes of a college town. It has two beautiful campuses near downtown on College Hill, which is an attractive neighborhood not just because of its historic architecture but because of its human scale. Downtown itself has similar attributes. In 1991, former mayor Joe Paolino predicted that it would attract many new campuses. He was right.

The Fane tower proposal is a reminder of our leaders’ failure, decades before our civic renaissance, to understand Providence. Two major urban renewal plans for downtown and College Hill were developed in the 1950s and failed in the 1960s.

The Fane tower is that same bullet we dodged twice half a century ago. Let’s try to dodge that bullet again. There are many types of growth. We can still choose the kind that has a proven record of success right here in Providence. (3 minutes)

That’s what I would say to the committee, and anybody who wants to say it themselves can print it out and speak truth to power on Wednesday.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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17 Responses to Fane tower = urban renewal

  1. Couldn’t agree more.
    What about public access to the waterfront? The land designated for the waterfront park trimmed off to accommodate the developer? How about he takes a whack at fixing up the Industrial Trust building? Gee…so many questions…

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Couldn’t agree more. And what about the public access way to the waterfront? Do we have to give up public park property to bribe developers? Why doesn’t Mr. Fane take a whack at fixing up the Industrial Trust building? Gee…so many questions…

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  3. Craig T Coonrod says:

    The Fane Tower will add nothing to the City of Providence, period. It’s all about the money and people who have it tend to not have any idea about what is right or wrong with how a building makes sense in Providence.

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    • Steve says:

      Sure. Only you and the select few do. Not.

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      • Craig T Coonrod says:

        Steve, I have seen the damage to Providence since 1970 while a student at RISD. The buildings torn down by both Brown and RISD, Urban Renewal, and yes a former mayor who made some of the sites into parking lots. I could be wrong but I sense you have a stake in whether this building is built. No?

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        • Anonymous says:

          Providence is like an old shirt let’s dress it better

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        • Steve says:

          Oh sure, the parking lot thing was real and damaging.

          But as to me…Absolutely none. Just sick and tired of the same old objections to a major development. Design of the exterior is the key, not the height, not the site, and certainly not the use. No park, no historic building, and no prime lot will suffer. PVD gains.

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  4. Steve says:

    Hi David,

    Benefit Street is not downtown and is not Dyer Street, which is.

    If I were in attended, I would say in response to opposition:

    First, the tower is “too far from downtown”.

    It IS downtown. And in fact it is a mere 3/10s of a mile from the Textron tower, slightly closer than the Omni tower is to Textron. It is only five (5) city blocks away…five! There are three (3) 250 foot smokestacks 3/10s of a mile south of this site – placing this proposed tower dead center in the downtown skyline.

    Second, it is a bad location; being “on” the river.

    Why? Cities like Tampa, Saint Petersburg, Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston and many others have tall towers on their waterfronts and on parks – bringing vibrant life and beautiful skylines. The design of the structure is a matter for later.

    Third, it is a financial risk.

    It certainly is a calculation for the developer. But, we know that Boston is reaching its maximum capacity for new condo development and Providence will max out in new apartment capacity very soon. Then other developers will look to Providence – as evidenced by this proposal. The time to commit to this project is now.

    Fourth, that it is “too tall” for the location.

    Too tall? For where? Portsmouth? Certainly not Providence. Providence is New England’s second largest city and center of New England’s second largest metro – the 1.6 million person Providence Metro Area (from Westerly to New Bedford).

    Tall buildings and high density belong in Providence; particularly in the downtown lots only three tenths to five tenths of a mile from the financial district. This proposal is certainly not out of scale in any way, shape, or form.

    Frankly, the problem here is not that the proposed change is “too high”, but that the entire area is zoned far too short. The height maximums in the area from Dorrance Street to Point Street are far too low for a major city downtown and should be raised to 300 feet with exception provisions to 600. We need to stop the small town mentality.

    Fifth, it is not needed, will spur other exceptions, and is not “iconic”.

    It surely is needed, as evidenced by the wisdom of the I-195 Development Commission and General Assembly actions. It is a residential development – not a toxic waste dump! It will bring more taxpayers, more activity, more density, a major building, and added impressive skyline. It will be a powerful asset to the city and the district.

    Spur other exceptions? This change request is VERY appropriate for the lot. It is not a request for a 500’ tower in Wayland Square. An “apples and oranges” false argument.

    It certainly will be “iconic”. The so-called Superman tower is not iconic, it is historical.

    Finally, this is a great opportunity, a great energy builder and attention grabber for the district and the city, and simply cannot be missed.

    Rejection of this zoning change request will be a deadly lost opportunity. It will be both damaging to Providence’s image and deeply embarrassing. And it will send a terrible message.

    This is a great investment, a great opportunity, a great message to send!!!

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    • The tower on colonial Benefit Street, Steve, is equivalent in sore-thumbhood to the Fane tower among the buildings of the Jewelry District. Just because some city planners relabeled the Jewelry District “downtown” doesn’t make it downtown. Urbanist factors that I’m sure you are familiar with make it downtown. The Jewelry District doesn’t have most of those factors – which may explain some of its allure.

      The distance between the Textron tower and the Fane tower (parcel 42) is .875 of a mile, almost three times your calculation.

      Three smokestacks? Are you kidding?

      I haven’t said it’s bad for being near the river. I’ve proposed one option that would put it in the center of the actual downtown skyline – right next to the river.

      Not too tall for the actual downtown, but too tall for the Jewelry District.

      Maybe the Jewelry District is not zoned tall enough, but tell it to the city, which did the zoning, and the citizens, who engaged in several years of brainstorming with city officials and the city’s consultant to come up with it. It does make sense. It puts taller buildings along I-95 or downtown.

      Providence is not a major downtown. We don’t have a small-town mentality but a medium-sized town mentality. We are a medium-sized city and our best strategy is to behave like we are – offering the best of larger and smaller cities. We do ourselves and our future a disservice by thinking of ourselves as what we are not. Wait till we are a big city to call us one. We may never get there. That may be okay.

      You do not seem to know what the word iconic means. The Industrial Trust Building is both iconic and historical. It will spur more development if it works.

      If the Fane tower fails it will hinder more development. Likewise if it just barely succeeds, sucking up the lion’s share of the potential high-end residential market. I did not say it would definitely fail or definitely succeed. I said the gamble was not worth it.

      Rejection of the height limit change will promote Providence as a city that knows where its head is at, not as a city with its head in the clouds prematurely.

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      • Steve says:

        I was not attributing the objections to you, David, but to others – who have limited mindsets.

        First, as to distance, I doubt 3 odometers are in error. Regardless, it is very close.
        Second, I surely know what iconic means – the Superman building is not.
        Third, Providence is and/or should be a “big” city. This is one way/action to get there.
        Fourth, we surely disagree on where our head should be at this point.

        I have tired of the limitations, tired of the meekness, tired of the mentality that restricts major developments..

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        • I used a ruler on the downtown map of American Map’s RI city and town maps, the calculated from the .25-mile/1 inch measure on the page, using the closest two points of the two buildings.

          Iconic simply means like an icon, and an icon is basically a characteristic representation of an item or idea. Today it is taken to mean somehow extraordinary. Any way you slice it, the Superman Building is both historical and iconic. Furthermore, it is both historical and historic.

          The Fane tower could help us move toward being a big city. I just question whether the risk is worth it. Also, I question the wisdom of the goal. It is far more likely that we will be successful striving to be the best medium-sized city we can. That does not prohibit growth, but it may put a limit on it, and it may keep our ambitions more reasonable.

          I personally am not against skyscrapers per se, just modernist skyscrapers, whether on a river bank or not. I prefer them to be within the crescendo of a downtown skyline, not scattered about helter-skelter. However, I do recognize the validity of the widespread belief that skyscrapers can make life on the street more difficult to handle, for cities and for individuals.

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      • Anonymous says:

        The sky is free no matter what you put u can’t replace the hist beauty of the fleet building it complements its surrounding

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    • petervanerp says:

      The Fane tower extends the anti urban parking garage wall from the South Street Landing Garage 1/4 mile north along Dyer street. The looming podium will detract from the park behind. The public subsidies will vanish into the pockets of the Fain Organization, whilst the bond holders will be left holding the bag if the building fails to to meet its projections. Gutting our cities cities for cars was been THE mistake of the 20th century, and a car oriented tower just continues the same mistake.

      OTOH, according to the Providence GIS Maps, as a person walks, it’s 2,000 feet (3/8 mile) from the center of the Hope Pointe parcel to the entry of the Textron Building. That is almost exactly the same as the distance from Textron to the Residences at the Omni. I call a point for Steve X. (Why is the Textron Building your reference for downtown?).

      Back to the first hand, however: the City has no ownership registered on the tax rolls for a lot of the units at the Residences. (Plat 19, lot 143 units 1601 to 3201). Incompetence? or have they never been sold? The penthouse (#3201) has never been sold, 10 years after the occupancy of the building. Where will the demand for all these expensive units come from?

      Iconic surely refers to the skyline in the news clips on Family Guy, and the Industrial National Trust Tower is the most recognizable silhouette in that skyline.

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      • Peter, I defer to your GIS judgment on distance. Your calculation is closer to Steve’s. Overall that’s good, because the smaller our downtown the better (walkability and all that), at least to a degree. Don’t want it to shrink to nothingness! Don’t know why Steve prefers to measure from Textron. I think your point about the market is telling.

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      • Anonymous says:

        We don’t need any more parks go to roger we ok u can see it from the fane tower

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    • Anonymous says:

      We don’t need more hotels or apartments we need condos and nice stores for class shopping then they all come to providence instead of boston

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