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.