Monday night’s public hearing into the Fane tower at City Hall barely seemed to push the needle one way or the other on whether to permit its developer, Jason Fane, to ignore the 100-foot height limit on the Jewelry District land where he hopes to build the skyscraper. He has trimmed his 598-foot proposal by 68 feet down to 530 feet. Easy on top!
That won’t shave away much community opposition to the project, but that was not the purpose. Fane hopes the haircut will provide enough cover for council members to vote yes when the full body votes on whether to hike the height limit. More members have voiced skepticism than support, I believe, but nobody knows how many members are truly undecided. To shrink the building from six times to five times what zoning permits will hardly affect the case for or against the tower. Fane realizes that, but hopes his feigned willingness to negotiate will win over some Nervous Nellies.
The fact remains that if the council approves this major zoning change, it will effectively nullify all zoning regulations in the city. At stake is not a tweak to squeeze an otherwise legal building under the wire. This would not be to bend but to discard the rules. It would be a declaration by a developer that he doesn’t care about the law – and equally, by any council member who votes to approve this profanity, a declaration of the same.
Unlike the first hearing held by the council’s Ordinance Committee in July, this time the committee did not vote to reject (as it did then) or recommend the zoning change. So far as I am aware, no date for a vote by ordinance has been set, much less a vote by the full council. It’s no wonder members aren’t eager to vote on this.
On the floor to the left of the council leadership’s dais, oddly enough, was a rather large scale model of the last proposal to challenge the tower that has been the city’s tallest since it opened in 1928 – the Industrial Trust Bank (“Superman”) Building, at 428 feet. One Ten Westminster, as it was called, was proposed in 2005 and would have risen to 520 feet, but went belly-up even before the Great Recession.
As you can see from the picture I took from the second-floor gallery last night, it was a nice model, showing the building (not so nice) in a parking lot girdled by historic fabric, including the Weybosset Street façade of the Providence National Bank (built in 1950). Some, including this reporter, have proposed putting the Fane tower at that spot. A commenter (see below) says the model was brought in by Sharon Steele, a leading opponent, to illustrate the idea of putting the Fane tower downtown.
The illustrations above and below seem intended to suggest that Hope Point Tower, as the building would be called, is just another piece of the downtown skyline, and not so terribly huge. Don’t be fooled. It is out of character and out of scale. If it were built on the same spot as the proposed One Ten Westminster, many opponents of the Fane tower would no longer have any really serious objection. It would be surrounded by several tall towers and instead of sticking out like a sore thumb in the Jewelry District it would serve as an exclamation point to the crescendo of the city’s skyline. Fane has resisted advice to relocate his project to a more reasonable site. He seems to want it to stand alone as a monument to his own iconic ego.
I don’t like its design, but I would find it difficult to oppose the Fane tower if it were moved to the center of downtown. Others are irked by its lack of affordable units, or its potentially negative impact on the housing market. The former will be a problem unless affordable units are added in further negotiations with the city. If the tower were built at the One Ten site, it would generate market activity rather than stifling it. It would bring vitality to the central business district – the real downtown, not the fake downtown that city planners are trying to make of the Jewelry District.
Fane’s proposed location would split this vitality between a pair of competing activity centers, one amid an urban treasure and another poking up amid an ill-conceived innovation district already under assault by the ugliness of what has been built thus far and what is proposed. The architecture of the I-195 corridor, including the Fane tower, is a set of clichés of machine-age, high-tech design that will be as inhumane, on a smaller scale, as Boston’s sterile and steroidal innovation district. What Providence needs is development that reflects and respects our historical character, that strengthens rather than undermines the city’s brand.
Whether at 598 or 530 feet in height, the Fane tower doesn’t cut the mustard.