Learning nothing in its latest public hearing that it did not already know, the Ordinance Committee of Providence City Council reversed itself on Thursday to recommend that the council neuter the city’s zoning laws.
It voted three to one to urge the council to raise the height limit on Parcel 42 by a factor of six – 100 feet to 600 feet – for the Hope Point Tower proposed by developer Jason Fane. In July, the same committee voted three to one to recommend against the same zoning change. The only difference was that the first vote came before and the second vote after elections for city council seats. (Bravo for Bryan Principe, the only council member to stand firm.)
That doesn’t mean the Fane tower is now a done deal. The council could still ignore the recommendations of the committee. I don’t think these men and women are corrupt, I think they are held back by old thinking about cities. This old thinking is not the future but the past. It poses in high-tech dress and fools most of the people most of the time. It is corrupt, though a better word might be corrosive – a cancer on the livability, the value, the hopes and the spirit of cities.
For almost a century, American cities have adopted growth and development practices that call for purely functional buildings on purely functional streets. With beauty thrown on the ash heap, the resulting sterility and ugliness of cities caused dismay in most people back then and most people today. The promised efficiency never materialized.
In Providence, massive urban-renewal plans for downtown and College Hill fizzled in the 1960s, leaving our city as one of the few in America with its original beauty largely intact. But Providence’s civic leaders since then have never really understood the jewel they were in charge of. They have instead tried to “catch up” with cities like Hartford and Worcester that went all-in on the idea of cities as machines and people as cogs in them.
Before the city council votes to declare that Providence’s zoning laws are just a façade for copying the respectable failures of Hartford and Worcester, our deep thinkers should rethink this more progressively. A vote for the Fane tower is a vote for the GMO architecture of GTECH, the Rubik’s Cube and the I-195 corridor as built and planned so far. A vote against the Fane tower is not a vote against development but a vote against bad development.
If the council fails to grasp the need to turn the city back toward development that strengthens rather than weakens its historic character – whose loss will kill the city’s future – then it will not matter whether Fane builds his mammoth middle finger flung at all that we love about Providence.
If one American city decided to encourage development that its citizens could love, its skyline would be filled with cranes, and its future would be the envy of every other city. Providence can be that city if it wants to.