I wrote a letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza today [Monday]. I sent it by email and then hand-delivered another copy tucked inside my book Lost Providence, where I inscribed the title page in his honor. “Delivered with the sincerest hope,” I wrote, “that Providence is not lost yet!”
Since I’ve let the inscription out of the bag, I might as well go all the way and violate the privacy of our correspondence by printing the letter itself on my blog. I promise not to violate your side of the exchange, Mr. Mayor, if you reply. Here is my letter in full:
Dear Mr. Mayor:
We met during your first campaign when you dropped by a school fair at the west end of Broadway. My wife, Victoria, and our boy, Billy, were waiting with me to get on the Ferris wheel when we talked to you. I can’t recall our little chat exactly, but you expressed agreement with my belief that Providence had to protect its historical character.
You have a chance to do that by vetoing the recently passed legislation to increase the height limit for a proposed residential tower in the I-195 corridor.
Other new buildings there and elsewhere in the city, going back several decades, have undermined the historic character of downtown, but the proposed Fane tower is the biggest, and would set a precedent that threatens to speed up the erosion of our historical character.
Zoning prohibits new building that fails to protect the historical character of downtown. That is in Section 600 of the zoning code:
The purpose of the D-1 District is to encourage and direct development in the downtown to ensure that: new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown; historic structures are preserved and design alterations of existing buildings are in keeping with historic character.
This has been largely ignored in recent decades but it is vital to the future of Providence. Your veto could begin to reverse a trend that threatens to undermine the economy of Providence and the quality of life of those who live and work here.
Developers care a lot more about having government on their side than about architectural style. The public by a very large margin prefers traditional architecture. It is only the elites who like modern architecture, and mostly for reasons of careerism not the way it looks. Providence is a city attractive to tourists and businesses because of a beauty that no other city can compete with. Its civic leaders, led by its mayor, should try to persuade developers, including Jason Fane, to build projects that fit into the city’s historical character. That would make every project easier to get through the development process.
If developers continue to build ugly, the city will eventually lose one of its two chief competitive advantages (its beauty; the other one is its location between Boston and New York). Providence should build so as to strengthen rather than weaken its brand.
You as mayor can bring about such a change in policy. It would cost nothing, require no new laws, and make your mark on the city’s history. And a veto of the height change – which need not kill the Fane project – would be the best way to begin.
P.S. – I will deliver to your office a copy of my book, Lost Providence, published last year, which traces the erosion of historical character in the city’s history.
Others have written letters urging the mayor to veto the bill or not to veto it. Many issues favor a veto beyond what I’ve mentioned here, such as excess height, spot zoning, the lack of affordable housing, its effect on the housing market and its possible financial weakness. The mayor has placed certain project conditions in order to ward off a veto, and he deserves credit for his toughness. The arguments for the tower are mainly jobs, taxes and to show that Providence is open for business. All of these are open to challenge but they are honestly held by many of the mayor’s constituents. He faces a tough decision. May he weigh it carefully and make the best choice he can.