Veto the tower, Mr. Mayor

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Citizens listening to testimony at City Council hearing about Fane tower. (UpriseRI)

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.

Sincerely,

David Brussat

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.

About David Brussat

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 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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2 Responses to Veto the tower, Mr. Mayor

  1. Steve says:

    Your comment is well written, David, but as you know I vehemently disagree. The zoning of 130 is the result of a horrible plan more fitting of a downtown New Bedford than Providence, and should be corrected everywhere it can. I applaud the City Council.

    This clown is the same guy that refuses to permit our police to assist federal agents from in enforcement of criminal immigration law, and you want him to justify a veto based on “spot zoning”. His conditions for signing the ordinance is nothing less than extortion- another great contribution to our corrupt reputation.

    If he vetos it the state will act with rightful vengeance. And perhaps the 180,000 of us that do not oppose the tower will begin a recall effort.

    Like

    • You are entitled to your views, Steve. But I would oppose the tower even if the conditions set by the mayor were met. They are not enough. I might support it if it were to be built in a fine trad design, not the cheesy stuff, it now seems, of the two hotels. My point is that I am surprised, now that a majority on the council supports it, that he does not do what most politicians would and cave immediately.

      Like

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