Politics of the Fane override

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Council Chambers at Providence City Hall. (We the Italians)

When a pro-Fane tower councilman called in sick for Tuesday’s vote on whether to override Mayor Elorza’s brave veto of the Fane tower legislation, the council postponed the vote until tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 13. Having spouted my opposition to the tower many times this past two years, maybe it’s time to have some fun with the politics of the tower imbroglio.

I am, of course, assuming that the ill council member, Wilbur Jennings, was really ill. To imagine otherwise is to imagine an unimaginable perfidy in a sitting council member. But minds more cynical than my own must wonder whether Jennings’s absence was motivated by perceptions that the alleged swing-vote councilwoman Mary Kay Harris was showing some reluctance to swing to the pro-Fane faction, which needs 10 votes to override but has only nine. How to get a postponement? But not too much of one! A pro-Fane member is scheduled to fly out of the city on vacation before Christmas and won’t be back till after the override deadline of Dec. 31, so too long a delay will be too long.

A hospital visit? Perfecto!

Nah. This theory violates the principle of Occam’s Razor – the simplest explanation is likeliest one. Bank on it. The man was ill.

Nevertheless, at a party on Saturday evening, before the postponement, I heard that some of Councilor Harris’s colleagues were jealous of what, according to news reports, she’d been promised to change her vote. My source at the party told me he could imagine, if she did flip, or swing, this would set off a round of flippers seeking still more goodies – excuse me, public benefits. The vote could become as crazy as a pinball machine, with council members careening from one side to the other, with Fane and his cronies trying to flip the flippers back and forth, back and forth in the smoke and mirrors of the back rooms of the Third Floor of City Hall, breathing heavily and swiftly losing track of the cost of their promises.

All this seems a bit far-fetched. Every council member (pro-Fane or con) is very much aware that Fane is already hard pressed to make the project work financially. Even the I-195 commission’s financial consultant’s eyebrows rose beyond his hairline months ago when he ran the numbers on the project. No way Fane can check off the public benefits on the wish list of a single council person, let alone a chorus line of them – all above and beyond the state tax incentives to which the Fane project will be entitled, whatever they may be.

So we’ll just have to wait and see whether the swing vote is strong enough to take her swing based on principle. Mayor Elorza has already made the one argument that she needs to keep in mind. “Today,” he asserted in his veto statement, “we have approximately 70 projects either completed, under construction, or in the pipeline. With more investment and development than we’ve seen in over a decade, Providence is a city on the rise. As a growing and vibrant city, we see increasing interest from people who want to invest in our future.”

In short, Fane opponents need not worry that voting against the tower will cost jobs and taxes. Providence has been attracting investment lately because the city had the foresight to put in place zoning that developers could trust. That way, the city won’t become an OK-Corral, Wild-West urban shoot-out of developers over who can offer the most payoff for the most variances. If zoning that can change by a factor of six is approved in the face of so much public opposition, then the city automatically will become the kind of zoning sink hole that developers tiptoe around on their way to other cities.

In short, far from costing jobs and tax revenue, a vote against Fane will reaffirm the zoning stability that has caused an influx of jobs and revenue. Just look around you, and you can feel free to vote your conscience.

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics 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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7 Responses to Politics of the Fane override

  1. Steve says:

    The PBN was one of their online polls. I’d have to research again.

    The way I see it is 1) the City Council decides, it is not an election, 2) if it were one, the exception would win 100,000 to 3,000, 3) time to move boldly, not the same old “too much, too tall, too tall.

    Yes, BANANA is not new – but true.


  2. Joe says:

    I’d like to make a quick counterargument to your points Steve,
    1) Investment to whom? If you think all of the money (or even a majority) will be going to the city, you’re sorely mistaken; most of that will go to the corps.
    2) Multiple benefits? Name a few and I might be able to believe you. Needless to say, the history of similar projects like this in both Providence and other cities shows that there are more detriments to the city than actual benefits.
    3) The zoning is plenty tall for a medium-sized city like Providence. The community and city worked together to create a zoning plan that makes sense for Providence.
    4) Moving into the future doesn’t mean glass towers with aesthetically pleasing designs; it means making sure that further development actually helps the city and communities living in the area, not destroying them with unaffordable housing.


  3. petervanerp says:

    “Opponents, while vocal, are at most a few thousand, while the other 180,000 of us do not oppose this project.”
    “Proponents, though vocal, are at most a few dozen, while thousands actively oppose this project.” Fixed it for you.


    • Steve says:

      Cute but wildly incorrect.

      Facts: PBN poll, Projo survey, and actual count of BANANAS, and
      180,000 folks DID NOT express opposition.


      • Ben says:

        Wow, this is some of the worst math I’ve ever seen!


      • petervanerp says:

        The only PBN reference I could find to any poll was their interview with Olin Thompson, who reported that the JDA was 4-1 against. When did they run the poll? The ProJo has never run any survey, they just claim vast numbers of supporters. I asked Ed Achorn to back up his allegation of vast support with a poll…. crickets.
        Perhaps you can identify a BANANA who opposes Hope Point Tower? Most of the actual people who spoke against the tower at the public hearing October 29 spoke in favor of other projects. I’m glad Achorn just discovered the term BANANA, but he should know it’s not as au courant as he thinks, since the WSJ has been using it for a dozen years.


  4. Steve says:

    Nicely written, David,

    But the proponents, like me, base their position on the fact that 1) this is the largest investment in the city in over 2 decades, 2) it has multiple benefits, 3) the zoning in the district is ridiculously too short for an expanding downtown, 4) it is time to move to the future, not hang on to the past. That does not imply insisting on appropriate design.

    Opponents, while vocal, are at most a few thousand, while the other 180.000 of us do not oppose this project.

    The Mayor has exposed his true colors – his claim to fame will be “the champion of illegal immigrants”. Now that helps the city.


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