The Providence City Council has overridden Mayor Elorza’s brave veto of a bill to allow developer Jason Fane to proceed with a tower that plainly violates city zoning law.
The building would no longer violate the height limit for Parcel 42, which has now been legally amended. But the building would still violate Section 600 of the city zoning code, passed in 2014, which reads that “[t]he 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,” which now officially extends into the Jewelry District according to the city’s zoning map.
Going forward, opponents of the tower can still try to block it. They can urge the state to back out of hefty development incentives by arguing that the I-195 commission itself has questioned the project’s financial viability. A lawsuit is possible. Or a recession might frighten off its private financing before construction begins. Opponents can pray for that, if they wish.
Those are possible ways to trip up the Fane tower. But they are unmoored to any coherent strategy of opposition, which must seek to leverage the city’s comparative economic advantage and strengthen its brand. If the opposition does not link its case against Fane to opposing the sustained erosion of the historical fabric, then that opposition will be seen as a fit of pique, and it won’t matter very much whether the Fane tower is built or not.
So now it is time for opponents to separate the men and women from the boys and girls. It is time to grasp the nettle of why the Fane tower is bad for Providence. It is bad not because it would be too tall but because it would continue the longstanding erosion of the city’s beauty. Many opponents claim to oppose it because it doesn’t fit into the city’s historic character, but do they really? The Fane tower is no more of an insult to the city than the Wexford project nearby, or the two dormitory buildings next to the renovated 1912 Beaux-Arts power plant at South Street Landing, which have arisen with no opposition from anyone who is against the Fane tower today.
If that misunderstanding of Providence, its past and its future persists, embracing false ideas of what the future must look like as gospel, then it doesn’t matter if the Fane tower adds to the list of buildings that have pulled the city down little by little for decades.
At some point, without any clear tipping point, what remains of Providence’s beauty will be overwhelmed by its new ugliness. Development incentives, however large, will no longer be able to offset the cost of doing business in Providence. This city will go down the tubes like so many other cities in the Northeast already have, and for the same reasons – except that Providence delayed going ugly for half a century longer than other cities.
If the Fane tower goes up, Providence’s decline will be inevitable – unless civic leaders are shocked into trying a free and easy solution they now appear bound and determined to resist. Maybe the opposition to Fane represents a turning point. If so, “Hope Point Tower” may turn out to be prophetic.
(Illustrations above and below are from a study of the I-195 and Route 6/10 projects in Providence performed on-site by the Graduate Student Design Studio under Prof. Philip Bess in the School of Architecture at University of Notre Dame. The study, “Building Durable Wealth: Redeveloping In-City Freeway Corridors,” won an award at the 2017 annual convention of the Congress for the New Urbanism.)