The path now against Fane

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Map of Jewelry District by grad students at School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame

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.)

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New background buildings for I-195 corridor drawn by Prof. Philip Bess’s grad students.

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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10 Responses to The path now against Fane

  1. William S. Kling says:

    Interesting comments, but ultimately the Phane Phallusy violates the Comprehensive Plan, and opens the door to any developer who wishes an exemption. Ever heard of “precedent”, City Council? The plan for that district was long-term, well-paying jobs: I accept Wexford and other crappy buildings for that end, though I hate debasing our city. Not temp jobs for construction workers JUST so some out-of-towner thinks he can make bucks. I’d be willing to bet Mr. Fane has no plans to move here, pay taxes here, or contribute to the quality of life we have already. Toronto can have his towers, its a different metropolis. And as far as I’ve heard, he hasn’t submitted tax exemption/treaty requests yet. But I’ll give you 10/1 he has not finished his gimmegimme.

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  2. Allison Newsome says:

    Pro-fane / Profane To desecrate that which is sacred.

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  3. Lesley Maxwell says:

    Mr. Weiss – Brown needs to ante up money to Providence. They pay a pittance to Providence for the glory of being Brown. During Tavares’ tenure, in their generosity, they paid the City all of $7 million bucks. Within the past year, they received a huge endowment – I believe it was $100 million plus, as they do every year, raised the tuition. If somebody knows what they gave this year, please tell the rest of us. Brown is financially profitable to Brown, period. They don’t expand the campus into other cities because 1. They have it made in the shade and 2. The rest of us don’t want them.
    I live in Cranston. For many years, we’ve done our property taxes with certain exemptions – i.e. $3000 for a Gold Star Parent, $3000 for a WW2 vet, $3000 for a disabled person but anyone who lived in Cranston but was associated with Brown received a $10,000 exemption. What, pray tell, makes them ”special”? Fortunately, our City Charter has been changed and they get nothing. They are welcome to live here but unless they qualify under another exemption, they pay the same % in taxes as the next guy.

    Fane’s Tower may fall into the ”Knowledge District” but let’s call it what it is – an apt. building with some retail stores. There’s nothing knowledgeable about it. Maybe a few Brown students from Dubai will live there but it’s still an apt. bldg.

    I’ll generalize your statement that “every project is financially profitable”. You can’t quantify it. Fane hasn’t built anything – it’s a guesstimate. Ask the 13 restaurants that closed this week – they were ”projects” for their owners, ask Sears a very major project, ask Projo with its 25,000 subscribers. All projects, all expecting to make a profit and all have failed – some so big, stockholders were burned after years of investments, following their financial sheets, going to stockholder meetings, being on the boards of companies.

    I want R.I. to succeed, to reach the peak comparable to its size. I want truth, transparency, honesty from the people who run the state, I want to have the right to tell them I agree or I don’t. What I want most is Hope – it’s our motto. Hope that things change for the better, hope that the citizens become proactive and involved in some way, hope that people will understand what consensus is.

    Hope – a small word with a great deal of meaning.

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  4. Lesley Maxwell says:

    They amended the law but not a section of the law. Section 600 (I know little about laws) still remains intact. I’m trying to go thru this logically for my own benefit. Feel free to correct.3 years ago, the communities in the area and the (then) City Council agreed on the zoning for the parcels. Fane comes in to buy & develop a parcel with apts/condos. While the idea of the parcels was to attract businesses & jobs, employees need somewhere to live. We had/still have a shortage of affordable, decent housing. The I-195 Commission’s job is to sell these parcels. At the time of the Stadium in 2015, the value of the parcels ranked the 2nd highest in value in the U.S. What has been sold? Not much. Fane comes in, wants a parcel to build on with his money (I emphasize this as it was at the time). Reveal Fane’s plan to build an over the legal limit building. Fane proceeds with his business plan which violates Providence law, calls for tax stabilization, wants a ‘small’ piece of the public park (which is small to start with)and said park, along with the pedestrian bridge, both built to reunite two sides of Prov. by I-195, wants to put a tennis court on the public’s park, obstructs the planned view & beauty of the park & bridge and tells, not asks, how Prov. should bend over backwards since he’s in charge. I’ll also mention he’s lacking $200-$300 million when he said he was paying for the whole thing. I assume he’s taking out loans. Suddenly, the bridge isn’t going to be completed on time (a lie since one person has been taking pix since Day One of the progress). It’s pushback until Fane and/or the Council gets what it wants. Are the members of the Prov. Council the same people who made an agreement 3 yrs. ago or have the characters changed? If so, is the agreement null & void? I would ask – is Fane an elected official of Prov.? How does he yield so much power? Are we desperate enough to let anyone just walk in and run the city or does a vote count anymore? The PPS wants to do business with him – just not in that spot. The talk of 1500 jobs is just that – talk. It’s temporary work for 2 yrs. Fane himself said he would need 45 people, then 60, to run this building. He compares us to Toronto. The entire population of R.I. could live in this one building. We’re not Toronto, never will be. Our size limits us to being warm and cozy. There’s progress and then there’s progress that fits the area. I don’t see that building ever being filled to capacity. It’s unaffordable when one compares salaries in Toronto and Providence. Those who do make the ‘big bucks’ in R.I. don’t want to live in an apt., no matter what the cost. They want their big homes and estates, their pools and horses and pets, preferably with an ocean view.

    I don’t live in Providence, not a politician or lawyer nor do I want to see some 1800s style building – we have plenty of them. We have one of the most beautiful State Houses – I’ve always bragged about how I can see it, coming and going. Now we have a mall – a dying entity that partially conceals it. The same goes for Waterplace Park building (which has lost tenants), an art-deco empty bank that we boomers refer to the Superman Building (get over it, people!!! We’re not 5 anymore.), boutique hotels galore (what IS a boutique hotel?). Unless I drive directly passed it, I can’t see the State House, I can’t see the First Baptist Church, I can’t see anything that reminds me of our history or the beauty of some of the older buildings. I’m not a tourist but a resident and I can’t find anything that’s familiar.

    Fane needs to move to another place in Providence, lower his phallic symbol of a building and get real. It’s never going to be filled to capacity. He’ll have an office here – that’s it. He loves Toronto and spends most of his time there. Why is he adamant that this parcel is the one and only place to build? Is it some holy ground or is he just stubborn?

    Way to go, City Council !!! All of you should be removed from office. You’re not representing your constituents.

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  5. Steve says:

    The spirit of “…ensure that new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown,” can be meet by the Commission applying design requirements that make a difference.

    As to a lawsuit, it is a non-starter. The process was followed and the City Council has ultimate authority.

    So, the key is that design meet the spirit of section 600.

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  6. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    If we didn’t have Brown mostly and RISD, providence would be nowhere big time. A poor version of Fall River…The Fain tower Is one part of that growth called “The knowledge district”. Fain plays off of that Development drive .Brown is Providence ‘second largest Employer …so fill the blanks …Either way every project is financially profitable !!it all depends on how much cash, equity, Fane personally is willing to put in and that’s where the rubber meets the road In the world of subsidies and enticements from the state …and live goes on …Have a happy new year to you and family Dave Stan Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • Thanks, Stan. Merry holidays to you, too! If Fane would put up a tower that was not likely to make Providence worse, eroding our historic character and encouraging others to eat away even more of it, then I’d support it, too! But as things are, even if Fane does profit, for all the taxes it might pay and jobs it might create, it all comes at the city’s expense.

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    • Steve says:

      Oh, come on! “…If we didn’t have Brown mostly and RISD, providence would be nowhere big time. A poor version of Fall River…”. !!!

      First, Fall River is part of the PROVIDENCE Metro, a suburb.
      Second, Providence has 190K, Fall River 80K pop,
      Third, Providence is the educational, historical, transportation (11th busiest Amtrak station in the nation), corporate, cultural, medical, and entertainment center of southern New England, Fall River is the center of nothing.
      Fourth, Providence is the minufacturing center and one of only 2 deep things after poets in New England, Fall River has none
      Fifth, Providence produces 40% of southern New England’s economy. Fall River is one of Providence’s poorest urban suburbs.

      The absence of Brown doesn’t change any of that

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