The fate of the Fane tower

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Rendering of parking garage/retail base of proposed Hope Point Tower. (Fane Organization)

Last Wednesday, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission approved the design of the proposed Fane tower in the city’s Jewelry District. The press duly noted the project’s latest step forward, but in fact hope is quite dim for the queer-looking 46-story building.

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“Iconic” design of Fane tower. (FO)

Much has been made of developer Jason Fane’s frustration with the pace of progress on his project, but not enough attention has been drawn to the “frustration” he has caused among the commissioners. Their complaints, which emerged in July, were perhaps most comprehensively described in a July 24 story by Eli Sherman of WPRI, Channel 12. He wrote:

A series of letters requested by Target 12 show the developer, Jason Fane, has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines and respond to a series of requests made by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission.

“We are writing to express our disappointment at your organization’s failure to perform its obligations under our agreement,” wrote Robert Davis, I-195 Commission chairman, in a letter to Fane dated Tuesday.

The Fane Organization has apparently not corrected that behavior in the two months since the commissioners’ letters of complaint. Fane has “broken every rule and missed every deadline,” says a leading opponent, Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association. Maybe that overstates the case, but reporter Sherman’s story adds that the developer has had the benefit of several deadline extensions, including those for design drawings and a city tax stabilization agreement, and has sought to reduce fees and change other agreed arrangements. In response to one such attempt, commission chairman Robert Davis replied, “We have no interest in renegotiating the agreement.”

If Fane were confident he could raise funds for the project, and that it would succeed, why would he try to pinch so many pennies along the way? His attempts to move the goalposts expose his concerns about the project’s financial and market feasibility. Of course each twist and turn in the fight over the Fane tower further hikes costs for the developer and reduces returns for his investors, if he has any. He has just admitted the estimated cost of the tower has risen from $250 million to $300 million.

Sherman’s article further hints at the strained relations among the parties:

The commission declined to comment on whether the letters signaled the deal was at risk of falling through. Fane spokesperson Dante Bellini characterized the relationship as “collaborative,” and said the company “has enjoyed a good and productive relationship with the 195 Commission.”

“This is a large and complex deal and as such requires a great amount of due diligence by all parties,” he explained. “There have been, as you know, very formidable challenges.”

“The challenges Fane has encountered,” Sherman adds, “may only reinforce the narrative that Rhode Island is a bad place for business.” Wrong. Fane faces challenges because he – not opponents or procedural delay – violated key aspects of the city’s zoning and comprehensive plan. He has destabilized the city’s development environment by bamboozling the city council into raising the height limit on Parcel 42 from 100 feet to 600 feet. Planners use zoning to stabilize the development environment, so that it will show no favoritism, which is what honest developers want. If the challenges Fane has brought upon himself end up killing off his project, Providence will have a chance to restabilize its development environment and help turn the state into a better place for business.

The fact that citizens, by fighting back, show they understand the danger that Fane’s manipulations pose to our business climate will be seen by future developers as a sign that there is a more level playing field in Providence.

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Towers as originally proposed. (FO)

Part of that fight is a citizens’ lawsuit against council’s action on the height limit as a species of “spot zoning.” Of course, Fane is irked. “How can they do that to me?” he seems to wonder. “I have promised to build them an iconic building!” No, he has promised a tall building that looks like it belongs in Dubai, not Providence. (“What’s wrong with that?” he told the Providence Journal’s Mark Patinkin.”) We must not forget that when Fane first arrived here he mocked the city as “cutesy,” adding that it “doesn’t look up to date.” Most Rhode Islanders are tired of what “up to date” looks like. The last thing they want is Jason Fane’s idea of “iconic” on a gargantuan scale. Remember his original three towers with their Minion spectacles? Rhode Islanders know what is beautiful and what is not, and they know how beauty is key to the future of the capital city. As soon as Fane got off the plane he proved he does not understand Providence or care about why citizens love Rhode Island despite its problems.

Well, not quite. The second thing he did after arriving was to surround himself with lawyers and lobbyists. So maybe he does understand. He will need them all to dodge the blowback from his manipulative behavior. If a judge finds that spot zoning is illegal in Rhode Island, it is hard to see how the lawsuit could fail to stop the Fane tower.

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 The fate of the Fane tower

  1. LazyReader says:

    The stains of technological ejaculation on our cities form. Architects and owners are for some reason fascinated by buildings that look incomplete, partially demolished or prematurely falling apart even while new. As if the apocalypse or nuclear winter is somehow an attractive thing; if you wanna see the Apocalypse visit any of our major US cities, Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Los Angeles, San Francisco, they reek of zombie like behavior a crawling slowly moving wave of brain dead former consumers.

    That’s the trouble with these Computer aided design stunts; they produce buildings of such unprecedented design new engineering principles must be addressed in order to confirm these buildings will enjoy an agreeable shelf life. Worse unlike architecture of the past whose history of survivability was based on centuries of extensive engineering knowledge and (trial and error having already been weeded out), there’s no knowledge concerning the long term maintenance, resource, capital and renovation needs. Fabricated modular materials may sound like a timesaver but exotic materials like plastics and titanium and odd metals and various types of concrete or stone are concerning because the assumption is they’ll always be available when they break or require replacement. And the fate of these buildings is ambiguous as they’re too expensive for adaptive reuse. Smaller cities have an abundance of empty but new buildings with little use for tenants. Because most new businesses that start up are small enough they don’t need a high rise or choose the much cheaper campus style office space. Great example, Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Bank building a new 20 story tall building that humorously enough resembled Camden yards after a growth spurt.

    In three years they foreclosed the property moved out and now the tower houses the offices of CareFirst. But a 20 story building is not a boondoggle. A 80 story juggernaut……..that’s a far cry.

    Like

  2. Steve says:

    Why?

    Far smaller scale, much more politically connected, far less economic impact.
    Nice for one of Providence’s urban suburbs (Pawtucket, Fall River, etc)…minimal for Providence.

    Like

  3. Steve says:

    Ha…as Reagan famously said about Carter, “here you go again”

    First, again, Fane did not violate any law or regulation. He did face over 17 instances of, as the ProJo said, “idiotic” opposition, redundant hearings, and negativity.

    Second, there is no problem between the Commission and the Fane Organization – it is moving forward. This is not a park or a bridge with no economic benefits. Big projects with big benefits have big parts and difficult dynamics. All normal.

    Second, you say “Rhode Islanders know what is beautiful and what is not, and they know how beauty is key to the future of the capital city. As soon as Fane got off the plane he proved he does not understand Providence or care about why citizens love Rhode Island despite its problems.”

    Understand Providence? That it is plagued by NIMBYS

    Rhode Islanders do? I have traveled to over 40 states and a dozen counties and never met more critical and negative people. And frankly, they don’t matter – the people of Providence do. And not the tiny crowd led by a caustic, egocentric, negative individual. As Chafee once said “destructive negativity”. There is NO evidence of widespread opposition, just the opposite (PBN poll).

    Third, the vindictive and frivolous “spot zoning” lawsuit victory – very wishful thinking. It will not carry the day. The City Council acted within its authority, granting an exception to a parcel that should have been 300 feet or more in the first place; along with most of the district.

    “Beauty”. Like the Wexford building, IGT, etc.? While I agree that the design is not beautiful, the height is perfectly appropriate for Downtown Providence.

    Beauty is not the key to our future, it does not build economic development, growing a city beautifully up – does.

    Like

  4. In the time that Jason Fane has spent f#$&ng around, Cornish has designed, got approvals for, bid and have 60% complete a building downtown without any special deals.

    Like

    • Is that so, Peter? I should slide that into my piece, but it’s already quite long. I will probably be doing a post on the Parcel 12 hotel that opened a few months ago and the hotel on Sabin Street that just opened up. Both are flawed in similar ways, but both are better than we might have expected.

      Like

      • Michael Airhart says:

        These latter reasonably scaled buildings are the practical projects that deserve attention and official support. Why is the city giving Fane so much as the time of day?

        From the start, the Fane development seemed so out of step with the Providence real estate market, and downtown business needs, that every compromise by city officials smacked of desperation and insider dealing.

        In Baltimore, the First Mariner building — like the Fane Tower — was located far from downtown, in a brownfield that was being partially converted into upscale shopping. There was little rational reason for a bank or insurance tower to be surrounded by nothing but warehouses, petrochemical tanks, a lifestyle center, and a handful of lofts. And so the now-CareFirst tower, like the Fane Tower, sticks out in its neighborhood like an ingrown toe, unsupported by any affiliated businesses such as data analytics or financial partners.

        The national economy is about to tip back into recession, so I would hope that city and state officials scale their sights and seek projects that can thrive in a downturn. That certainly is not what happened in the lead-up to the 2008 economic crash.

        Like

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