Lessons from the Fane ouster

Lower portions of Hope Point Tower, which would have risen 600 feet in a 100-foot zone. (WPRI)

The so-called Hope Point Tower threat is gone, done in by inflationary costs and a dodgy market. Lessons from this interlude abound, chiefly that neighborhood opposition to poorly conceived proposals works. Jason Fane’s proposal for a 550-foot tower in a 100-foot height-restricted zone should not have been allowed in the first place. Obviously.

That it was allowed shows how ineffective and, frankly, clueless are the expert panels and their memberships, including, especially, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, all the way up through the Providence City Council and the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which, when charged with judging the legality of the proposal, issued a vapid, senseless jumble of meaningless words, laughingly considered the legal judgment of this high court. Providence mayor Jorge Elorza merits commendation for vetoing City Council’s approval of a change in zoning to jam the proposal into compliance with the Comprehensive Plan.

But where was Elorza before his veto? Where was he after it was issued? He should have put his foot down the moment the building was proposed. That was in 2016 – seven years ago.

Even before the pandemic there were many reasons to suspect that the target market for the Fane tower was suspect. Many projects serving an upmarket constituency here are more likely to find buyers and tenants than the Fane tower. In another location, such as the Financial District, its height might not have been so offensive, or even offended me so much, not even its design. (See “Put Fane tower downtown.”)

Fane’s team claimed that the proposal was a “tower in the park,” which to them meant that the applicable zoning restriction of 100 feet did not apply. This was highly debatable, but Jason Fane was probably well aware that nobody would object. He was wrong. Yes, local media was predictably on board – including a delusional supportive editorial (written after I left) by the Providence Journal – and drooling docility characterized the coverage of most of the rest of the media.

But even the local groups that rose in opposition, especially the Jewelry District Association and the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, failed to grasp the most important reason to object to the Fane tower, which was its modernist style contrary to the city’s historical character. Perhaps local opposition should not be expected to be knowledgeable of how embracing historical character enables Providence to create valuable difference between itself and other cities, while rejecting our historical character inevitably does the reverse. Many find a mixture of contrasting styles to be an interesting look, but it nevertheless destroys historical character, undermining the city’s economy, its already minimal competitive advantages with other states in New England, and property values throughout the city.

The Providence Preservation Society has no excuse for its ignorance, but its stance is no surprise. It has been sympathetic to authoritarian-style modernism since not long after its creation in 1956. It does good work in many subsections of preservation, but on the big issues it has been on the wrong side, and it shows. This blog remains almost the sole opponent of PPS decision-making. Yes, PPS opposed the Fane tower – in surprising contrast to its record of support for many of the worst proposals in the city’s modern history – but in a Jan. 23 letter to the commission describing its opposition to the Fane tower, its rationale could have been applied equally well to many modernist buildings erected since the society’s founding in 1956. The society should have been the adult in the room, but that adult went missing, as it did for many buildings that mar the face of the city.

PPS even quoted the chief objection in law to the Fane tower: “The purpose of the D1 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.” But PPS wasn’t listening.

Providence is marching in the same direction as most American cities – slower, perhaps, than others. But the destination is the same horror that many have already achieved.

[Editor’s note. Commenter Steve, below, reminded me to mention the JDA, which I had unaccountably forgotten. My apologies for that oversight.]

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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9 Responses to Lessons from the Fane ouster

  1. LazyReader says:

    Building anything higher than 4 stories becomes hassle…… elevators and escalators demand rigid and heavy support structures, buildings that require them are more easily built of concrete and steel than Sticks and Bricks, thereby substantially increasing the cost,” That means that “residential structures either have to be less than three stories above the main entrance, in order for you to build them without elevators, or they have to be high-rise. Once you start building a residential structure of concrete and steel to accommodate an elevator, your costs kick into so much higher an orbit that you have to build vastly more dwelling units per acre in order to make any money.

    As a result, for nearly a hundred years, very few mid-rise buildings were constructed in this country, and most of them were built by the government…

    Solution to cheaper but still useful buildings may come form of wood. This wooden stuff, otherwise known as Glued laminated timber or Glulam
    was pioneered in Germany, promoted as green architecture. Only first floor and elevator core need be concrete.


  2. Tom Lopardo says:

    Another perfect example of horrible Design in a Historic City such as Providence is the IGT Building in Capital Center. The Capital Center Commission spit the Bit on allowing that to be approved and built.


    • Truly, Tom. Out of spite I refuse to call it by any name but the original – the GTECH building – which might as well stand for “Gambling Tech.” The building is so in-your-face morally and aesthetically that it perfectly symbolizes today’s cynical degradation of society.


      • Tom Lopardo says:

        I almost did call it the GTech Building, but that is like referring to Almacs or Lechmere buildings; dating ourselves. By any name is is very ugly & out of place


  3. Steve says:

    My comments will confined to…
    1. “in a 100-foot height-restricted zone should not have been allowed in the first place.”
    The disappointing fact is that this parcel and approx 9 parcels around it should have been set at 300-400 foot.
    2, The Hope Point tower – it was NEVER the “Fane Tower” – was quite appropriate for the parcel given its immediate proximity to other modern structures (225 Dyer, etc) and to the Financial District towers
    3. The Jewelry District Association and it’s arrogant leader were destructive
    4. The City Council in approving the variance, as ruled by the court, was fully within its
    rights under the law
    5. Any tower of any height 200-700 foot in the Financial District is appropriate – it’s design, less so
    6. Providence is the core city of New England’s second city metro – not Portsmouth.

    Hopefully, other lots will be filled with 300-700 foot towers…within design constraints


    • Whatever height the parcels are restricted to, they must be appropriately designed. The Fane tower (I never upper-case the “t,” which makes it a description, not a name) design was not “less so.” It was totally inappropriate. Maybe they should have set nearby parcels at a higher limits. However, they did not. It was citizens’ suggestions that were followed to make the comprehensive plan. No, the JDA and its leader were constructive, not destructive, even if they were not sure why. Hopefully, Steve, the I-195 commission will finally learn its lesson and bar, at the start, any proposals of inappropriate height and modernist design.


      • Steve says:

        We surely disagree on that JDA, its leader, its attitude, and its impact.
        We can agree on the failure to set heights correctly at the outset. My hope is the Providence Innovation District Commission will finally realize it is a district of downtown Providence (not town square Portsmouth) and adjust the heights up in what parcels are left.
        We both trust that the design of future buildings will at least compliment the city’s architectural heritage and beauty.


        • I have no idea, Steve, where you get the idea that, in the future, the design of buildings in Providence will “at least complement the city’s architectural heritage and beauty.” Where has that happened, at all, in Providence – with one exception: the fitness facility erected by Brown in 2013 or thereabouts.

          Do you know the design history of that building? It was first proposed as your typical modernist structure by Brown, which hired a NYC firm absurdly called SHoP, but the donor responsible for most of the financing disliked that design and chose a more traditional firm, RAMSA of NYC, for the job. It was beautifully done, designed by RAMSA’s Gary Brewer. But then the idiot billionaire donor almost immediately turned around and paid for an entrepreneurship center on Thayer Street designed in a typically boring, sterile modernist style. You would think a billionaire would feel safe from the opinion of the ignorant, but apparently Jonathan Nelson felt a need to curry their favor with a cringing apology for having expressed his independence via the excellent traditional design of the fitness center just a few years before. How pathetic!


  4. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    just another lost opportunity…

    Sent from my iPhone


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