View from Providence’s downtown up to College Hill. (Sprudge)
The Providence Journal today published an editorial, “Saying no to a bold future,” that castigates opponents of the proposed Fane tower as “insiders,” a term usually applied to those who manipulate the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This turnabout is not accurate and not fair play. The editorial continues to turn truth topsy turvy until its very last sentence.
Developers have long avoided Rhode Island not because they face resistance from an overly negative public but because they face a very harsh business climate here. Today, the national and regional economies are so strong that developers are coming back anyway – in part because the state’s economic development incentives, like them or not, mitigate the disincentives of its tax and regulatory environment, as they are designed to do.
Much of the public opposes the Fane tower not because they are insiders seeking to avert competition, or have some mythical “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody)” attitude but because they see the proposal as undermining the public’s own vision of the city’s future as mapped out by its comprehensive plan, which the public helped write.
There is nobody among the public who, as the Journal feigns to imagine, does not want a robust economic future. The comprehensive plan places gradually rising height limits between the riverside park in the I-195 district and the string of parcels along I-95. Such urbanistic gradualism would create a more people-friendly district. Nobody opposes the Fane tower’s height in and of itself, but only because its height in the front rank next to the park turns the tables on the public’s vision of the district’s future. The Fane tower would also make it harder for the state to develop the parcels behind it.
Unmentioned by the Journal, Fane seems to have rejected appeals, including appeals by the I-195 commission, to relocate its project to one of the parcels that already have greater height limits. Others think it could easily go on an open lot downtown. In any such location, relaxing the higher limits would garner precisely zero opposition from the public.
The public has not, so far as I know, been informed of the reasons why the staff of the I-195 commission – who are among the real insiders – considers a 600-foot tower on a parcel limited to 100 feet to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out the comprehensive plan.
An earlier editorial, “Soaring addition to the downtown,” scoffed at concern for the large shadow that the Fane tower would cast. “A shadow? … You don’t say!” That’s a low blow. The Journal did not deign to mention that the shadow would cast a pall on a public park for much of the afternoon. That’s a dastardly omission worthy of Snidely Whiplash.
Speaking of landlords, one of the opponents at whom the Journal seems to be directing its ire is downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace. “Many of the most vocal opponents of the project have glaring conflicts, since they do not want more housing units on the market competing with their projects.”
Buff Chace has high-mindedly and almost single-handedly revived downtown with his loft renovation of old buildings. As the Journal knows, the bottom line of real estate is “Location! Location! Location!” The most profitable gas stations are those located at the four corners of a major intersection. Why? Because competition generates business. More buildings with more units will create an even more robust apartment market. More competition means greater opportunity for profit. That means growth. This is Business 101.
The Journal’s pretended assumption that Chace opposes the Fane tower because its units will compete with his units is of a piece with its editorial’s switcheroo of insiders and outsiders. Fane is the ultimate insider, lawyered up and eager to grab as much public money as he can while snookering the public into accepting a plan that would undermine the public’s own vision of the city’s future.
The Journal refers to opponents’ “gross indifference to the apartment crush in Rhode Island. We need units!” But there is no crisis in the sort of luxury units proposed by Fane. The crisis is in affordable units, of which Fane offers none. The City Plan Commission’s 5-to-2 vote that triggered the Journal’s tantrum involved a condition that would have linked the increased height to a requirement that 15 percent of the building’s units be affordable. Fane probably sees such a requirement, advocated by the sainted CPC staff of the Journal’s imagination, as no less a project killer than a rejection of the increase in the height limit.
No doubt the Journal is perfectly aware of this, and also that the 195 commission has questioned whether the Fane tower can profit even without the 15-percent affordability set-aside. The editorial writer – the insider of insiders – is too smart to have so glibly turned so many facts on their heads without understanding the true interests involved.
The real reason so many oppose this project is that, despite the money invested in the city and the addition of so many units to its market, the project rejects the city’s vision of itself. Soon after arriving with his first plan for three towers, Fane sneered at the city’s “cutesy” historic districts:
If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront. … Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date.
Of course, it is precisely the city’s great swaths of intact historical character that make Providence uniquely livable and deeply amenable to intelligent expansion. What Fane proposes is merely a copy of what cities in America and elsewhere, from Toronto to the capital city of Dubai, have been doing for half a century, undermining their livability and in many cases their economy.
Those whose opposition arises from what Fane calls his “iconic” design are more sophisticated about cities, and especially Providence, than are the true insiders – the CPC staff, architect Friedrich St. Florian, the editorial board of the Journal. Standing up to the real insiders who truckle to the conventional wisdom of sterile modern architecture and “bigger is better” planning is to resist urban orthodoxy at its most toxic. That orthodoxy has no rightful claim to be the future. The future of a city looks like what it chooses to look like, not what design insiders at Brown and RISD want it to look like.
The design insiders and hip wannabe city planning insiders want Providence to embrace what amounts to GMO architecture. The city should reject that, and if it will not, citizen activists should make them reject it. A Providence that charts its own future as evolving gently from its past, learning from its history, is more likely to thrive than a Providence that copies the recent past of glass-and-steel blotches of God’s wrath on architecture.
[W]here are the Rhode Island leaders who should be carrying Mr. St. Florian’s banner — of thinking boldly and looking to the future?
Friedrich St. Florian is a delightful man who made his name designing traditional architecture: Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial. His designs respected the past – and broke from his prior career of unbuilt abstract modernist architecture. Now he wants to regain the respect of establishment insiders by talking up architecture that can be loved only by the mother of the architect. The Journal states that St. Florian “literally changed the city with his idea of opening up the Providence River.”
No, that was Bill Warner.
It was the late Bill Warner who knew how to look into the future by thinking boldly. His waterfront design was a break from decades of ugly modernism approved by the architectural establishment. Busting away from that was bold then and would be even bolder today. St. Florian’s support for the Fane tower is not bold. He has it upside down, and the Journal has swallowed his error, hook, line and stinker.
The public’s rejection of the Fane tower is true boldness. The public must hold the city council to the high standard set by Providence’s history, not the false standard set by those true insiders, including the Journal, who do not understand the city or its best interests. The city’s true best interests are to follow the public’s intuitive support for a city whose future respects rather than rejects its beautiful past.