After an extensive public hearing Wednesday night, the Providence Council Ordinance Committee voted three to one, with one member abstaining, to recommend the full council deny the zoning amendment necessary for the 600-foot Fane Tower proposed for Route 195 redevelopment land located in the Jewelry District.
The proposal had been previously shot down by the City Plan Commission, which voted against recommending the zoning changes based on several conditions, including the tower’s violation of the 100-foot height limit for development in the area and that a rapid expansion of luxury housing was not financially appropriate for the needs of the city.
At the Wednesday hearing, however, a strong union showing clung to the proposal, arguing that the project would build the city’s tax base and was a strong job opportunity that, compared to recent developments accused of hiring out-of-state workers, would instead give preference to Rhode Island laborers. Michael Sabitoni, president of Rhode Island Building Trades, testified, “One of the most disparaging things I’ve heard… [was that] moving to approve this project will lead to other significant developments in the city, other tall buildings. So? What’s wrong with more tall buildings, more investment?”
For many in attendance, however, the idea of a zoning change threatened to set a dangerous precedent for developers looking to skirt the city’s Comprehensive Plan after years of public input on zoning ordinances. Leaders from neighborhood associations beyond the Jewelry District, including those representing Fox Point, Summit, the West End, and College Hill, were unanimously against the proposal, arguing that allowing one spot-zoning amendment would allow for unreasonable development in their neighborhoods as well. Concerns included the proposed height of the tower, its impact on a nearby park, as well as the potential for vacancies impacting values for other units in the city.
The idea of rapidly expanding the number of luxury housing units was met with particular push back from critics arguing that the city is facing an affordable housing crisis. Nika Lomazzo, an activist and former candidate for Ward 13, said, “I’m here because while I’m for economic development, I’m not for economic development built on the backs of the poorest residents in the city.”
Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune and Councilman Seth Yurdin (who also spoke against the proposal last week) opposed the project. Councilman Yurdin called the dichotomy between job opportunities in the city and the proposal a “false choice,” and said, “We told people we would listen to them, and we told them their input would matter, and so if we move forward with this spot-zoning proposal, we’re telling people that their public input doesn’t matter.”
Developer Jason Fane was not in attendance, and during the committee session following the public hearing, both Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris and Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan moved to continue the zoning change in order to hear more information about the proposal from Fane himself. The move was met with urgent push back from LaFortune, who emphasized that the committee’s decision was on the zoning changes and not the tower itself. Councilman Samuel Zurier also offered a strong argument against continuing the proposal: “I’ve never heard of a rule that said a developer has to have an invitation to come… I hope you don’t create a new rule where a developer can have two bites of the apple, where a developer can not exercise their ability to speak as a member of the public, and then say, you didn’t go the right way, so we insist on having a second hearing.”
The committee had to go through a series of three votes—first to continue the the consideration of the zoning change, then to continue it indefinitely, then to deny the recommendation entirely—to reach its final verdict. Interestingly, both committee members who came out most strongly against the zoning changes—Councilman Terrence Hassett and Councilman Bryan Principe—are not running for re-election in September. Councilwoman Ryan was consistently in favor of continuing consideration of the change, while Councilwoman Harris voted to deny the committee’s recommendation in the final vote.
Following the committee’s decision, the full council will be the next body to consider the zoning amendment, which will likely take place in September after the council’s August recess.