Providence City Council committee recommends rejecting Hope Point Tower zoning

FOLLOWING A PUBLIC HEARING, a City Council committee voted to recommend denial of a zoning change that would clear the way for the Hope Point Tower, a proposed 46-story condominium tower in downtown Providence. / COURTESY THE FANE ORGANIZATION

PROVIDENCE — After nearly three hours of public comment, a City Council committee voted to recommend denial of a zoning change that would clear the way for a 46-story condominium tower in downtown Providence.

The project, called Hope Point Tower, would eclipse the city’s tallest building by about 200 feet, and would involve some $250 to $300 million in private investment. It has been proposed by The Fane Organization, a New York developer who has constructed similar luxury towers in locations including Toronto and New York.

Council members and speakers who opposed the project said it was inconsistent with the city’s recent comprehensive plan and zoning for that site, which allows buildings of up to 100 feet, versus the 600 feet requested for Hope Point Tower.

Opponents also said it would do nothing to alleviate the city’s need for affordable housing, and would likely require substantial public incentives. The developer, Jason Fane, did not attend the hearing of the Committee on Ordinances. But he has previously stated he would seek the incentives available to him, which include a tax phase-in for property taxes and a state incentive under Rebuild Rhode Island of $15 million.

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Last year, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission agreed to give the project conditional approval, subject to city approval of zoning changes and the building design.

Earlier this year, the city’s City Plan Commission voted to recommend the council reject the zoning change.

This vote came shortly before the General Assembly voted to authorize a reduction in a surrounding public park in order to make room for the base of the Fane Organization’s tower.

The 3-1-1 vote by the council committee on Wednesday followed hours of public testimony, which was evenly divided between labor and economic development interests, and residents of the city, who represented multiple neighborhoods.

The council members who voted on the project, all members of the committee, will now recommend a denial to the full City Council. That 15-member body has the authority over zoning changes in the city, and may either accept the recommendation, or kick it back to committee, or vote to approve the request made by the developers.

Council member Jo-Ann Ryan, the only member who voted against the motion to deny, said she wanted the committee to delay a vote until the developer could speak to the committee. She said it didn’t have sufficient information on the project to justify the zoning change, or to not justify one. “We need to talk with the developer,” said Ryan, who represents Mount Pleasant and the Elmhurst neighborhoods. Because of a fiduciary duty to evaluate the proposal from a financial perspective, she said she was not ready to vote on the zoning.

The council members who voted to reject the project were Terrence Hassett, the committee chairman, who represents Smith Hill, and Bryan Principe and Mary Kay Harris. Voting to abstain, without explaining why publicly, was council member Carmen Castillo, who is a representative of Elmwood and South Providence.

Opponents were critical of the size of the tower — literally six times the height authorized under current zoning — its emphasis on luxury condos and rentals, and the necessity for spot zoning to benefit a single developer.

Peter Thornton said if the city builds the tower, it should build it on a site where it will not conflict with the recently adopted zoning. “Do not give it away to someone who walks into town with a bag of money.”

Architect Steve Durkee, also opposed, said the zoning request is far out of scale with what is normally requested under a variance or a rezoning. And he said the height of the structure would cast a long shadow over the public park that is being developed near the river. “This building is going to consume that park,” he said.

Several hundred laborers, who are part of the unionized construction force in Rhode Island, filled the chambers of the Providence City Council and urged approval of the zoning change for the site, which would authorize the 600-foot height. They cheered the speakers who agreed with them and booed loudly after speakers who opposed the project finished their statements.

Several hundred laborers who favor the Hope Point Tower attended the meeting at Providence City Council chambers.//MARY MACDONALD
SEVERAL HUNDRED laborers who favor the Hope Point Tower attended the meeting at Providence City Council chambers. / PBN PHOTO/ MARY MACDONALD

Michael Sabitoni, who leads the construction trade unions, said the project is being closely followed by potential developers outside Providence, from locations including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“Is Providence really serious about moving forward?” he said. Of criticism that the city’s zoning and comprehensive plan wouldn’t allow the 600 foot tower — he said: “Guess what? plans change from time to time.”

Another advocate was former mayor Joseph Paolino, the managing partner of Paolino Properties. He said it isn’t often that a New York developer wants to invest some $250 to $300 million in Providence, which would generate some $70 million in taxes over 20 years.

“We are not a bustling economy,” he noted. “It takes a lot of time to get something to develop here.”

Mary MacDonald is a PBN staff writer. Email her at MacDonald@PBN.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. In the era of “fake news” I would have expected more form PBN. The statement that “testimony, which was evenly divided between labor and economic development interests, and residents of the city, who represented multiple neighborhoods” is quite simply untrue. Testimony given by Providence residents in opposition to the project was overwhelmingly higher than that made by proponents and continued for an hour after the unions departed. Ironically this also foreshadows the reality that when the project is over, the unions will move on to the next big project elsewhere, and the city residents will be left with the mess, including a dangerous precedent for spot zoning, use of a public park for private gain, tax obligations in the tens of millions, flight of other developers due to dirty “pay for play” politics and a building that is out of place and unaffordable to all but the 1% … if the building ever gets built at all. Experts testified that it is an unviable project.
    This article also missed several key points that were made in last night’s meeting.
    Opponents of the tower are not arguing against building a tower of this height in the city or development in general. They are arguing against building the tower in this location due to the adverse impact on the surrounding area and the city as a whole. They are also not arguing against the development of the parcel in question – they are simply advocating for enforcement of the master plan which was only recently developed after a thoughtful and exhaustive process.
    To suggest the two sides are in conflict with each other misses the point that proponents of the tower are short sighted in their advocacy and that in the long term, construction jobs in RI are likely to be hurt by spot zoning that benefits Fane but sends the wrong message to other developers who are willing to play by the rules. This was summarized in an article by Dan McGowan and a letter from the Boston based developer of South Street Landing and several other projects in Providence. The assertion made by Sabitoni that developers in Boston and elsewhere are watching what happens here is correct. His unsubstantiated assumption that changing the rules for Fane will encourage other developers is clearly flawed.
    The main point made by the union last night was that this is about jobs. In fact, the issue has nothing to do with jobs – It’s about zoning. Testimony given by members of the union essentially amounted to the idea that they personally would profit from changing the zoning because this is a large project that would last up to three years and that a few of those who would be employed live in Providence so this is good for the city. The notion that the interests of a handful of construction workers would be put ahead of the interests of the rest of the residents of the city is absurd.
    Testimony given in opposition of the project from neighborhood groups across the city were unanimously against the project. This is no small point. City residents know the project is a bad idea no matter if they live on the East Side, West Side, or South Side. Additional testimony was given by real estate experts, asserting the project is not financially viable. Even the 195 Commission has stated they see a financing gap or between $32 & $45 Million in the developers’ proposal. This is in addition to the $15 Million Fane has already asked for. These estimates are based on 2018 numbers, but in practice, if the shortfall is experienced in subsequent years, the numbers could be quite a bit higher. We can’t continue to allow ourselves to be bated by the promise of economic growth, only to be left holding the bag.
    Council member Ryan’s suggestion that more time is needed to evaluate the proposal is disappointing and begs the question of where she has been over the past year. The parcel in question has been tied-up and the Fane project is blocking other developers from coming forward with their own proposals. Moreover, her point that the developer needs to be given the chance to speak with the city council was firmly rebuked by councilman Zurier who pointed out that historically, developers have always made the effort to show-up to the public hearing and Fane should not be rewarded with “a second bite at the apple” since he chose not to support his own project at the hearing.