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.
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.
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.