WPRI: Senate president wants to strip Providence of zoning oversight on 195 land

In 195 Relocation Project by Jef Nickerson35 Comments

Aerial view of the former Route 195 corridor from the Providence Department of Planning & Development

Speaking at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s annual gathering Monday evening, [Senate President Dominick] Ruggerio vowed to introduce legislation next year “that removes some of the impediments to redeveloping the rest of our former highway land by granting more authority to the I-195 Commission, so the city doesn’t stand in the way of progress.”

“We need to move past nimbyism if we are going to grow and thrive as a state,” Ruggerio said, referring to a commonly-used acronym for “not in my backyard.”

The explosive promise marks the second time since 2015 that the powerful Democrat has sought to strip Providence of its powers on the former highway land. During Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first year in office, Ruggerio forced Providence leaders to create a standardized program for property tax breaks on the I-195 land after introducing legislation that would have allowed the state to oversee the special deals.

City Council President David Salvatore released the following statement in regards to the Senator’s proposal:

I respectfully disagree with Senate President Ruggerio that the City is standing in the way of any developer trying to build on the former I-195 land, which runs along the downtown corridor of Providence.

The City Council is pro-economic development and pro-growth, and I think the development happening downtown speaks to that very notion. It’s important to grow our local tax base without having to raise taxes, and that’s what we are doing here in Providence.

We spent a great deal of effort and taxpayer dollars in working with the City Plan Commission to create a master plan for our City that moves Providence forward while respecting our storied history. Since my first term in office, I have been a strong advocate for a more transparent and predictable climate for developers. This City Plan Commissions’ master plan achieves those goals of transparent and predictable development.

This process around Hope Point Tower has been both public and transparent. For every city of our size that is growing, these are the same qualities that have led to success and improved quality of life for residents.

To be clear, this would mean the un-elected 195 District Commission could allow anything they want in the district. A Walmart surrounded by surface parking, just surface parking, a prison, buildings of any height on any lot… And since our design review is a function of our zoning code, there would be no oversight at the City level over even what such buildings or parking lots would look like.

This proposal is not about economic development or the speed with which the 195 land is getting redeveloped, this is all about Senator Ruggerio sending a message to the labor unions. Zoning by labor union seems like a pretty crummy way to run a city.

About the Author

Jef Nickerson

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Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.

Comments

  1. Finally someone that wants to change up the skyline

  2. There are thousands of us that don’t actually believe the City Council and City Hall are pro-economic development and growth. Is there a reason why they are not meeting with the Fane organization on a bi-weekly basis to make changes to the plans to make this project happen? If they are, they aren’t marketing their work very well. I’m assuming there either have been no meetings, or they just don’t want the project to happen, at all.

    The City Council releases a statement that talks about tax base. Like they actually care about tax base. If they cared, they’d want this project to add to the tax base so they could reduce residential property taxes; that’s the real effort to make housing more affordable! They would also want non-profits to pay a larger share, mainly the $36 million per year that Brown avoids paying. With which we could build hundreds of affordable housing units per year.

    I am certainly not for un-elected power. However, there is a competence issue here. Every project gets dulled down or never built. I’d like to see the State House pass a bill that sets a height minimum and height maximum for all land within the interstate loop. I don’t think going block by block has been very successful. The City can still have its say within the margins, but I’d like to see the State House broaden the limits, and make it easier for developers to get things done in Providence.

  3. It’s incredible how long the process is. It should be thorough, but developers only have so much patience, tied in with money and time.

  4. Author

    There already is building height guidelines across the entire city.

    Mr. Fane has said he is not interested in changing his proposal or entertaining an alternate location that it would be more permissible to build on. What exactly is the City supposed to discuss with him bi-weekly if he is unwilling to budge on his position?

  5. Author

    The length of the process with the Fane tower proposal is entirely the fault of the developer. If he proposed something permissible by zoning on the lot he would have all his approvals by now.

    What people are advocating, allowing Mr. Fane to do whatever the hell he wants just because he claims he’s going to dump a bunch of money into the State/City, is not a way to run a city. What happens the next time someone offers a boatload of money to do something you don’t like? The precedent will have been set and our rules will be worth nothing.

    It also makes other developers who diligently follow allowed rules and procedures question investing in the city. The lots across the street from the Fane proposal are not allowed to go to 600′. Should Wexford ask for their money back because they’ve not been able to realize the potential massing that Fane is demanding? Wexford bought into the neighborhood with an understanding of what their neighborhood would look like in the future based on zoning, now we’re proposing to throw that away. Its like if you bought a house and asked about the vacant lot across the street and were told it was zoned for a 2-family home, then a year later a 10-story building went up. You’d be pissed, that’s not the neighborhood you wanted to invest in.

    If investors can’t understand which rules are enforced and which are not and for whom they are or are not enforced, well, then there are plenty of other places to make investments.

  6. What I’m confused about is if the city is stringent on these zoning laws, and the developer is stringent on his goals, then how had this been going on for so many months through so many meetings? It’s an interesting thought.

  7. Zoning is implemented at the local level. Having said that, Rhode Island is small enough so perhaps a statewide zoning arm, properly administered and staffed by the Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning (http://www.planning.ri.gov/), could work. This, I’ll just name it for the sake of argument the “Rhode Island Planning & Zoning Board”, would lead the charge for the planning and development of state-owned properties and also get involved in those proposed local and regional projects deemed by the Legislature to be of a “statewide interest”.

  8. Inside the interstate loop shouldn’t be 100′ (or whatever it is)… that is a downtown area. It should all be 600′ (or whatever the maximum height is anywhere inside the interstate loop). It is such a small area, that is clearly the center of the (capital) city… nobody is building a single family or two family home. Owners of commercial property that have already invested in the area, are free to sell if they don’t like a change in laws — that is their right, but I would assume $250mm going into the downtown in a city will make it worth more, not less. Laws change all the time, they are hardly “set it and forget it”.

    Cities that actually have a hard time granting permission to build greater than 10 stories in a downtown area… smh… it is the downtown, lol.

    Also, city officials should 100% engage with developers, business owners, corporations, etc. to make progress on city aesthetics, job creation, and economic growth (and that should happen on more than a bi-weekly basis).

  9. I couldn’t agree more with GGG.

    Jef cites the current zoning expectations, a valid argument. BUT…The problem here is the ridiculously low zoning in this DOWNTOWN district!! A 100 foot height!! A design fit for a small suburban downtown like Fall River or Pawtucket—- NOT the downtown of the core city of the second largest metro in New England.

    The entire area should be a 300 foot with variances to 600 feet. It is downtown, not Wayland Square. This is one of of poorest zoning schemes I have ever seen. Perhaps the designers should move to the suburbs…along with the Council and Mayor.

    I fully support Senator Ruggiero. While I fully support city authority, the city has failed miserably in this district. They have lost the right to zone in the I-195 District. An embarrassing story.

  10. I can’t believe this stupid project is still hanging around – they should’ve pulled the plug on it months ago.

    If Fane was really serious about building something in Providence, the problem is his own. He has plenty of latitude to make it happen.

  11. Yeah, it’s Fane’s fault that the city has ridiculously low zon8ng heights in downtown!!

    No, it’s the little NIMBIES and BANANAS and a weak small town mentality Council and Mayor who fail on and on.

  12. I’m new to the area and like what I see. The city is clean, walkable and has a cozy feel. The design plan for the pedestrian parks and bridge look amazing. Someone had a vision when they moved the highway and enhanced the use of the waterway. Once you free up zoning it’s over. All that effort and the beautification will be gone. I say follow the city councils vision, take all the time you need. Get it right before you let a permanent behemoth building ruin the vision. Ruggerio seems to be more concerned with tax base. This is a pivotal moment in Providence future, don’t let greed or politics get in the way.

  13. One argument FOR the height would be a smaller footprint, leaving more open space to connect to the park. In a perfect world, Fane would move his building to Westminister st, Pine st ect. but its not realistic I guess. I would like to hear his explanation on why he isn’t willing to budge. Hopefully, in his next presentation, he will lay out those reasons. Obviously, it would be great for the city to follow its plan, but people are right, its the small town mentality that thinks “downtown” is only the financial district because of the higher buildings. Again, look what the Prudential Tower did for Boston. A tall tower outside the “downtown” that sparked development that is flourishing to this day. It’s all relative. I’m sure there were protests when the Superman building was built amongst 8 story buildings in the 1920s.

  14. Like most others who live in Providence, I just can’t believe this proposal was not rejected when it first appeared. If the state or federal government is going to build a new facility (courthouse, law enforcement, health care, etc) they don’t get to run roughshod all over local jurisdiction. The new facility, whatever it is, has to comply with local zoning governance.
    I believe that the Senator is just desperate to appease the unions with one huge vanity project when a number of smaller projects would create just as many trade jobs and those jobs could more likely be sourced locally.
    As for the Fane group and their proposal, it is just dumbfounding as to how badly they are running their operation. With such a massive zoning change request (500%!!), any developer with brains would have launched a huge outreach effort to the community and been expecting to make concessions. All we have heard from them is essentially “We are here to build this. Get out of our way.”

  15. Once again, the issue or problem is not with the developer or the District Commission, it lies squarely with the City Plan Commission, City Council, and Mayor and the small town thinkers engaged in the planning.

    How in the world does the core city of second largest metro in New England, a state capital, and economic engine (51% of a state’s GDP and 40% of the metro GDP) zone its new DOWNTOWN parcels at 100 feet??!! You have got to be kidding me.

    It is deeply flawed and embarrassing zoning and needs to be handled by the agency charged with developing the district.

  16. Steve is right, our zoning and the progress of our City officials is embarrassing. Providence will be a 200,000 person city in a decade and we are obsessed with building brick extended stay hotels and graduate student housing. Grow up.

  17. Let’s just call the other developers on the waiting list to invest 100’s of millions in Providence!

    Oh wait, there are none.

  18. Great points from these last 3 commenters. Totally agree.

  19. Honestly both the height restriction AND Ruggerio’s proposal are incredibly stupid. As much as I’d like to see the height restrictions lifted (or made much higher at least) I will never be able to trust the state after what they decided to do with the 8-10 connector. From the meetings I went to Providence citizens were unified in tearing that highway down for something better but the state did not listen to us at all. Now we suddenly think we can trust out of towners on what to build in our downtown? Give me a break.

  20. I agree that we should allow more height in the city. Anything behind Richmond and Friendship streets should have much higher height limits IMO.

    I do however, think it is absolutely insane that the city that has spent 25 years opening up the river and designed the city around this feature is even considering allowing development to block it off. The whole parcel from the river to Dyer street should be a park, you could have basketball/tennis courts, a small outdoor venue for small concerts or plays. You could have food trucks and farmers markets. But if you build something along Dyer street the “park” will essentially be blocked off and become just another unused part of the already super underdeveloped river walk we already have.

  21. David – I agree with your comments ref the Huntington Parkway (it’s official name) and the fact that the city should control zoning and urban planning. But as the the I195 District, the planners FAILED MISERABLY in the way Dylan, Kiteboarder, and I describe.

    THEY cannot be trusted with the district zoning. Evidence: the embarrassing small town height restrictions. The district will be filled with stubby 7- 10 story buildings, fit for an urban SUBURB.

    Dylan – Parcel 42 does NOT in any way block the 102th city park. There is full access to the oversized park parcel from Dyer, including a large walkway. It has more than enough room for all the things you describe. Enough with the parks!! On with building big!!

  22. Parcel 42 blocks almost the entirety of the park from the street. Yes there will be a walkway to it but I’m not sure how many people will visit a park that is behind a building. Also if you go to the area the land zoned for the park is not actually a large size. I’m all for building big but in a city where we have been trying to open access to the river and there is a ton of undeveloped land i don’t see why it is necessary or wise to pick this specific place for a building.

    In DC the largest parks (the national mall, rock creek park, lincoln park, anacostia river park) all get lots of use because the are large and are easily visible and accessible to the public. There are also lots of little parks that no one is ever in because they are in the middle of traffic circles or not visible. People like large open spaces on rivers and IMO an actually large park that is right downtown and easily visible/accessible would be a valuable asset for the city.

    There really aren’t that many open spaces in the downtown area (Kennedy Plaza is a mess and not on the river). Fwiw it strikes me as somewhat funny that everyone is arguing about this one parcel when there is an entire strip of land right behind it that is undeveloped and offers basically the same locale and views as this location. It strikes me as absurd to be blocking off views and meaningful access to the riverfront when the same projects could be built 500 feet away and preserve a valuable asset for a city looking to attract young professionals.

  23. Brendan – “Like most others who live in Providence, I just can’t believe this proposal was not rejected when it first appeared.”

    Actually, the majority of residents do not oppose the plan, just a vocal few and egotistical leaders of the the Jewelry Association.

    Dylan –
    First, block it from the west? So what? Walk 50 feet south or on the entire river walk access. Come on!

    Second, not many open spaces in the downtown? The entire river from Waterplace Park on both sides, parks on both sides! Jeez. This is Providence, not Portsmouth.

    I am sick of developers going to Boston, sick of stubby suburban buildings in downtown, sick of the gross obstruction that turns developers off, sick of more parks. We have over 100 parks bringing in no taxpayers, no residents, no businesses, no jobs.

    Build it and raise the height limit in the entire district to 300 feet with 300 feet additional variance possible.

  24. Steve is right. Most other residents that I know on the west side/fed hill have no issue at all with the Fane Tower, and nearly all have mentioned that they’d like to see their property taxes lowered with more condos going in.

    You’ll remember that the protesting faction that was present at the Fane decision included many affordable housing advocates. Strange… these people were connecting this project to the affordable housing crisis, in a way that implied that if we don’t have affordable housing projects on the drawing board, we can’t have market rate projects. Very confusing. Why not increase the total amount of units so that there is inventory available for all demographics?

    Also, agree with Steve on the RiverWalk access to the park, as well as the pedestrian bridge, as well as the street frontage. “Blocking the park” is a very hollow argument.

  25. The green space is designed as a “pearl necklace” ie, the Pearl necklace designed by Olmstead in Boston where nodes of green space are created and connected by greenways. You have the park on the east side of the river, then the pedestrian bridge, then the park on the west side of the river, then the plaza space within the Wexford development. It also connects to the existing Irish Famine memorial and river walk to the north. If you look at parcel 42, there will be access to the park from the north and south of the proposed tower with more than enough frontage along Dyer St. The proposed park is certainly big enough to hold large events, with plenty of river frontage as well. In conclusion, there is plenty of green space for all to enjoy and fits the scale of the city.

  26. Steve, stepping back for a minute, I just want to say I agree with you. Yes, let’s build taller. Yes, let’s abolish R-1 and C-1 zoning. Yes, let’s allow ADUs throughout the city. Yes, let’s abolish parking minimums. The people who are active with groups such as the JDA really do want more development. I was attending a JDA meeting when a developer was presenting a project and when they said “possibly a grocery store” there was unanimous gasp of joy from the crowd of 50-60 people.
    I wish I had engaged with the public process during the recent overhaul of the City’s zoning. I would have been at those meetings calling for higher density zoning in every part of the City, especially the underdeveloped and low density parts.
    This Fane tower situation and Sen. Ruggiero’s efforts to force its approval are just so dangerous. If Providence, and by precedent anywhere in RI, is stripped of its authority (whether you think it’s right or wrong) by the State it’s an absolute opening of Pandora’s box. Suddenly neighbors are powerless to fight really terrible developments like the Burrilville power plant, the LNG facility at ProvPort, maybe a highway expansion that will take a hundred homes, maybe a public/private prison in a residential neighborhood just like the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls.

  27. I don’t understand why so many commenters think that Providence must build a big tower to prove it is a first rate city. What a provincial way of thinking! Density, job creation, larger tax base, affordable housing, market rate housing, amenities… none of these demand a tower. The only things that demand a tower are low self esteem and an overheated housing market with nowhere else to grow. There are surface parking lots all over downtown and an entire swath of land waiting for redevelopment, so clearly it’s not the latter. Towers represent the climax condition of a city, and when you climax too soon things get messy.

    If the Providence housing market really demanded a luxury tower like this, wouldn’t it be feasible without all of the financial gymnastics? Wouldn’t there be other developers lining up to do something similar? If a big ass tower can only be built with a big ass subsidy, why should the city/state take on that risk? If this thing fails, it fails big, and it takes a lot of the city down with it. How many of you have your retirement fund invested in a single company?

    If, on the other hand, the market is such that new development can only be supported when it is subsidized or tax-stabilized, it makes perfect sense to spread that subsidy around among a bunch of small- and medium-sized projects that are less likely to bust all at once.

    I’m glad Kiteboarder brought up the public meetings. Why weren’t you guys there? If you want to give the city council a piece of your mind, that’s the perfect place to do it! The only people who showed up in favor of the tower were union reps (who all left when the bell rang at 7) and Joe Paolino. Where’s the crowd of fed hill supporters you speak of?

  28. First, a major project of this scale draws attention away from Boston…which is booming. Oh, with tall towers.

    Second, the timing is critical to add momentum to the district, which due to the vocal small town folks and a weak Council and Mayor anda pitiful zoning, is stalled.

    Third, the experience so far is a city that throws up barriers. I have seen and discussed it with developers.

    Finally, many folks are writing to the Council…like I have.

  29. First, smart developers base their projects on pro formas, not shiny objects.

    Second, momentum is important, and has been moving in the right direction for several years now. In fact, Parcel 30 just sold in August to make way for a new project that has been flying under the radar for a little while now.

    Third, it’s hard to take your “too many barriers” complaint seriously when there are so many projects currently under construction. The barriers Fane is experiencing are of his own making. He knew the rules before he got in the game.

    Finally, at the city council meeting they read out the number of letters written in regarding the project. Nine letters in favor, 73 opposed.

  30. Joel –

    Point 1- Incorrect. A $300 million residential project does positively influence developers. I have dozens of direct evidence.
    Point 2- I am aware of that, it can hardly be called a “hot” district, in fact several developers have withdrawn.
    Point 3 – So many? All small and minor for a city of this type. Number 1 developer complaint is “barriers” and difficulties in PVD. And yes, Fane did know the rules, but expected the city would rush to this major plan and fix that idiotic tiny town zoning.
    Finally – True, that is the point. As the ProJo said, those tiny 70 plus letters are manufactured by a vocal organized opposition of competing interests, small town thinkers, and NIMBIES…as cited by Paolino. The other 199,000 of us are NOT opposed to this and more large projects.

    Same old story, pitiful small town zoning…meek not bold, weak, not strong. I thank those who think big, tall, powerful, bold, and assertive. That is what grows major cities.

  31. You have to love when an argument is made that if something was good/opportunistic, there would be hundreds of people trying to do it. Having access to $300,000,000 in construction financing is not something that is very common in New England. This is a NY-based developer that is proposing this. So, let’s put aside this notion that its a bad deal based on the fact there is no competing bids.

    Also, another falsehood that I keep hearing is that you don’t need towers because towers are extra financial risk for the city (should the project fail). Look at South Street Landing, that project did fail in its first (and second?) project proposal. Now it’s a $200? million dollar project. Towers don’t represent any additional financial risk to a city versus other (less vertical) projects.

    Third, there does need to be a transfer of occupancy/residency of citizens between low density and high density structures (and blocks), as the city grows. If not downtown, are you saying you’d prefer that developers tear down Victorian two/three families near Dexter Park to build 40 unit rent-only, market rate apartments? We just had this issue on Westminster Street near the Vet Clinic where a church building was torn down and a higher density apartment building is going in, next to neighboring historic buildings (with plaques). The residents nearby were not happy, I bet if you ask them, they would say build downtown not in neighborhoods on the west side.

    Downtown areas are supposed to be high density, folks. There are supposed to be high rises in a city.

  32. Providence is right to have issues with the commission. The state I-195 teams have wasted tons of money on empty plans. Their consultant Utile Inc. has been a disaster up here in Cambridge. Utile Inc’s leader Tim Love makes a Simpsons Monorail speech and then gives the community garbage. The commission is now deep in the red and has no right to push out Providence.

  33. For those that aren’t sure that this developer has the chops to make this project a success, take a look at their 47 story condo tower in Toronto. This is what this developer is capable. No RI-based developer has achieved anything remotely close to this scale.

    https://condonow.com/Chaz-Yorkville

  34. That is beautiful. It will be interesting to see what Fane presents at the next meeting. Maybe the overall design has changed.

  35. May I correct KCB …. No New England-based developer has achieved anything remotely close to this scale.

    Build it…

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