Feature

A Towering Debate

The controversial Hope Point Tower has its fans and its opponents, but its future rests in the city council’s hands

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If you’ve read through the opinion pages of The Providence Journal over the last several months, you’ve probably noticed that the paper has dedicated an inordinate amount of space to a New York developer’s proposal to build Rhode Island’s tallest skyscraper overlooking the Providence River downtown.

Depending on the day, you might have seen The Journal’s editorial board not just endorsing the proposed 46-story Hope Point Tower, but suggesting 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.”

Or maybe you saw the warning from Arnold “Buff” Chace and Mark Van Noppen – two of Providence’s most prominent developers – that “there is no way the Providence market now or in any future worth banking on can support the construction costs of such a thing at the scale proposed.”

So why is there so much buzz over a project that still needs to clear various legislative hurdles and secure hundreds of millions of dollars in financing before the first shovel is ready to hit the ground?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Jason Fane, the quirky developer who has made a career out of building apartment complexes and commercial offices in New York City, Ithaca, New York, and Toronto did not randomly stumble across Providence two years ago. He was wooed to the city by officials at the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, according to spokesman Dante Bellini.

The pitch was straightforward. Providence had more than 20 acres of free space in a prime location downtown, thanks to the years-old relocation of Interstate 195, and now it was time to begin building. The land could be purchased on the cheap in exchange for guaranteed development. The politicians talked a lot about job creation, but it was clear some of the space would be ideal for fancy apartments and condos.

Fane saw potential in the city right away and initially put forth a proposal to build three high-rise towers on Parcel 42, a one-acre space along Dyer Street. But the plan was met with overwhelming opposition – Councilman Luis Aponte dubbed it the “three towers of terror” – and Fane went back to the drawing board.

He remerged earlier this year, scaling back his proposal to a single, 46-story skyscraper that would include townhouses, apartments, commercial space and a large parking garage. The project would cost between $250 million and $300 million. He has called the curved design “sensuous,” suggesting it could become Providence’s version of the Eiffel Tower.

Fane already has an agreement in place to buy the land from the state for about $3 million, but he needs the City Council’s help. The maximum height for a building allowed in the location he wants to build is 130 feet, well short of the 500 feet he currently envisions. The City Plan Commission has already voted against recommending a zoning change, but the council has the final say. The proposal is currently before the council’s Ordinance Committee.

Bellini said Fane wishes construction was already underway, but he remains bullish on the project’s prospects. He said Fane is only seeking incentives – about $15 million in tax credits from the state and a tax stabilization agreement from the city – that are available to every developer, as well as the zoning change.

“This is a bold, dynamic, iconic project,” Bellini said. “Jason has played by all the rules and he’s [still] playing by all the rules.”

But Fane’s critics are quick to point out that seeking a massive height change for the tower is a classic example of spot zoning. What good, they argue, were the years city officials spent crafting a modern zoning policy if it was just going to be trampled over the first time a wealthy developer swooped in with a lavish proposal?

Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, said the decision to approve a zoning change of this magnitude “flies in the face of everything we’ve worked on.” He said he’s particularly concerned about the impact the project might have on a planned public park along the Providence River.

Runyon also said “there’s not a compelling reason that’s been given” for why Parcel 42 is the only location that works for Fane, although he agreed that the relatively low price of the land itself may be a factor. He said he has faith in city leaders that they won’t allow the tower to move forward.

“I think we’ve learned our lesson on shiny things that don’t make sense,” Runyon said.

Sharon Steele, who serves as acting president of Jewelry District Association and heads up an organization advocating for a pedestrian bridge over the Providence River as well as a park, said her opposition to Fane’s proposal is strictly about the height restrictions currently on the location.

Steele said she does not consider herself anti-development, but argued that Fane should follow the current “rules of engagement. She suggested he should consider other locations for the tower.

“When I met with Jason he told me two things,” Steele said. “He said he wants to put Providence on the map, and I told him Roger Williams did that in 1636. Then he said Providence needs an iconic building, and I told him it already has one. It’s called the Superman building.”

City Councilman Seth Yurdin, who represents the neighborhood where Fane is seeking to construct the building, said he will not vote to approve the zoning change. He said questions have been raised about the viability of the project, including a study released by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission that found Fane could face a financing gap of between $32 million and $45 million.

Yurdin said he shares the concerns of Runyon and Steele when it comes to the public park, but he also wants to ensure the I-195 land leads to job creation as opposed to high-end apartments.

“There’s a big opportunity cost here,” he said. “That area is supposed to be about driving jobs.”
Bellini maintains Fane is willing to be flexible when it comes to the design of the building, but he said other locations are not currently being considered. He said Fane intends to keep pursuing the zoning change, but acknowledged that his client doesn’t plan to wait forever.

“He loves Providence, but if Providence doesn’t love him, I don’t think he’s so attached that he won’t pick up and go home,” Bellini said.

To be sure, Fane has plenty of supporters beyond The Providence Journal’s editorial board and the local lobbyists and public relations staffers he’s paying to carry the project over the finish line.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has played an influential role in advocating for development throughout downtown Providence, has been on board with the proposal since the beginning, no doubt in part due to the fact that Fane has said he intends to use unionized construction workers for the entire project. The building trades have come out in full force in favor of the tower.

Ruggerio, a former labor leader himself, has already pushed legislation through his chamber allowing for the reconfiguration of Parcel 42, which is one of the key provisions required under Fane’s purchase agreement. The bill was expected to clear the House before the General Assembly recessed for the summer.

In a recent interview on Rhode Island Public Radio, Ruggerio said he favors the tower because he believes people securing some of the high-end jobs that have been created in Providence in recent years are looking for nice places to live near downtown. He said the upscale apartments will be attractive.

“I know people are concerned about changing the skyscape of the city of Providence, but that’s what all these cities do,” Ruggerio said. “I mean, if you look at Boston, down by the waterfront in Boston, that’s totally remarkable what they’ve done down there.”

Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino, who now holds one of the largest real estate portfolios in downtown, said he has been surprised by all the controversy surrounding the project. Paolino said he fears if city leaders wait too long to approve the tower, “interest rates will rise, a real estate recession will hit and we’re going to wish the project happened.”

“There aren’t a lot of out-of-state developers rushing to Providence,” Paolino said. “I think it’s an attractive development.”

This being an election year, some of the state’s other most powerful politicians are taking a wait-and-see approach. Governor Gina Raimondo is “encouraged that major developers are looking to invest in Rhode Island,” but isn’t ready to fully endorse the tower, according to a spokesperson. In City Hall, a spokesperson said Mayor Jorge Elorza is waiting for a “refined design concept for the building,” although aides don’t dispute that he asked the Planning Department to recommend approval for the zoning change.

For now, all eyes are on the council. And the clock is ticking. Under his purchase agreement with the state, Fane has until October 31 to secure the zoning change. Yurdin, a former chairman of the Ordinance Committee, said his colleagues need to make their positions public.

“Councilors should be on the record about this,” he said. “It’s one of the most important issues that constituents around the city care about.”