Committee votes to remove Providence’s zoning authority over 195 land

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Senate committee voted Tuesday in favor of a bill introduced after a public fight over a proposed skyscraper that was almost scuttled by a zoning veto last year.

The Providence City Council ultimately overrode Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s veto, allowing the maximum height for parcel 42 of the former I-195 land to be raised by hundreds of feet so that New York developer Jason Fane can build the 46-story Hope Point Tower there.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a supporter of the tower project, introduced legislation in April in response to the tower controversy. His bill would create “special economic development districts” to “streamline” the process of developing state-owned land.

“In the I-195 District, a developer is hoping to invest more than a quarter of a billion dollars to create an iconic structure that redefines the skyline,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “We should have welcomed this investment with open arms. Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away. Thankfully, he’s still here. This process has sent a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island.”

The bill, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening, would give the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission the power of one of these new special districts, superseding local control on issues like zoning. 

The legislation also enables the General Assembly to create new districts in the future on any state-owned land that’s more than 20 acres, excluding land controlled by the Department of Environmental Management. 

Each new district would need to be approved with a separate bill, according to Senate spokesperson Greg Pare.

“Local control is not being removed in any area other than the I-195 Redevelopment District under this legislation, as any such designation would require enactment of additional legislation,” Pare said. 

He did not have a list of how many such state-owned parcels exist in Rhode Island.

Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune tweeted her opposition ahead of the vote. “Our cities should have the right to make decisions about development needs for their communities,” LaFortune said. She voted against the Fane tower zoning change last year.

LaFortune said she would prefer the city and state work together on development issues, and find another way to streamline the process.

Mayor Elorza also opposes the legislation. His press secretary, Victor Morente, said the bill “sets a bad precedent by removing any local oversight or input.”

“It is critical that the city has a role in land use decisions to ensure local residents and local elected officials have a voice in the development process,” Morente said.

He pointed out other projects that were collaborations between the city and 195 Commission such as the Johnson & Wales University Bowen Center, Chestnut Commons, and the Wexford Innovation Center. 

The Providence Preservation Society, which opposes the tower project, is also against Ruggerio’s bill. 

“PPS believes that the bill is an unnecessary legislative overreach on the part of the state and retaliatory in nature against the City of Providence,” said the Preservation Society’s Rachel Robinson. “It is a transparent reaction by certain members of the Senate to the laborious process over the last two years of achieving spot-zoning at Parcel 42 for the Hope Point Tower development proposal.”

The tower has the support of the building trades, which have argued it will bring revenue and jobs to the city. The project’s design is still pending before the 195 Commission.

Michael Sabitoni, the President of the Rhode Island Building Trades Union, said he supports the aim of Ruggerio’s bill.

“The building trades do support local participation in developments in their communities, but do not support veto power over projects and developments that we feel positively impact the entire state of Rhode Island,” Sabitoni told Eyewitness News.

If Ruggerio’s bill clears the Senate, it’s unclear whether it has the support to pass the House, where there is no companion bill.

“The speaker said he has not focused on it at this time, but he would be open to looking at it and considering it,” House spokesperson Larry Berman said in an email.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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