PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Mary Kay Harris is not known as an attention seeker. She is a worker.
A veteran activist who was elected to the City Council to represent the Upper South Providence and West End neighborhoods that comprise Ward 11 in 2014, Harris has spent her life fighting for social justice and economic equality. As a member of the council, she led the effort to pass the Providence Community-Police Relations Act and still chairs the Special Committee to Study Homelessness.
But Mayor Jorge Elorza’s decision last week to veto a zoning change for the proposed Hope Point Tower has thrust Harris into the spotlight, with supporters of the 46-story skyscraper urging her to help override the veto while critics of the project are asking her to standby her previous opposition to the tower.
In legislative parlance, Councilwoman Harris is the most popular kid at the dance. And she understands that.
“I'm the Cinderella,” Harris said Monday, laughing about her central role in the political tug-of-war now unfolding. “They know that.”
In order to override the mayor’s veto, the City Council would need 10 of its 15 members to push through the zoning change. (Only nine councilors voted for the change in the first place.) Harris, who twice voted against it in recent weeks, acknowledged she is still considering whether she will become the tenth vote to secure the override.
“There’s a lot of things that I have to think about,” Harris said, acknowledging she is concerned by the lack of information New York-based developer Jason Fane provided to the council on his project.
Fane has a tentative deal in place with the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission to purchase Parcel 42 of the former highway land, but he needs city leaders to approve a zoning change that would raise the maximum building height on the parcel from 130 feet to 600 feet.
In his veto message last week, Elorza said the city and Fane could not come to an agreement on his request to have a final say over the design of the skyscraper. (The mayoral-appointed Downtown Design Review Committee does have a seat the table when it comes to the design, but Elorza maintains it is “merely advisory input.”)
“Given that this project would reshape our skyline and dramatically impact our streetscape, I made it clear both privately and publicly, that the design of the building was my top priority,” Elorza wrote. “The developer has been unwilling to provide assurances that the city’s design recommendations would not be disregarded.”
Harris said she plans to speak with various community leaders before making a decision, including Dwayne Keys, the chairman of the South Providence Neighborhood Association. Reached Monday, Keys confirmed the SPNA initially opposed the tower, but said its decision was not related to zoning.
Keys said his organization was concerned about the lack of information around “economic mobility” from Fane. He said his members want to understand whether the project could reduce taxes and cost of living in the city, or create long-term jobs for Providence residents. Like Harris, Keys said the SPBA is open to hearing from Fane again.
The City Council has until Dec. 30 to make a decision on the mayor’s veto, but the timing is complicated for several reasons.
Four members of the council – Sam Zurier (Ward 2), Wilbur Jennings (Ward 8), Terry Hassett (Ward 12) and Bryan Principe (Ward 13) – are not returning the City Council next year, meaning the override could be the final significant vote of their respective political careers. Zurier and Principe oppose the zoning change, while Jennings and Hassett support it.
Councilman Michael Correia (Ward 6), one of nine current supporters of the zoning change, said Monday he is leaving the state to spend the holidays with his family in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 18. That gives the council just over two weeks to secure Harris’ support.
Harris, who faced no opposition to her re-election this year and has been tapped to serve as the deputy majority leader in the next term, is the only member of the all-Democratic council’s incoming leadership team - which includes Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15) as president and Correia as president pro tempore - who voted against the zoning change.
“I know the pressure is on Mary Kay,” Correia said. “She has to do what she feels is right and in the best interests of her constituents and the city.”
But Correia acknowledged he is envious of his colleague’s newfound power. If the override vote came down to him, he said he would ask state lawmakers to approve legislation that could help residents in the city, like car tax or insurance relief.
“I wish I was in that position,” he said. “I wish I was the tenth vote.”