Providence City Council backs zoning change for 46-story Hope Point Tower

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The developer of the proposed Hope Point Tower is one step closer to winning approval for a zoning change that would allow him to build Rhode Island’s tallest skyscraper on the former I-195 land.

The City Council voted 8-5 Thursday to raise the maximum building height on Parcel 42 along Dyer Street from 130 feet to 600 feet. Council President David Salvatore (Ward 14) and Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15) abstained from voting.

Councilors Nick Narducci (Ward 4), Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5), Michael Correia (Ward 6), John Igliozzi (Ward 7), Wilbur Jennings (Ward 8), Carmen Castillo (Ward 9), Luis Aponte (Ward 10) and Terry Hassett (Ward 12) voted to support the change.

Councilors Seth Yurdin (Ward 1), Sam Zurier (Ward 2), Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3), Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Bryan Principe (Ward 13) voted against the change. Every member of the council is a Democrat.

The proposal must still be approved a second time by the City Council. The council is expected to hold a special meeting next week to vote for a final time. Mayor Jorge Elorza has not said whether he will support the proposal.

Jason Fane, a New York-based developer, has said he is seeking to spend approximately $300 million to build a 46-story residential building called the Hope Point Tower, a proposal that has been met with support from the building trades and the Providence Journal editorial board.

But residents and other developers have argued it is bad urban policy to engage in “spot zoning,” a practice of approving one-off zoning changes for specific projects.

The vote came after a long floor discussion that saw Zurier, Yurdin, Principe and LaFortune speak against the zoning change and Aponte and Ryan urge their colleagues to support it.

Zurier estimated that a 20-year tax stabilization agreement Fane is expected to receive for the project will save the developer more than $80 million over the life of the deal, although those figures have not been confirmed by the city or the developer. Projects built on and around the former I-195 land are eligible for a standardized tax deal because of an ordinance the council approved in 2015.

Zurier also argued that the City Council Ordinance Committee never should have held two public hearings on the change, arguing that giving more time to Fane to present his vision sent a bad message to all developers. He said the council would be giving the middle finger to the city by changing its rules for a single developer.

“This is total lunacy,” Zurier said.

LaFortune introduced an amendment that wouldth have required Fane to commit to designating a minimum of 15% of the total units go to people with low and moderate incomes or pay $100,000 to an affordable housing fund, but the proposal failed.

LaFortune’s proposal would have also required Fane to contribute $50,000 each year to the city’s park and recreation department to maintain a park and pedestrian bridge that will be built near the tower. Fane would have also been required to start construction within two years of the approval of the zoning change.

Yurdin said city leaders and residents worked closely for years to craft a zoning ordinance that was designed to set the rules for development in Providence for the next several decades, but making a significant change flies in the face of all the work that was done.

“I think one of the things that is most alarming to me, if the council passes this, is the fact this council is breaking a promise to the residents of the city,” Yurdin said.

Aponte chastised his colleagues who oppose the project, arguing that the councilors seeking an affordable housing component in the project live in neighborhoods with few affordable housing units. He reminded the council the debate Thursday was about a zoning change, not tax deals or affordable housing.

“The one constant in our city is change,” Aponte said. “Let’s be willing to accept change.”

Salvatore and Matos had different reasons for abstaining.

Although Salvatore acknowledges he has opposed the change in the past, he claimed the Ordinance Committee did not do its due diligence in vetting the proposal. He noted that no member of the committee was willing to take questions Thursday from the full council.

Matos said she would like to see Fane commit to providing affordable housing in at least some of the units.

Aside from the zoning change, Fane will still be required to win approval for his project from the Downtown Design Review Committee, a five-member panel mostly appointed by Elorza.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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