PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Fane Tower in a challenge to the proposed skyscraper’s soaring height brought by neighbors.
The unanimous decision paves the way for the state to complete the sale of the parcel of former 195 land in the Jewelry District to New York developer Jason Fane.
In writing the decision on behalf of the five justices, Justice William P. Robinson III acknowledged that the court’s decision could allow the developer to go forward with “fundamentally altering the city’s skyline.”
“We do not take such a review lightly but embark on it with due appreciation for the contested nature of the amendment at issue and the tremendous impact our decision will have on Providence and everyone interested in this case,” he wrote in the decision.
Fane’s proposal to build a 600-foot luxury residential tower on Dyer Street required a special exception to the city’s zoning ordinance, which typically only allows 100-foot heights where the building is proposed. The Providence City Council approved the height in 2018, overriding Mayor Jorge Elorza’s veto.
The neighbors, who formed a group called Building Bridges Providence, filed suit alongside real estate firm Peter M. Scotti & Associates in 2019, arguing the height of the tower is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Fane prevailed in Superior Court, and the neighbors appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court’s decision on Thursday upheld the lower court’s decision.
“While this case is by no means simple and there appear to be sections of the Comprehensive Plan which could lead to different interpretations, we have recognized that a municipality has discretion in choosing options for conforming its ordinances or land use decisions to its comprehensive plan,” the decision said.
“Mr. Fane welcomes the RI Supreme Court decision and regrets the time lost on resolving a case which had no merit,” Fane spokesperson Jim Malachowski said in a statement.
The 195 Commission in April agreed to delay the closing date on the sale of the land until the Supreme Court decision came down. The amendment to the $3 million purchase & sale agreement set the new interim “exercise date” for ten days after the Supreme Court decision, with the final closing date nine months after that.
Malachowski said Fane will sign the documents for the exercise date within ten days, and during the nine months will work on final design and construction plans, in additional to securing financing. He said construction is expected to start in 2023, but it’s not yet clear if it will begin in the spring, summer or fall.
Fane most recently estimated the project to cost $300 million to build. Asked Thursday if that estimate has increased amid inflation, Malachowski said there was no updated cost estimate to share.
If the tower is built, it will be the tallest building in Providence.
Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association who also leads plaintiff Building Bridges Providence, said while the court battle is over, her group will continue pushing back against the tower.
“We live on to fight another day,” Steele said. “We may have lost the battle, but we sure haven’t lost the war. The ball is now in Fane’s court. There are requirements and deadlines that must be met. And we will hold the I-195 Commission’s feet to the fire to ensure that they enforce every single one of those requirements and those deadlines.”
195 Commission Chair Bob Davis has previously said the commission won’t close on the sale unless Fane has a construction contract and financing in place.
Armando Batastini, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the court decision is “disappointing,” and could have negative implications for other projects.
“While the Fane Tower will likely never be built, this decision opens the door for future ill-conceived development and the ability of city and town councils to circumvent development guidelines through legislative fiat,” Batastini said.
While the tower has been controversial among some locals for its height, design and lack of affordable units, the project has had a strong supporter in Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has argued the city should welcome developers who want to build in Providence.
The effort to block the zoning change for the tower prompted Ruggerio to spearhead an effort to strip Providence of its zoning powers over the former 195 land, which is owned by the state.
In a statement Thursday, Ruggerio and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi celebrated the Supreme Court decision.
“In our view, the project is wholly consistent with all regulations, and we are not surprised that the previous Superior Court ruling in favor of Fane has been upheld,” the two General Assembly leaders said. “We are excited that this major private investment in our capital city can now move forward, creating jobs and needed housing, and bringing renewed vibrancy to this downtown area. We appreciate the persistence of Jason Fane and hope that other developers looking to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our state receive a more welcoming reception.”