PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The New York developer looking to build a $300 million skyscraper in downtown Providence is again at odds with regulators over deadlines, as the pandemic has cast a new cloud of uncertainty over the high-profile project.
The Fane Organization, owned by developer Jason Fane, has asked the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission to postpone all development deadlines for the so-called Fane Tower until “normal economic activity resumes.” The developer claims the public health crisis has made meeting the deadlines “temporarily impossible.”
“Current circumstances are not business-as-usual,” Fane attorney Scott Spear wrote in a May 13 letter to the commission. “Our economy is in a rapidly worsening major depression and [deadlines] are no longer attainable.”
In response, the commission agreed to defer two deposits of $50,000 and $75,000 due at the end of last month and this month, respectively, until July 31. But the regulatory body, which oversees development on the former Interstate 195 land in downtown Providence, balked at the idea of granting Fane an open-ended development schedule.
“In order for the Commission to evaluate this request, we must know with specificity just what ‘revised timelines and terms’ your client contemplates,” commission attorney Charles Rogers wrote in a responding letter.
The dispute was first reported by Providence Business News.
The pandemic offers a new chapter in the ongoing saga of the multimillion-dollar project officially known as Hope Point Tower. The proposed 46-story high-rise of luxury apartments would become the tallest building in Rhode Island.
Fane for years has pushed through what he’s described as an onerous regulatory process, gaining powerful support from trade unions and top lawmakers but evoking fierce opposition from many who argue the skyscraper is – among other things – illegal.
The developer – along with the Providence City Council and I-195 Commission – are currently facing a legal challenge from a group of opponents who allege the council’s 2018 decision to approve a zoning variance in favor of the project did not conform to the city’s comprehensive plan, constituting illegal spot zoning.
The involved parties asked Superior Court Judge Brian Stern to rule on the dispute, a request Stern denied on May 13, saying they had submitted insufficient evidence to issue a decision.
Stern did note, however, that there were “genuine issues of material fact” involving the opponents’ claim that the zoning variance didn’t conform with the city’s comprehensive plan. The case remains open and no one has since filed motions.
Beyond the legal dispute, the public health crisis has raised new questions about when – if ever – the tower will be built. But the jockeying over deadlines long predates COVID-19.
Since entering into a purchase and sales agreement in January 2019, the commission has repeatedly chided Fane for dragging his feet when it comes to meeting development and monetary deadlines spelled out in the deal.
The issue came to a head in October when Commission Chairman Robert Davis warned he would no longer extend a deadline for Fane to submit a so-called tax-stabilization agreement with Providence – which was eventually submitted, along with a nonrefundable fee of $205,575. (Fane claims he’s already spent millions of dollars on the project.)
Now the issue of deadlines has reemerged as a problem. And while COVID-19 is the backdrop, Fane spokesperson Jim Malachowski argues the regulatory red tape that has faced the developer since he first proposed the project has made the timeline inoperable.
“The various project deadlines were put in place with the assumption that the plan would get the regulatory approvals in a reasonable amount of time, but that hasn’t been the case,” Malachowski said. “On top of all of this, the pandemic-related restrictions are unlike anything we’ve ever seen in this country. It’s been impossible for a company out of New York to conduct a project of this magnitude in Rhode Island.”
The claim that COVID-19 has prevented developments from moving forward, however, contradicts what commissioners heard during a remote meeting in May, when executive director Caroline Skuncik described developers making progress in the district. She also noted an uptick in interest from prospective developers, who had reached out for more information about vacant land.
And while Gov. Gina Raimondo in March ordered large parts of the economy to close in an attempt to stem spread of the disease, construction was never part of the shutdown plan – leaving developers free to continue with projects.
A spokesperson for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who has long opposed the project, pointed out that there are currently 809 units as part of 15 projects currently underway in the city — and many have continued through the pandemic.
“As we continue to see projects move forward and new projects proposals throughout this time, the request of The Fane Organization is unusually open-ended and varies from what we are seeing with other projects,” Elorza spokesperson Patricia Soccaras said.
When asked why Fane was having trouble with restrictions where others were not, Malachowski said Fane shouldn’t be compared to smaller developers, adding that it’s been especially challenging coming from out of state.
“You can’t compare a $300 million project to a $3 million project that’s already in the construction phase,” he said. “His company is located in New York and the governor was having State Police stopping cars coming in at the border. The atmosphere that’s been created is that out-of-state people aren’t welcome.”
What comes next isn’t clear, although Malachowski said the two sides are negotiating behind the scenes to try and come up with a solution. The commission canceled its meeting in June and hasn’t yet scheduled one for July.
When asked whether the sudden economic downturn had at all changed the calculus behind moving forward with the development, Malachowski said Fane’s commitment remains unwavering.
“Mr. Fane’s commitment to the project has not changed, but the world has changed, and he needs a pause,” he said.