Senate president wants to strip Providence of zoning oversight on 195 land

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As state leaders wait for the Providence City Council to vote on a proposed zoning change that would pave the way for a New York developer to build Rhode Island’s tallest building along Dyer Street on the former I-195 land, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has come up with a different idea: cut the city out of the zoning process altogether.

Speaking at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s annual gathering Monday evening, Ruggerio vowed to introduce legislation next year “that removes some of the impediments to redeveloping the rest of our former highway land by granting more authority to the I-195 Commission, so the city doesn’t stand in the way of progress.”

“We need to move past nimbyism if we are going to grow and thrive as a state,” Ruggerio said, referring to a commonly-used acronym for “not in my backyard.”

The explosive promise marks the second time since 2015 that the powerful Democrat has sought to strip Providence of its powers on the former highway land. During Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first year in office, Ruggerio forced Providence leaders to create a standardized program for property tax breaks on the I-195 land after introducing legislation that would have allowed the state to oversee the special deals.

In this case, Ruggerio appears to be seeking to address the slow-moving zoning process for a controversial proposal to build a 46-story residential tower along Dyer Street. Jason Fane, the developer of the Hope Point Tower, is asking the City Council to raise the maximum height for a building on the land from 130 feet to 600 feet.

Critics, including several prominent developers, say Providence should not support spot zoning, the practice of creating one-off zoning rules for specific projects.

“You might think that we would welcome a developer wanting to invest a quarter-billion dollars in our capital city, but we have done all we can to chase him away,” Ruggerio said.

Ruggerio did not release a copy of the bill he plans to introduce when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, but it may remove the city’s control over both tax breaks and zoning on the I-195 land, according to Stephen Iannazzi, his chief of staff.

The City Council Ordinance Committee initially recommended that the full council vote down the proposal, but ultimately it was sent back to the committee for further review. Fane is expected to deliver a presentation to the committee at a public hearing later this month.

Elorza, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, has repeatedly said he is supportive of the height change, but he has raised concerns about the design of the project. City Council President David Salvatore has said he opposes the proposed height change.

Ruggerio’s attempt to give more power to the unelected, seven-member I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is likely to be met with opposition from city leaders. Sam Bell, a progressive Democrat who is all but guaranteed to become the next senator in Providence’s District 5, tweeted that while he is awaiting specifics, “I’m concerned about giving more power to a commission that has failed to bring good development to the I-195 land in a timely manner.”

Meanwhile, the commission is set to meet this week to discuss extending the deadline for Fane to secure a zoning change from the City Council for another month.

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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