The fate of the Fane tower

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The fate of the Fane tower

By David Brussat, Architecture Here and There

Last Wednesday, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission approved the design of the proposed Fane tower in the city’s Jewelry District. The press duly noted the project’s latest step forward, but in fact hope is quite dim for the queer-looking 46-story building.

Much has been made of developer Jason Fane’s frustration with the pace of progress on his project, but not enough attention has been drawn to the “frustration” he has caused among the commissioners. Their complaints, which emerged in July, were perhaps most comprehensively described in a July 24 story by Eli Sherman of WPRI, Channel 12. He wrote:

A series of letters requested by Target 12 show the developer, Jason Fane, has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines and respond to a series of requests made by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission.

“We are writing to express our disappointment at your organization’s failure to perform its obligations under our agreement,” wrote Robert Davis, I-195 Commission chairman, in a letter to Fane dated Tuesday.

The Fane Organization has apparently not corrected that behavior in the two months since the commissioners’ letters of complaint. Fane has “broken every rule and missed every deadline,” says a leading opponent, Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association. Maybe that overstates the case, but reporter Sherman’s story adds that the developer has had the benefit of several deadline extensions, including those for design drawings and a city tax stabilization agreement, and has sought to reduce fees and change other agreed arrangements. In response to one such attempt, commission chairman Robert Davis replied, “We have no interest in renegotiating the agreement.”

If Fane were confident he could raise funds for the project, and that it would succeed, why would he try to pinch so many pennies along the way? His attempts to move the goalposts expose his concerns about the project’s financial and market feasibility. Of course each twist and turn in the fight over the Fane tower further hikes costs for the developer and reduces returns for his investors, if he has any. He has just admitted the estimated cost of the tower has risen from $250 million to $300 million.

Sherman’s article further hints at the strained relations among the parties:

The commission declined to comment on whether the letters signaled the deal was at risk of falling through. Fane spokesperson Dante Bellini characterized the relationship as “collaborative,” and said the company “has enjoyed a good and productive relationship with the 195 Commission.”

“This is a large and complex deal and as such requires a great amount of due diligence by all parties,” he explained. “There have been, as you know, very formidable challenges.”

“The challenges Fane has encountered,” Sherman adds, “may only reinforce the narrative that Rhode Island is a bad place for business.” Wrong. Fane faces challenges because he – not opponents or procedural delay – violated key aspects of the city’s zoning and comprehensive plan. He has destabilized the city’s development environment by bamboozling the city council into raising the height limit on Parcel 42 from 100 feet to 600 feet. Planners use zoning to stabilize the development environment, so that it will show no favoritism, which is what honest developers want. If the challenges Fane has brought upon himself end up killing off his project, Providence will have a chance to restabilize its development environment and help turn the state into a better place for business.

The fact that citizens, by fighting back, show they understand the danger that Fane’s manipulations pose to our business climate will be seen by future developers as a sign that there is a more level playing field in Providence.

Part of that fight is a citizens’ lawsuit against council’s action on the height limit as a species of “spot zoning.” Of course, Fane is irked. “How can they do that to me?” he seems to wonder. “I have promised to build them an iconic building!” No, he has promised a tall building that looks like it belongs in Dubai, not Providence. (“What’s wrong with that?” he told the Providence Journal’s Mark Patinkin.”) We must not forget that when Fane first arrived here he mocked the city as “cutesy,” adding that it “doesn’t look up to date.” Most Rhode Islanders are tired of what “up to date” looks like. The last thing they want is Jason Fane’s idea of “iconic” on a gargantuan scale. Remember his original three towers with their Minion spectacles? Rhode Islanders know what is beautiful and what is not, and they know how beauty is key to the future of the capital city. As soon as Fane got off the plane he proved he does not understand Providence or care about why citizens love Rhode Island despite its problems.

Well, not quite. The second thing he did after arriving was to surround himself with lawyers and lobbyists. So maybe he does understand. He will need them all to dodge the blowback from his manipulative behavior. If a judge finds that spot zoning is illegal in Rhode Island, it is hard to see how the lawsuit could fail to stop the Fane tower.