Rubbers Meets the Rhode

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David Brussat, Architecture Here and There

Senate President Dominick “Rubbers” Ruggerio has introduced legislation in Rhode Island’s General Assembly to bar cities and towns from bothering the developers who want to screw this state’s localities and their citizens.

Ruggerio was dumbfounded by the meanies of the city’s Downtown Design Review Committee and their thumbs down on the design of the Fane tower last week. He not only wants to strip Providence of any say in the design of the tower but also that of any other Rhode Island city or town in major state land developments of 20 or more acres. But the Fane tower is at the center of the debate over who should hold the whip hand over projects on state land.

“We should have welcomed this [Fane] investment with open arms,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away. Thankfully, he’s still here. This process has sent a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island.”

Ruggerio is right that the process is sending a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island. The message is that the law means nothing in this state. And don’t developers just love chaos, where the law is broken, and public institutions can’t be trusted? I don’t think so. Yet the Providence City Council ditched the city’s comprehensive plan last December when it overrode Mayor Elorza’s veto of legislation to increase the height limit on a single parcel from 100 feet to 600 feet on behalf of a single developer. Now Ruggerio wants to make it harder to enforce municipal comprehensive plans throughout the state. He thinks developers would rather trust alliances of business and union interests to roll local government and squelch opposition to projects the public considers unsuitable in their cities or towns.

It’s no surprise that union boss Ruggerio wants to slip a huge prophylactic over the messy process of development. His animus may also arise from his embarrassment at being arrested for allegedly stealing rubbers from a CVS in 1990, hence his nickname. The pol was not prosecuted, and his nickname has rarely been uttered since his rise to Senate leadership. Like many politicians who want to take the politics out of politics, Ruggerio likes things neat and clean. Opposition from the public does not sit well with those who would rather screw voters gently, with a dollop of K-Y jelly.

Ruggerio, Fane and supporters of the Fane tower who drool over the jobs and taxes a tower might bring reveal a narrow civic imagination. Providence is already known across the nation and around the world as a beautiful and creative city, which presses above its weight in luring visitors. It can prosper best by being the best medium-sized city it can be. That will bring in even more jobs and taxes, and in time more and better growth. Instead, the city is trading in its advantages for the pallid allure of sterile architecture (tall or short) that looks like so many other places. Boston’s innovation district is one nearby example of the direction Providence should avoid.

Zoning is where the rubber meets the road of politics at the level closest to voters. Developers have the right to try to get local government to back their projects, but local citizens have a right to object. Maybe they think it is ugly, or maybe they think it will suck up local incentives and then fail, leaving taxpayers to hoover up the splat. The future is unknown, so projects must be debated honestly and in accordance with the law.

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is the best way to turn the law into an ass. Naturally, the first developer into the game has the advantage, and the rest who come behind will get to stick their heads up Jason Fane’s Hope Point Tower. Thank you, Senator Rubbers. What a view!

In ten years, if Dominick Ruggerio gets his bill passed, he will wish his nickname were still “Rubbers.” 

 David Brussat, Architecture Here and There

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