PROVIDENCE — The clash over a proposed 46-story tower is spurring a larger debate over what Rhode Island is doing with its once-in-a-lifetime chance to redevelop a swath of former highway land in the heart of Providence.
The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission voted last week to grant key approvals for Hope Point Tower, a luxury residential tower that would become the state’s tallest building and house up to 900 people.
Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association, objected to the tower’s design, saying it does not comport with the commission’s own mission statement. “This land was supposed to create jobs — not housing and, in particular, not luxury housing,” she said in an interview.
But Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor said the era of having distinct business districts that essentially shut down at 5 p.m. is over.
“These days, innovation districts thrive when they contain office complexes and residential development,” he said in an interview. “When there are office workers sharing the sidewalk with residents pushing baby carriages — when there’s a 24/7 environment with feet on the street — that’s attractive to emerging enterprises and to existing businesses.”
Steele agreed with the need for “feet on the street” but said there are already plenty of residential developments in the works on or near the former 195 land. There just isn’t enough demand for all of those units plus a 46-story apartment tower, she said.
“This isn’t Boston,” Steele said. “This is Providence.”
The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission was created in 2011 to handle the sale, marketing, and oversight of land made available in downtown Providence as a result of the relocation of I-195.
The group’s full mission statement is: “To foster economic development on the I-195 land and beyond and generate job creation opportunities that embrace the city’s demographics by creating an environment that encourages high-value users to build well-designed structures that enhance the value of surrounding neighborhoods and augment the sense of place.”
Members of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council rallied outside the Wexford building, where the meeting was held, arguing that the project is in keeping with the mission of creating jobs.
In a statement, council President Michael F. Sabitoni said the tower construction “will create hundreds of family-supporting union jobs for our highly skilled men and women in the Rhode Island building trades as well as our ever-expanding working-class community.”
Justin Kelley, business representative for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said the Providence-area construction industry faces a “constant situation of under-employment and unemployment.” His 300-member local now has 75 people out of work, he said.
“That is unacceptable to us,” Kelley said outside the Wexford building. “When you see a project like this, where you could have sustained employment for years straight in one place, we are very passionate about that.”
Lewis Dana, a member of the Jewelry District Association board, told the commission it’s exciting to see construction projects all over the city.
“But over and over again we hear we should approve this (Hope Point Tower) building even though it is completely out of scale for the neighborhood, completely out of scale for the state, because it will create jobs,” he said.
While he’s all for keeping construction workers employed, Dana said, “If you approve this, the commissioners will create a terrible building that we and you — the people of this state — will have to live with long after the workers have moved on to their next job.”
Steele said, “We are going to get construction jobs, but after that you would be lucky if you get 20 people working on the maintenance staff and maybe a restaurant. But you are talking low-paying jobs, and restaurants could be anywhere in the city.”
Rhode Island does need housing, Steele said, but she argued that there is no market for luxury housing. “We need workforce housing,” she said. “We need low-income housing.”
In June, the state Legislature authorized up to $25 million in tax credits for the tower project. And when he addressed the commission, Providence resident Brian Heller asked, “Why on earth should the people of Providence and Rhode Island be forced to subsidize luxury condos for the very wealthy when so many are struggling?”
Heller referenced 38 Studios, Curt Schilling’s ill-fated video-game venture which left taxpayers on the hook for a $75 million loan guarantee seven years ago. “Anyone who buys the fantasy that this is going to attract wealthy people from other areas,” he said, “I have only this to say to them: Does 38 Studios ring a bell?”
In his presentation to the commission, New York developer Jason Fane said the tower would house 800 to 900 people who would come from four main markets: “University and medical people; working people in business and the professions; empty nesters; people commuting to Boston and other areas.”
Fane said the tower would be the tallest building in New England outside of Boston.
“It will become a symbol of Providence and surely represents the essence of the innovation, design and entrepreneurship district,” he said. “Please note the word entrepreneurship. Innovation and design are necessary, but they are not enough to move an idea forward.”
The battle over the tower has at times overshadowed discussion about other portions of the former I-195 land.
The I-195 commission’s website lists 19 parcels spread over 26 acres. A map provided by the commission last week shows two completed projects (the Wexford Innovation Center and the John J. Bowen Center for Science and Innovation) and one project with construction in progress (the Chestnut Commons residential and commercial building).
The map shows six parcels that are “under contract,” including the Hope Point Tower site and the 175-room Aloft Hotel site, next to the Wexford building. And the map shows 11 “available parcels.”
“We are very pleased with the projects in the 195 district,” Pryor said. “Even three years ago, there was not much visible activity. Now, there are projects built or sprouting throughout the district.”
The real estate development projects that are complete or under way constitute more than 1-million square feet and more than $350 million in investment, he said. He also cited infrastructure projects in the area, including the new $22 million Providence River Pedestrian Bridge, parks on either side of the river, and the parking garage behind the Garrahy Judicial Complex.
Pryor said innovation districts must include buildings, like Wexford, that contain incubator space for emerging companies. But they also require “vibrant live/work ecosystems,” he said. “Business today, especially entrepreneurs, want to be part of high-energy 24/7 environments.”
The 195 district is making strides toward that goal, he said.
“Even a few years ago, in a section of the 195 district you would find tumbleweeds in the evening rather than workers coming and going,” Pryor said.
Steele said that other than the Hope Point Tower, the former 195 district is moving in the right direction.
“There are more cranes in the sky than I have ever seen in my lifetime,” she said. “Wexford, the Aloft Hotel — that’s what we want. We want buildings built to scale.”
But the focus must remain on jobs, Steele said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new urban neighborhood that literally produces good-paying high-tech high-touch biomed jobs for the millennials.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.