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Elorza: Senate President’s plan to remove Providence from I-195 zoning ‘unprecedented’



Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza responded Tuesday to comments made by Rhode Island State Senate President Dominick Ruggerio concerning his plans to draft legislation that would remove “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.”


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

Senate President Ruggerio vows to rid obstacles to Providence’s Fane tower

As Katherine Gregg reports in the Providence Journal, Ruggerio was primarily concerned with the “proposed 600-foot tower that developer Jason Fane wants to build along Dyer Street, on land opened by the relocation of Route 195. The developer sought a zoning change to build a taller building than the city’s maximum building requirement currently allows. That met with resistance, and ultimately a city council decision to send the proposal back to a key committee for further review and deliberation…”

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“The Fane Tower proposal in Providence is another proposal that should warrant our enthusiastic support. 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,” said Ruggerio. “We need to move past nimbyism if we are going to grow and thrive as a state.”

Elorza replies:

“I heard the comments… The devil’s in the details. We would have to see exactly what it is that they propose. I’ve reached out to the Senate president” said Elorza. “My initial response is it is concerning and I want to get down to the details of it…

“It would be unprecedented, especially if it is done for one particular project.”

Elorza also defended the City’s stand on development in general, noting that there are about 60 construction projects under way in Providence.

Providence City Council president David Salvatore released the following statement regarding the Senate President’s comments and plans:

“I respectfully disagree with Senate President Ruggerio that the City is standing in the way of any developer trying to build on the former I-195 land, which runs along the downtown corridor of Providence.

“The City Council is pro-economic development and pro-growth, and I think the development happening downtown speaks to that very notion. It’s important to grow our local tax base without having to raise taxes, and that’s what we are doing here in Providence.

“We spent a great deal of effort and taxpayer dollars in working with the City Plan Commission to create a master plan for our City that moves Providence forward while respecting our storied history.  Since my first term in office, I have been a strong advocate for a more transparent and predictable climate for developers. Providence’s master plan achieves those goals of transparent and predictable development.

“This process around Hope Point Tower has been both public and transparent.  For every city of our size that is growing, these are the same qualities that have led to success and improved quality of life for residents.”

Sam Bell, who is running unopposed for Senate District 5 and will almost certainly be a member of Ruggerio’s Senate next session, has concerns of a constitutional nature.

Article XIII, Section 4 of the Rhode Island Constitution requires that any law relating to the affairs of just a particular city or town, rather than all municipalities equally, will require a vote of the people of the affected city or town before it goes into effect. The reason that the law requiring tax breaks would not have required a public vote that the Rhode Island Supreme Court created a limited exemption for taxation and bonding in the Warwick Mall Trust v. State decision. The legal reasoning was that the Supremacy Clause of the Rhode Island Constitution (Article XIII, Section 5) grants the General Assembly supremacy over taxation and borrowing, overriding the public vote requirement. Because the Supremacy Clause does not affect zoning, the Warwick Mall Trust exemption would not apply, and the public vote requirement in the state constitution would be in force.

“While I oppose giving the I-195 Commission power over Providence’s zoning as a matter of policy, the presence of a public vote creates a more interesting public policy question. If my constituents support a public vote, I would be open to the idea of putting this issue on the 2020 ballot.

“I am, however, gravely concerned about the way that the I-195 Commission would use this power. This seems like an effort to punish Providence for resisting the Fane Organization‘s poorly thought out proposal for a subsidized parking garage and luxury housing tower complex on the waterfront park site. Our city has a right to push for better development on the I-195 land.

“Any attempt to bypass the public vote required in the Rhode Island Constitution would be a red line for me, of course. I could not support such a law.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.