Frustrated by the slow pace of development, legislative leaders are preparing to seize control of zoning on the vacant former I-195 land despite opposition from Mayor Jorge Elorza.
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A hotly debated Senate proposal to spur development by overhauling local zoning in certain parts of the state was included in the House Finance Committee budget proposal approved Friday — all but ensuring it will become law.
The initiative, proposed earlier this year by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, earned the support of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, who agreed with his legislative counterpart that local restrictions too often slow down development projects.
“Some of our friction points in permitting are at the local level, so we have to try and address those,” Mattiello told reporters during a budget briefing Friday night. “We try to do it respectfully and work with the municipalities, but at some point the state has to come in and make sure things move forward.”
Ruggerio’s move to strip the city’s zoning power stems from New York developer Jason Fane’s controversial proposal to build a high-rise on the former Interstate 195 land in downtown Providence.
The near-600-foot project, known as Hope Point Tower, became embroiled in debate last year when Elorza, a Democrat, vetoed a height variance that would allow the developer to build above the city’s 100-foot height restriction.
The Providence City Council voted to override the veto, ultimately moving the project forward, and the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is expected to vote on the project sometime this summer.
But the drawn-out process has frustrated Ruggerio, so he filed legislation to give state control over decision-making when it comes to development projects within “special economic development districts.”
The districts are defined as any developable or blighted state-owned land that’s at least 20 adjacent acres, which includes the I-195 property.
“We have a rare opportunity for development at the former I-195 land and some other areas across the state,” Ruggerio explained. “A developer is hoping to invest more than a quarter of a billion dollars to create an iconic structure that redefines the skyline. We should have welcomed this investment with open arms. Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away.”
The proposal, however, is worrying some local leaders, who fear it could have far-reaching consequences.
Elorza’s spokesperson Emily Crowell said the mayor opposes any effort to remove municipal oversight from the process.
“The existing regulations were crafted based on extensive feedback and involvement from residents,” Crowell said. “Those residents and their local elected officials deserve a voice in the development process that will inevitably impact their communities directly.”
Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune has argued decision-making should remain at the local level. The Providence Preservation Society is also against Ruggerio’s plan.
“We have serious concerns about the proposal,” said Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Town. “While the focus now is on I-195 land, the legislation could open the door to similar efforts to override local control in many other communities.”
The proposal as designed could affect the Zambarano campus in Burrillville, the Pastore Complex in Cranston and the Ladd Center Complex in Exeter, according to the League.
Daniels, who was otherwise largely pleased with the House Finance budget, said cities and towns should be equal partners in the effort to promote economic development.
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Mattiello said he recognized the nuances when it came to municipalities wanting to retain local control over development, but was adamant greater state control was necessary when it came to certain areas because it would ultimately be better for the state’s economy.
“There’s always a balance between local control and state control, but we have an overall responsibility to our economy and to make sure development is moving along appropriately,” Mattiello said.