The discussion was lively, informative and remarkably civilized. For more than three hours, speakers from both sides presented their arguments in detail, with passion and occasionally vivid language.
It was stated at the outset that no decision would be made by the CPC on the variance at this meeting. The Fane Group would present their request (in coordination with the 195 Commission, the owner of the land) for consideration. The public could comment. The CPC would then consider the request for waiver and, at their next meeting, vote to send a recommendation for, against or no opinion to the City Council to make the decision to approve or reject the request.
The pro camp was heavily represented by union officials and union members encouraging the advancement of the project as a major job creator. A Fain Group spokesman said that the project would be union and asserted that it would provide "135 person years" of work and put more than $273 million into the state's economy. Speaking for Fane, Atty. Landry stated that the project preserves "all six view corridors" in the Providence comprehensive plan and respects the stated aspiration that any new building in the 195 land will respect the historic fabric of the District. The site, he said, is "More than a thousand feet from any registered National Historic Building")
Architect Gianni Ria of the IBI Group in Toronto, designer of the new concept, asserted that this would be an "iconic structure" one that would "put Providence on the map." Finally, on the subject of spot zoning, Atty. Landry said "differences are acceptable if they are in tune with the aspirations of the Comprehensive Plan."
The opposition mustered a variety of speakers from Building Bridges, the JDA and other organizations, as well as private citizens, including residents of the District and other parts of the City. Objections raised included the scale of a building of that height in that location, the massive 6-story parking garage with its 465-foot frontage of Dyer St. effectively walling the park off from the public, the solitary tower bearing no relationship to the historic fabric of the neighborhood (references were made to the isolated CitiBank tower in Queens and much-reviled Tour Montparnasse in Paris). A repeated mantra was "wrong building, wrong place".
Also raised were objections to subsidies for luxury housing when affordable housing is desperately needed in the city, objections from District residences living within 300 yards from the site that it in no way respects the historic fabric or the area, and the fact, they asserted, that this is a perfect example of the problem of spot zoning: it benefits a few with no regard for the needs and desires of the general public.
Remarkable to one onlooker were speakers who objected to the tower, but took time to say they had grown up in union families and understood the need for jobs to provide for workers' families.
Several speakers also pointed out that Providence was already firmly placed on the map in 1636 by Roger Williams and needed no further assistance on the matter. It was also mentioned that iconic structures achieve iconicism from history, not because a builder declares them to be "icons", and that overwhelming size is no criterion for an icon. The Pantheon was cited as an example of an iconic structure of rather small size, but enormous architectural status. In the icon discussion, the Eiffel Tower was used as an example by both sides of the discussion — despised at the time of its building, now a global treasure.
CPC Chair Christine West deftly kept the proceedings moving along, setting an 8 pm deadline for comments. She noted that as this was an informational meeting, no decision would be made, and further public comment would be received, as well, at the commission's next hearing, in May.