As the deadline approaches for Gilbane to pull the trigger on its deal to build a high-end apartment/dorm on Thayer Street, it seems September 1 will become the new D-Day, as in “Decision.” Here are how things stand, as we go to press.
Led by former director of planning Sam Shamoon, a compromise of sorts was accepted by the City’s Ordinance Committee and the developer, which made some adjustments that limited what would be allowable with the changes the City Plan Commission and the City Planning Department had originally sought. There will now be restrictions on permissible entertainment in the revised zone. A second proposal, the hotel project from Ed Bishop, would have to go through an independent evaluation separate from the Gilbane apartments to be permitted. And finally, the area covered by the new ordinance was also reduced.
Traditionally the City Council tends to support the wishes of the councilman in whose ward the project will be constructed. With the support of Councilman Sam Zurier, the full council approved the change in the existing Providence Plan.
So what happens next? According to Bob Gilbane, Richard Schwaery - who owns the buildings Gilbane will need to purchase and demolish to begin the project - has given him an option to purchase that expires on September 1. If not exercised, the owners have said they would then be forced to seek out other prospective purchasers of the nine properties they had assembled.
For its part, Gilbane has agreed with most of the points sought by the College Hill Neighborhood Association and the Providence Preservation Society. While he refused to extend the time deadline both groups had initially sought, saying it was beyond his control, Gilbane did agree to continue making design changes to lessen the size impact of the building and provide an array of aesthetic amenities. Details remain in process, but generally there was consensus that the designs are being improved.
But some sticking points remain unresolved, most significant of which is that the developer is required to exercise his option without real assurance that he can work out a tax agreement with the City. The Schwaery properties currently pay about $150,000 in taxes to the City. And while the developer has suggested the new project will generate “two or three times what’s currently being paid,” Councilman Zurier and some neighbors, over 400 and counting, suggest that the math doesn’t work. They note that the $28,000,000 project at an estimated 3% of annual assessed value, should produce closer to $800,000 a year for the City. Says councilman Zurier, “The City is on record as saying that it will consider a tax treaty (locking in current tax rates for a specific period) but that we will not consider a tax abatement (an actual reduction in tax fees). If he exercises his option with the seller on September 1, then he is doing it without a tax agreement that has been approved by the City Council and will have to take his chances. And once he signs the deal, he also commits that the project will remain on the tax rolls going forward. Of course, he can also either sell the project rights to another party, though the restrictions remain in place, or abandon the project.”
Zurier expects two major things to happen if the project is to go forward. First, he expects the City’s planning department to conduct “a more rigorous than normal” review of plans for the project, an estimated 6-8 month process that will also provide opportunity for more public input from the community in terms of design and scale. He also expects that any additional projects, most notably the hotel project being sought by Ed Bishop for the next block over, will not be considered until the end of Gilbane design process.
In addition, Zurier is asking the Providence Plan Commission and the City to undertake a total review of the entire area with hopes of identifying a more comprehensive way to deal with this important but quite fragile area that incorporates institutions, commercial and residential needs. Zurier notes that last month, the City Council approved land use changes for 257 Thayer Street, subject to conditions that met the requirements presented to the Ordinance Committee by the Steering Committee, CHNA and Sam Shamoon, the former head of planning who has been helping the council formulate a position on the proposed zoning changes.
Zurier went on to say he will introduce a resolution to urge the City Planning Commission to conduct public hearings to review the project carefully. He is also asking the Planning Department to begin a comprehensive review of the Thayer Street neighborhood with input from all of the key stakeholders. Among the other concessions is that the Providence Preservation Society intends to make best use of the developer’s unprecedented $200,000 matching grant to save the maximum number of historic structures during the project. “In these ways, I believe this project will benefit the neighborhood and the City,” Zurier maintains.
Seth Kurn, a Bowen Street resident and 30-year resident of College Hill, doesn’t share the councilman’s optimism. Reflecting the sentiment of many of the over 400 signatories to the neighborhood petition, he suggests the parties who should be protecting the neighborhood, their property values and the City’s long commitment to historic preservation have abandoned the neighbors. “The mayor, his administration, the City Council, and Councilman Sam Zurier, abetted by the unprecedented passivity of the College Hill Neighborhood Association and the Providence Preservation Society, in endorsing these changes to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, have provided a 38 Studios-like government bailout for the private gain of the developers.”
Kurn goes on to say that, “By encouraging the institutional encroachment on the neighborhood, resulting in a five-times increase in density and the concomitant increase in traffic; the City has decided that it can approve any development for any neighborhood, historic or not, at any time for any reason, regardless of what the tax-paying residents think. This is unfortunate and misguided in my estimation and sad for the city we love.”