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Fane in Vain and Eminent Domain

Image via Go Local Prov

On Friday, March 10, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission announced that the New York-based Fane Corporation would not be proceeding with the proposed Fane Tower and that the commission would soon make its land available to another developer. The tower would have stood on Parcel 42 of the Providence Innovation and Design District, land that was vacated following the 2011 relocation of Interstate 195. Plans for the tower, which, at 550 feet, would have been the tallest in Rhode Island, were held up for six years with opposition from former Mayor Jorge Elorza and the Providence Preservation Society over its design, its necessary zoning exemptions, and other factors that would have changed Providence’s urban character. The tower would have been the largest private economic investment into Providence since the development of the Providence Place Mall in the 1990s. With its demise, Providence and Rhode Island have a lot to lose: an estimated 1,500 jobs and $86 million in accompanying wages, $250 million dollars in tax revenue, and over 400 luxury housing units. The loss of residential housing is especially critical, as Rhode Island trails the country in per capita construction of new housing units.

As of March 6, 1,935 Rhode Islanders are homeless, with approximately 347 outdoors. During February’s winter weather, Governor Dan McKee deployed additional resources to warming stations and overnight shelters. The recently approved plan for rehabilitating the so-called “Superman Building” in Downtown Providence requires that 20 percent of its units to be designated as “affordable housing”; however, they will likely be unattainable for those most in need. It is clear that Rhode Island policymakers are not yet doing enough to address homelessness and housing insecurity in the state. While the struggles and debates surrounding the proposed Fane Tower may have been in vain, this does not spell the end for affordable housing development in Providence. Providence and the state of Rhode Island should take advantage of the failure of Fane Tower: Local and state governments should use the power of eminent domain to seize Parcel 42 and house homeless Rhode Islanders, rather than sell it off to another developer.

For many, the words eminent domain conjure memories of the haphazard appropriation of land by government authorities and private corporations in the name of development. The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution and its “takings clause” limit the power of eminent domain—the right of government to claim private property for public use—by mandating “just compensation” for seized property. However, the application of eminent domain drastically changed in 2005 with the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London. In this infamous case, the city of New London had seized homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for a redevelopment plan centered around a nearby Pfizer facility—one that ultimately shuttered and left the neighborhood a collection of empty lots. The Supreme Court held that property could be transferred from one private owner to another by expanding the definition of “public use” to include the redevelopment of land to realize potential economic growth. 

Furthermore, eminent domain was repeatedly used throughout the 20th century to demolish Black neighborhoods across the country and replace them with highways and public “urban renewal” projects. Here in Providence, for example, the city’s largest Black neighborhood, Lippitt Hill, was marked as blighted and seized by the city to be redeveloped into University Heights, an apartment complex. “Generally, eminent domain has been used to enrich wealthy people—never to protect poor people,” remarked Cynthia Strathmann, the executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, as she reflected upon its history.

With Kelo and countless more examples of the abuse of eminent domain regulations, paired with their history as a tool of systemic racism, Strathmann is correct in recognizing the past harm eminent domain has done against poor Americans. However, this statement was made in the context of a new precedent set by the Los Angeles City Council last year. In May 2022, the LA City Council moved to leverage the power of eminent domain to purchase the Hillside Villa Apartment Building in Chinatown from its owner, Tom Botz, who increased rent by hundreds of percent after the building’s affordability covenant expired in 2018. In stark contrast to its use in the 20th century, eminent domain was now being used to keep people in the homes they had lived in for decades and secure affordable housing for new residents. 

Outside of Los Angeles, eminent domain has been explored as a housing method by California’s homelessness initiative, Project Homekey. It has also been recently used for housing initiatives by housing authorities in Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia, and right here in Providence. Last October, then-Mayor Jorge Elorza appropriated funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to start the Providence Neighborhood Land Bank, a program that would “acquire, hold, and transfer underused vacant land throughout the city with the goal of generating new affordable housing.” This spring, the Land Bank is entering its second phase of operation, acquiring vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties to steward.

There should be little debate on the rationale of housing the homeless. Morally, we as a society should seek to maintain the well-being of our members, which includes those stuck in homelessness; not doing so denies them their humanity. In a nation that claims to champion life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, homelessness serves as the antithesis to these values. Homeless individuals are at far greater risk of premature death due to the lack of permanent shelter, are robbed of their liberty to participate in the economy, and are hindered in their pursuit of happiness by their daily struggle to survive. Ethically, homelessness is thus a social and health hazard, and not promptly addressing it makes government officials complicit in its adverse side effects, including the illness and deaths of individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Permanently housing the homeless also has significant economic benefits. Housing the homeless provides them with an address; in turn, newly housed individuals would be able to open bank accounts, acquire phone numbers, and apply for jobs, enabling their reentry into the workforce and economy. Moreover, housing the homeless permanently could save city and state governments up to $23,000 per consumer each year when compared with municipal expenditure on shelter systems, “continuum of care” practices, and the criminalization of homelessness. 

On the topic of cost effectiveness, as there are no existing developments on Parcel 42, it would be much cheaper for the government or its land bank to simply take back the land—as opposed to using eminent domain like in Los Angeles. Additionally, the land is currently held by the I-195 commission, a quasi-state agency charged with redeveloping the land by the Rhode Island government. This means that the government could likely work out a much more favorable deal than if it were negotiating with a private owner and expedite bureaucratic processes from within. Upon acquiring the land, the government would have a few options at their disposal: They could quickly construct a tiny-home village, an increasingly popular answer to homelessness across the county. Alternatively, they could undertake the longer, but more humane and rewarding, process of designing and constructing a new apartment complex that fits local zoning requirements.

Of course, not everyone is ready to embrace eminent domain. Fallout from Kelo has kept the idea of eminent domain sour in the minds of the American public. Furthermore, some argue that the government’s willingness to utilize eminent domain may scare off private, for-profit investors. Opposition to eminent domain aside, many Rhode Island politicians, including State Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, hope to see the land used for commercial development. 

While it may be true that new housing does not stimulate the economy as much as commercial development, what good is a commercial space without a consumer base? Even acknowledging that, affordable housing does not preclude commercial development. Construction of mixed-use buildings on Parcel 42, like the proposed Fane Tower, would provide post-construction jobs, housing, and economic development. Finally, for-profit developers like the Fane Corporation, as corporate entities, are ultimately concerned with their own bottom line and profit margins. They are largely unaccountable and oftentimes unresponsive to the communities that they enter; development through a public agency or institution could put the concerns of its constituents, like the Providence Preservation Society and the residents of the Jewelry District, at the forefront of development plans.

Ultimately, Providence and Rhode Island must ask themselves what they value more: waiting longer for potential commercial development, or providing much-needed relief in the housing crisis now. If it is the latter, they must use their powers of eminent domain to turn Parcel 42 into a parcel of hope.