Supporters of the new mixed-use development project proposed for the corner of Wickenden and Brook streets say it would bring much needed housing relief to an expensive neighborhood. But most of the 60-65 people who attended the meeting were there to oppose it, worried the building will change the character of the neighborhood for the worse.

The City Plan Commission voted to give critical first approvals to the project with a list of conditions. It includes two key points that the commission says must be cleared up before the next round of approvals: the city forester must approve the amount of tree coverage, and the developers must submit new designs showing that at the corner of Brook and Wickenden streets the building will appear like a five-story building. Right now the renderings make the building appear to be six stories at that corner due to an exposed cellar level. 

The commission lauded the developers for having improved the building’s designs since they last presented. Lawyer for the project Dylan Conley said the developers were listening to the community members’ concerns when they re-designed the building to appear more as three separate facades to give the illusion that it is three smaller buildings rather than one large one. He said it would better fit with the flow of the neighborhood– a common point of concern among those opposed to the building. 

Conley called the redesign “proof that we're walking the walk. We're committed to being responsive to the community, to being responsive to the city. We think this is kind of directly responsive to some of those concerns.” 

Some audience members opposed to the development did not seem swayed by the new designs, occasionally erupting in jeers in the tense, jam-packed room. Commission Chairperson Michael Gazdacko had to remind the audience to refrain from outbursts. 

“Before we go on to the next person, I would like to again, respectfully request that everyone keep your comments to yourself while others are making their own comments,” said Gazdacko. 

Prominently among the opponents was William Morgan, architecture critic for GoLocalProv, whose comments summarize many of the points of those against the project, including the building’s aesthetics and its size.

“This project–it has no visual aesthetic or long range cultural benefits to the neighborhood. No self respecting citizen, planning official, neighborhood group, or local resident should allow this turkey to get off the drawing boards–this over-scaled under-designed student slum,” he said to cheers.

The supporters of the project included historian Ian Saxine, who recently purchased a home in the neighborhood. He said if the neighborhood was going to support renters, it needs to modernize and build. 

“What I see with the Fox Point Neighborhood Association is a self-appointed group representing older property owners who, at this point if they have their way, our neighborhood will be only affordable or livable for the very wealthiest. The people who already live in Fox Point, you probably already own luxury housing,” he said to interrupting boos from the opposition. 

He then clarified that many homes in Fox Point would be categorized that way by appraisers. Many residents bought their homes in Fox Point years ago and are now presented with sky-rocketing home values. 

Saxine finished by saying that cities are always changing.

“We're always being told the neighborhood is going. Will Morgan has bid goodbye to every neighborhood in Providence by this point. But we're still here. And in fact, cities are not museums,” he said. 

Supporters and detractors of the project were also split on a point about affordable housing. Many opposed to the project brought up the point that the development will possess only market-rate units. However, those in support said building more units will help bring the market rate down and make it more affordable for all. 

Providence currently has a low-occupancy rate, meaning there are few unoccupied rentals, which can drive up cost. But some, like Joshua Leiber, took a more nuanced view, saying that affordability requires more than just supply amid a great demand. 

“I think the housing crisis is a very complex issue that introducing more apartments just simply isn't going to solve. The issue goes far beyond how many rentals are available,” he said.

The local businesses who came to the meeting also spoke out against the proposed project. Some fear that the relatively large retail space offered in the proposed project may only be affordable for larger businesses, like chains, though the developer has said it hopes businesses like Bagel Gourmet will move in. Others, like  L Villegas, who co-owns a new flower shop across the street, weighed in against the height of the proposed development, concerned about light blocking their new plants. 

“There are already some types of succulents and cactus that we're not sure if we're gonna be able to keep alive in here. So if it causes us any more light issues that'll literally affect our business,” said Villegas.

The overall size of the building has been a major point of contention. And although the Plan Commission voted to require the building to appear shorter than six stories, that will likely not appease those opposed to the project, some of who said they would be ok with a development built within the current four-story zoning restriction.This project is being built with a zoning incentive exception, meaning the city favors mixed use housing to the point that it will allow developers to build extra floors of housing if a project has the proper amount of retail space. And the developers said it is not financially viable to build a four-story building. 

“Project viability is on the fifth story. Once you cross the threshold in which a building requires an elevator, you need the additional story in order to make the building cost work out. No one really wants four-story walk-ups,” said lawyer Dylan Conley. 

One peeved audience member, Paul Flynn, urged other Fox Point residents to really consider what they were fighting over.

“By right, they are entitled to build four stories, they're asking for one floor. So everyone who's speaking up tonight telling you it's a monstrosity, it's an abomination. It doesn't fit the character of the neighborhood. What they're saying is: one floor is enough to break the neighborhood. That's absurd. Please,” he said. 

The next step for the project is for the developers to present revised plans with more details to the City Plan Commission for final approval. The Plan Commission must also take an official vote on the fifth story, but said they plan to approve it if the developer can make the corner of the building appear shorter.

Metro reporter Olivia Ebertz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @OliviaEbertz.