Drake Patten was warned that opening an urban-farm-supply store in a vacant former gas station on Providence’s West Side would be difficult.
She was told the building owner was difficult to work with, that there could be resistance from the neighborhood and, of course, zoning and permitting nightmares.
But Patten, the former executive director of nonprofit The Steel Yard, felt the Broadway space was perfect for the store she dreamed of opening and went for it.
As it turned out, fears about the landlord proved overblown, but the zoning and neighborhood problems ended up worse than even her most pessimistic friends had imagined.
Months after Patten had planned to open the shop, called Cluck!, she was holding a rally outside the building to protest an abutter’s successful legal appeal of her business.
During what was supposed to be the business’ crucial first spring season, Cluck! was instead a cause célèbre for urbanists, food-system reformers and local leaders concerned with economic development.
It also became the latest and most visible case study of the barriers facing small-business creation in the Providence area at a time their virtues are extolled by state leaders pleading for investment.
“I didn’t think it would be that difficult,” Patten said about the legal battle around the store, which finally opened last month. “I think what the city needs is to be proactive with small businesses. We want to see places getting their doors open.”
Although on one level Patten’s struggles reflected the unusual nature of the business she was trying to create, they are also indicative of how traditional zoning can slow exactly the kind of redevelopment the city wants to encourage.
Finding a creative new use for long-vacant properties like the old gas station at 399 Broadway is often the only way to make them productive again, but changing use inevitably requires expensive zoning relief.
In the case of Cluck!, the gas station was within a residential-professional zone that fit neither its old use serving cars nor another less-intensive retail use.