City again tackles rezoning

Providence will try again this year to drag its zoning code into the 21st century.
Like many other communities across the country, Rhode Island’s capital hopes to remove barriers to urban growth within its 1950s-era, land-use regulations and this month begins a citywide public process to rewrite them.
In a stagnant economy, liberalizing rules on how private property can be used is one of the few ways cities can entice more investment. But it’s seldom an easy process.
The last time Providence tried a comprehensive zoning rewrite, in the midst of a building boom in 2005, the effort met community resistance and was drastically scaled back.
This time around, the Providence Planning Department has laid the groundwork for change with at least 60 neighborhood outreach and planning sessions since 2008 (five for each of 12 neighborhoods.)
And the city has used $380,000 from a $1 million federal grant to hire Chicago consulting firm Camiros to help with the process. The first citywide public hearing was scheduled for Sept. 10.
“We want to present more clarity and certainty and predictability for the folks involved in the planning game,” said Providence Planning Director Ruben Flores-Marzan. “These are global trends, and Providence enjoys an advantage because it is a very walkable city and has a very sound mix of uses where people can live closer to where they work. This is an urban century.”
The rewrite will include city neighborhoods other than downtown, which was rezoned along with the former Jewelry District last year to make way for the development of the former Interstate 195 land.
A first step in the process will be to try to match city ordinances written 60 years ago to today’s historic neighborhoods.
“You couldn’t build the vast majority of housing stock in Providence under the current ordinance,” said Robert Azar, the city’s director of current planning. “We only allow two stories, so most of those triple-deckers are nonconforming.”
But exactly how far Providence planners will go to encourage new and denser construction, a key factor in creating a less auto-centric city, has yet to be determined.
Camiros has written a 42-page report with recommendations for a slew of changes that will be the starting point for the rewrite, but the specifics of the proposal eventually sent to city councilors will be influenced by public feedback. Much of the report is focused on clarifying and organizing the code, which has become a patchwork of amendments and changes to the 1950s original.
Asked how far the city is likely to go to promote more density and more growth, Azar said the overriding principle will be to maintain “stability” of existing neighborhoods more than pro-development change.
Still, based on the Camiros report and planners’ priorities, the rewrite should include some significant smart-growth-focused changes that could encourage construction.
Perhaps the biggest and most controversial is the potential reduction, or even elimination, of off-street minimum-parking requirements.
Currently, Providence zoning requires one-and-a-half parking spaces for every housing unit in most neighborhoods, one of the heavier parking requirements around.
By requiring so much land dedicated to cars, parking minimums make many kinds of urban residential projects impossible and drive up the cost of those that do go forward.
What’s more, owners of existing buildings are often reluctant to make substantial improvements to their properties for fear of triggering requirements they don’t conform with.
Parking minimums also encourage the kind of desolate fields of surface-parking lots Mayor Angel Taveras has said he wants redeveloped, while contributing to runoff pollution and repelling foot traffic for neighboring businesses.
Camiros recommends Providence “consider eliminating minimum-parking requirements from the ordinance and allow the market and site conditions to dictate how much parking will be provided on-site.”
While there is relative agreement in professional planning circles about the pitfalls of parking minimums, attempts to reduce them are often described as a “war on cars” and fought by groups such as AAA.
In Washington, D.C., this year, a city proposal to end minimum-parking requirements in the zoning code for areas near mass transit met significant resistance and was scaled back.
On the other hand, last month Cincinnati passed a zoning rewrite that eliminated parking minimums for some areas and reduced them in others. “We have already made them better,” Azar said about parking minimums. “But we think we can go further in reducing them and in some cases we think we can eliminate them. The process will determine how much.”
At the far end of the possible changes, the city could replace the parking minimums with maximums for paved surfaces, something Camiros recommends considering, but Azar said may end up being a step too far.
In terms of more direct checks on density, such as building-height restrictions, the changes may focus more on continuity, with residential heights going up to three stories and commercial heights five stories, but not more.
To promote larger developments, planners are looking toward five under-utilized corridors – Broad Street, North Main Street, Chalkstone Avenue, Elmwood Avenue and Manton Avenue – for potential mixed-use, transit-oriented development.
For industrial zones, the city wants to move toward more “form zoning” which, with less heavy industry happening in urban areas, focuses more on what is built in an area and less on segregating specific uses. This can encourage mixing light industrial, entertainment and live-work spaces in underutilized, former factory properties.
The Camiros report also calls for changes to the “residential-professional district,” which allows things like lawyers’ offices, but no retailers, in otherwise residential neighborhoods.
On streets such as Broadway, these zones have become increasingly commercial, with restaurants and shops moving into ground-floor spaces and a number of variances being sought. At least one high-profile variance sought by an urban farm-supply store this year brought tensions in the residential-professional district to the surface.
Camiros suggests residential-professional districts should be scrutinized and potentially turned into “small-scale neighborhood commercial” districts allowing low-intensity, pedestrian-oriented businesses.
Other recommendations in the Camiros report include:
• Allowing rowhouses.
• Requiring bicycle parking in large apartment buildings. • Allowing shared parking.
• Special provisions for adaptive reuse of “significant structures.”
• Creating specific use categories for, among other things, liquor stores, live-entertainment venues, restaurants, bars, drive-through stores, artisan manufacturers and marijuana dispensaries.
Without knowing exactly what will be proposed, members of the local development and design community expressed support for the goal of removing barriers to higher-density development and street-level activity.
“The general issue throughout the city is the zoning has a suburban mindset, and there are places where it doesn’t accept the kind of street-level reality and front-porch neighborhoods it historically has and should encourage,” said Donald Powers, architect at Union Studio in Providence.
“A lot of this is counter-intuitive,” he added. “You would think having parking all off-street would be a boon to businesses, but the parking fields break up the streetscape. We have zoned every area as a Stop & Shop.”
Powers was a subcommittee chairman in the last zoning-rewrite attempt, which he said failed because it took on “too much, too soon.”
He said the city’s ability to educate residents will be nearly as important as the details of the plan.
Like many complex regulations, zoning is often ignored by many residents until it impacts them directly.
But the indirect impacts of land-use regulations on cities and states are significant, especially in an area like Rhode Island with high housing costs, underutilized land, a stagnant economy and a flat, aging population.
Rhode Island Builders Association President John Marcantonio said the state desperately needs to attract new residents. Creating less-expensive places to live through higher-density development is one way to approach that, he says.
“Density restrictions are some of the biggest barriers to development in Rhode Island, and what you end up with is only two kinds of housing: luxury and subsidized,” Marcantonio said. “Density is the key to affordability. What we need is to have construction costs low enough to build to a market price and add middle-class homes. You can grow the population without turning farms and fields into subdivisions.” •

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