I-195 Commission considers new guidelines calling for taller buildings, less housing

THE I-195 REDEVELOPMENT District Commission will consider changes to development guidelines in December. / PBN PHOTO MARY MACDONALD
THE I-195 REDEVELOPMENT District Commission will consider changes to development guidelines in December. / PBN PHOTO MARY MACDONALD

PROVIDENCE – Prompted by a new state law that allows large economic development districts to bypass local zoning, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is considering changes that would encourage much taller buildings along Interstate 95 while discouraging residential buildings in the Jewelry District area.

The commission’s design consultant on Wednesday recommended new building height guidelines for the district’s unbuilt parcels, which would allow buildings on four parcels along the highway to reach heights of 25 stories, similar to the financial district’s skyscrapers.

The plan remains in discussion and a written draft will be made available in early December, and published on the district’s website. A public hearing will be scheduled for Dec. 18, with a vote to follow in February.

Under the proposed changes, building height minimums and maximums would be increased in the westernmost portion of the district, allowing developers to build structures between 130 feet and 345 feet, according to the presentation by Utile, the commission’s Boston-based design consultant.

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Critics of current Providence zoning have said that it needs to encourage taller commercial buildings. The district had already encouraged somewhat taller buildings for four parcels along the highway, but no more than 245 feet.

The idea is to follow urban development practices set out in the city zoning but to clarify the goals on certain parcels, said Tim Love, of Utile. “The spirit of this is we wanted to embrace fully the urban design objectives that underly the Providence zoning.”

While the idea of allowing taller buildings along the highway didn’t spark much discussion, a design proposal to prohibit apartment development on five vacant parcels — 22, 25, 27, 34 and 35 — quickly led to disagreement among several commission members.

Michael McNally was critical of zoning certain parcels for office, others for residential, saying the restriction would relegate larger parcels to being parking lots for years to come, because the private market is calling for more housing construction, not office buildings.

“We’re all frustrated by the fact that we have way more residential than we would want, but the fact of the matter is the market is strong for residential,” he said. “The rents pay for new construction.”

Chairman Robert Davis said the proposal would prevent overbuilding of residential buildings in the district, which is what many developers have pitched for vacant parcels to date.

It would allow the commission to direct what remains to be developed appropriately, he said. “Part of the problem is we would [otherwise] likely be flooded with all residential proposals and we would end up with serious overbuild and the land would be gone.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

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  1. Ignoring what the market says is a serious blunder. It’s not like we don’t have experience with the challenges of development as the Capital district so aptly tells us. Now some 20+ years later we still have several unoccupied parcels there. If we had restricted that development to only offices we would have only two buildings there. The problem in downtown defined into three components – capital district, down city core and the jewelry district – is there are too many open lots and not enough investment. To restrict the type of development is to compound that situation. I have often gone to San Diego for part of the winter and on every occasion, I see numerous cranes in the sky and all are devoted to a residential project. In fact, I can’t remember one for the construction of an office tower though some may have been constructed. And unlike Providence, San Diego is still a high growth area. The Commission would do well to think about this experience before implementing this proposal.

  2. On further comment to clarify. I totally support the increase in the zoning height. The current 100 ft limit is restrictive and assumes that economic feasibility of a residential or commercial project, no matter the footprint, is attractive with that height restriction, about a ten story building. Not true.