Greater City Providence

The suburbanization of Olneyville


Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.

[alert type=”danger”]The City Plan Commission meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to the impending storm. It is scheduled to take place now on January 28th.[/alert]

After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.

[alert type=”success”] Download proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar stores in Olneyville plans and renderings (5MB)[/alert]

The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.


Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.

According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.

The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, then the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.

The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.

This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.

The City Plan Commission will be reviewing this at their January 21st meeting. If you are concerned about this project, I encourage you to attend the meeting or submit testimony in writing to the Planning Department, and/or contact Councilwoman Matos.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • “Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed)”

    Wow, important detail. From the other comment thread, I got the idea that they wanted to front the business to the sidewalk.

  • Yes, I added the parenthetical when I saw your impression in the other thread. I realized I was speaking in planning world shorthand and not everyone speaks that language fluently.

  • More on ProvPlan household car ownership in Olneyville:

    No car – 40.5 %
    1 car – 36.1 %
    2+ cars – 23.4 %

    Olneyville has one of RIPTA’s busiest “Super (bus) Stops.”

    Four bus routes go through the square and make stops at the two Super Stops. Granted that just two bus routes pass directly in front of the site in question, the Olneyville Super Stops are only 390-feet from the site or a 2-minute walk.

    There are 149 inbound bus trips and 152 outbound bus trips that make stops at the Olneyville Super Stops daily. Most of the time you only have to wait 5-minutes or less for the next bus to arrive and those buses usually have 12 to 20 passengers onboard and often are full with standees. It’s not unusual for 8 or 10 people to be waiting in either direction at the Super Stop’s bus shelters. Often there’s a similar number of people who exit the buses as get on at Olneyville Square.

    Since the old buildings that were on the site were demolished only about a year ago, it’s hard to believe that enough time has lapsed to establish that a hardship has been created for the owner of the property. It’s even harder to believe that the owner didn’t know in advance what the zoning requirements or limitations were for the site.

    If not having a drive-thru creates a hardship or goes against McDonald’s business plan, perhaps there’s something wrong with McDonald’s business. With roughly 3,000 passengers getting on and off buses at the Olneyville Super Stops, one might think that that population might be a good source of customers for both proposed establishments. McDonald’s might get more business if the constructed a walk-up window accessible from the sidewalk instead of a drive-thru window setback from the street.

  • Are there any other drive-thru restaurants nearby? Looking at the location of the car-centric FM Global suburban complex to which Dassault Systemes is moving, I wondered whether there were any places to pop out for lunch.

  • If anyone is interested in weighing in on such issues, the final state planning Rhode Map RI meeting for Greater Providence is later today in Warwick; it’s a good place to discuss this sort of development.

    Great Places Regional Workshop Round 4 (Final Round) – Greater Providence
    Thursday January 16th, 2014, 5:00 PM–7:30 PM
    Location: Buttonwoods Community Center
    3027 Shore Road
    Warwick, RI

    Having attended several of these sessions, I am much more attuned to suburbanization issues such as this, not just what they look like today, but in the near future. This development has the potential to be adversarial to the neighborhood, or symbiotic.

    For example, as more bicyclists hit the streets, will they not find the drive-thru equally useful as a bike-thru or wheelchair-thru? Will all of those parking spaces that we see in the plans not be useful spots from which zipcars may be rented, making it an easier decision to give up one’s own vehicle in that neighborhood? Or as a hub in a shared bicycle system? These ought to be considered in relation to the city master plan, and approval ideally would include contingencies upon them, perhaps modifying the zoning code to only allow certain types of development that provide such amenities.

  • Another mess you can blame on wall street. Seriously.

    Even if you could persuade a friendly local loan officer that an urban style development will be just the thing, no one he can sell the loan to will look at anything but mindlessly crunchable numbers:

    Number of cars passing by = z
    width of driveways = y
    height of sign / angle to windshields = x
    number of parking spaces, regulation size = w
    square feet of restaurant = v
    distance to next nearest McDonalds = u

    If u,v,w,x,y and z do not add up to the formula that have been proven to work, the project can not become part of a mortgage backed security or REIT.

  • I do not find a drive-thru useful as a “bike thru”. That sounds like very wishful thinking.

    I think having drive thru service directly challenges my goal of having protected bike lanes on Westminster Street, which would presumably continue through to Olneyville Square. That’s gotten bipartisan mayoral support (Elorza and Harrop both have signed) and many business signatures, and the petition drive has just begun. I think having a drive thru is a horrible idea. As to having a building with a McDonald’s in it, if it’s built in a way that’s not a drive-thru, that I can live grudgingly with.

  • This project is quite different than the advertisement wrapped around the area promising business and nightlife implies….

  • who is the developer on this project? Is it someone who owns property elsewhere in Providence, who probably would never ever ever consider proposing it in those neighborhoods because it is so substandard for an urban environment?

  • Developer is massively connected Steven Lewenstein who owns tons of property in the city.

  • This must be the worst idea for developing Olneyville I’ve heard. We have fried chicken, burger king, and hot weiners. Why the hell do we need a McDonald’s? Whoever proposed this is a moron. We’re poor, not dumb and hungry for crap food. Way to go ri.

  • The Family Dollar is a great fit, and the McDonalds would do well there. I think the real issue is forcing them to build to the street and eliminating the drive through.Traffic is already very congested through the area, and the drive through will make it worse. What I would really like to see is a Family Dollar and an Aldi. Since Price Rite moved to Eagle Square there is a definite need for another value priced grocery. There is product overlap between Family Dollar and Aldi, but they co-exist well enough on Smith Street.

  • Yes, I’ve never been to a Family Dollar, but I imagine it is something like a Job Lot and I’d probably shop at one if it was in the Square (I don’t have a Job Lot very close by). It would be nice if we didn’t continue to drop poor food options in our poorest neighborhoods, but I’m not going to tell people where they should be eating. We do however need a real food option back in Olneyville now that the Price Rite is gone and Aldi would probably work well.

  • I’ve asked the Planning Department if this meeting is still happening this afternoon with the snow coming. They don’t know yet, waiting to see if there will be a parking ban.

  • Family Dollar is kind of like shrinking a Walmart down to 8k Sq feet. Everything from housewares to clothes to limited grocery & HBA options. They focus on urban and rural locations and cater to a low income demographic. It’s a good fit aside from their suburban building style. Unfortunately they dont sell any fresh meat or produce, which is why an Aldi would be a great fit.

  • Tonight’s meeting has been cancelled due to the snow. A new date and time has not yet been set. Thanks!

  • RE: the signage that is currently on the construction fence on the site–that is part of Olneyville Housing’s Square One initiative. Square One works with local merchants and property owners to improve the Olneyville business district through beautification, communication and organizing. We have conducted regular weekly cleaning, done plantings and other beautification efforts; streetscape improvements; bus shelters and trash enclosures. We have also worked with business owners on developing shared marketing (including that signage and branding).and other business support programming (in conjunction with Social Ventures Greenhouse and others.)

    We appreciate the property owner allowing us to put the signs on the fence but it is not related to plans for the site…

    just wanted to clarify.

  • In larger cities, companies like these at least make a token effort to insert their suburban style business into an urban landscape. See the Target in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty or the Burger King on Pittsburgh’s Carson St in the South Side with both a drive thru and a parking lot, but facing the street with no set back. Completely thoughtless developments like this are insulting to Providence and residents of Olneyville. We deserve better.

    Also something to consider:

Providence, RI
5:27 am8:16 pm EDT
Feels like: 75°F
Wind: 6mph W
Humidity: 58%
Pressure: 29.94"Hg
UV index: 0
84°F / 63°F
86°F / 66°F
88°F / 68°F