Jorge Elorza (D)
Jorge Elorza is a Providence native, former Housing Court Judge, law professor, accountant, and community activist. He grew up on the West End, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and graduated Classical High School before going on to URI and Harvard Law. The murder of a childhood friend brought him back to Providence from a promising career on Wall Street, and he has dedicated his life to serving the community ever since. He is running for Mayor to make sure that the opportunities that gave him a pathway out of poverty are passed on to the next generation of Providence kids.
1. Other Cities
It isn’t always necessary to reinvent the wheel when it comes to best practices. Across the globe small cities like Providence are doing amazing things to make their cities more livable, increase their tax base, and improve services. What city (or cities) do you look to for inspiration of what you would like Providence to be like or to strive for? What are the characteristics of those cities that you think Providence should emulate?
I look to many cities around the country as models for what Providence can and should do. One of the reasons why I want to be mayor in the first place is because I believe that the innovative leadership and substantive changes happening around the world right now are happening at the municipal level, and mayors are at the forefront of this.
Throughout this campaign, I have often referenced other cities as models for best practices and big ideas. In my plan for full service community schools, I looked to Cincinnati’s community schools model as an example for both engaging community partners, and management through its Local School Decision Making Committees. In that same plan, I also pointed to Chicago’s “Grow Your Own Teachers” Initiative as a model for encouraging diversity in our teaching force. Portland, Oregon was truly the model for my Export Providence Plan, which calls for doubling our export economy in the next five years; the Greater Portland Export Initiative was launched to achieve the same goal for that city, and there is much we can learn from it. I have often called for more police to live in the city, and Atlanta’s Secure Neighborhoods Initiative provides some great ideas for incentivizing officers to do so. My arts and culture platform calls for the creation of a weeklong festival in Providence that is directly inspired by Austin, Texas’ South By Southwest festival and the major impact it has made on that city’s economy. If I have the privilege of being elected, I have pledged to accept applications for my transition committees just as Pittsburgh, PA Mayor Bill Peduto has done. Even here in Rhode Island there are cities that inspire me: for instance, to address school funding, the City of Central Falls hired a part time grant writer for its school department at an annual salary of $30,000. In his first year, he brought in $600,000 in outside funding. I would like to add more grant writing staff across Providence’s many departments to help close funding gaps.
2. Snow Removal
The city has an ordinance that states that the abutting property owner must remove snow from sidewalks. This ordinance has gone under-enforced for years creating a major public safety issue for the city’s residents every time it snows. The city and the state are notable offenders in not clearing snow from sidewalks abutting their property (sidewalks abutting parks, public buildings, on overpasses, etc.). How will you hold private property owners, the state, and the City itself accountable for removing snow in a timely fashion, and how will you ensure that snow removal ordinances are enforced?
For private property owners, I will copy the successful example of other cities that maintain a “carrot and stick” approach to enforcing our snow removal ordinance. Exemplary businesses will be rewarded with certificates and neighborhood appreciation events. Businesses that frequently fail to comply with the law will be fined. And, as Mayor, I will ask the General Assembly to enact enabling legislation allowing the City to clear snow on pedestrian sidewalks and lien non- compliant property owners.
At the City level, I believe that many of the enforcement problems are due to the fact that the Department of Public Works has not had a permanent director for over two years. As Mayor, I would commit to hiring a permanent director in my first 90 days.
In general, we need to leverage better tracking and reporting technologies to identify problems, then empower the new Director of Public Works to track response times and manage workflow accordingly.
3. Street Parking Permits and Snow
The City recently ended its longtime ban on overnight parking introducing a permit system for City residents to park on the street overnight. Allowing residents to park on the street relieves the need to provide off-street parking in paved lots and yards. Reducing this paved area has numerous environmental and quality of life benefits. Unfortunately the City bans parking during heavy snow with no options for people parking on the street, forcing the need for off-street spaces during these storms. Other cities, including Boston, allow street parking during storms, banning parking only on designated emergency snow routes. Would you support allowing people with permits to park on designated streets during snow storms?
I am supportive of the idea. I would need to talk more with Public Works, and public safety agencies like the Police and Fire Departments, before committing to making this happen. I would want to know more about the potential problems that might arise and how this would impact efforts to clear snow. If this can be done in a manageable way, I will support it.
Street-sweeping in Providence is extremely infrequent, largely focused on clearing sand and road salt at the end of the winter. While it is everyone’s personal responsibly to not litter, not everyone is that responsible. Many neighborhood streets are strewn with litter, covering vacant lots, and blowing into storm drains which exacerbates street flooding during rain events and eventually fouls our rivers and the bay. Will you increase the frequency of street-sweeping in the City and how can the City afford that expense?
The second part of your question is very important. I would love to simply say that I’ll boost street sweeping, but I don’t make promises I can’t keep. As Mayor, I will try to stretch the City budget to improve services across all fronts. We are in a difficult position where the City can neither raise taxes nor cut services any further. Some things will have to be prioritized over others. Cleaner streets certainly add to our quality of life and lessen our environmental impact, and I will do my best to dedicate more resources to that effort.
5. 195 Land
The 195 Commission is a state agency and that agency will be driving the development of this land. What is the city’s role in developing the I-195 Land and the surrounding area in the Jewelry District and East Side?
While development must ultimately be driven by private industry, there is much that the city can do to make the land attractive for developers. I am excited that the 195 Commission has agreed to abide by City zoning, and it’s up to City Hall to make sure that the zoning for this area is forward-thinking and allows us to best capitalize on this opportunity. In addition, the Mayor plays a very important role in meeting with developers and helping to steer the right projects through to fruition. Many of these developers are likely to seek TSAs from the City. At that point, it’s up to the Mayor, working with the City Council, to ensure that any agreement presents a real public benefit and is in line with our vision for development. Beyond that, the Mayor’s role is largely about advocacy: demanding more transparency and accountability from the Commission, advocating for the right kind of projects (I personally would like to see an innovation center like the one in Cambridge), and ensuring that the redevelopment is done with the best interests (and the input) of Providence residents in mind.
6. Property Taxes and Tax Stabilizations
How should property tax stabilizations and exemptions be used, if at all? What criteria should be used to offer an exemption? Furthermore, how will your administration prevent further increase in residential property tax rates?
TSAs are an extremely useful tool to spur development in the city, but they have been misused and mismanaged. This is the rare example of a single program that has been both over-utilized and under-utilized. TSAs have been overutilized in the sense that some developers have gotten agreements that essentially amounted to tax breaks; these agreements are meant to stabilize taxes, not eliminate them. Many of these TSAs are poorly supervised, overly generous, and ultimately cost the City money. They are under-utilized in the sense that our lack of accountability and long-term vision in granting TSAs has prevented us from unleashing their full potential as an economic development tool.
I would start by designating someone in City Hall to be responsible for oversight and enforcement of TSAs. There is currently no one in the City with that responsibility, and thus no one truly has to answer for TSAs that don’t benefit the City. The Mayor must work with the City Council to develop clear, enforceable criteria and requirements for TSAs, but we can’t simply stop there. We also need an overarching vision for TSAs: what are we trying to achieve with them, how will we apply them to achieve those goals, and what will be the measures of success? The answers to those questions must inform our criteria and requirements.
We also need to take politics out of the process. Again, that’s why I will designate someone at City Hall who reports directly to me to oversee the review and administration of TSAs. This person’s decisions will be guided by the clear, enforceable criteria and requirements we set, as well as the City’s overall vision for a successful TSA. This person will hold both the developer and the City accountable for compliance.
Another reason I say that TSAs are underutilized is because we have almost exclusively limited their use to largescale commercial projects; if we’re investing in these programs, we should also be willing to make those investments in our neighborhoods. I would like to see TSAs expanded into residential areas and housing, to help private homeowners and residential developers rehabilitate and bring back to market some of our housing stock that has been lost to foreclosure and abandonment.
If we take a proactive approach to TSAs, guided by a clear vision and principles, and overseen by someone who is accountable for their administration, they can and should be a powerful piece of our economic development portfolio.
As to the question of preventing further increases in residential taxes, it’s rather simple: raising taxes is not an option. We simply cannot afford to raise taxes any further without losing residents. In the short term, I will look to provide stability and predictability in our tax rates. Over the long term, the only real solution is to grow our tax base through aggressive economic development.
7. Development Costs
Property taxes are one part of the high costs of developing property in our City, along with that our construction costs are near or equal to the costs in Boston, but the rents developments can achieve here are much much less than Boston. How can the City help stimulate development to increase our population and tax base when these costs make development so difficult?
This actually builds of off the TSA issue. As I mentioned above, TSAs can be a truly effective economic development tool if three conditions are met: politics are removed from the process with clear standards and criteria by which projects are evaluated and agreements are awarded; someone at City Hall is expressly responsible for monitoring compliance and enforcement; and the City has an overarching vision and strategy for what it intends to achieve with TSAs.
This particular question raises an example of something that should be a part of that vision. The strategic, standardized, and apolitical application of tax stabilizations can help stimulate development in an adverse economic situation by offering something developers crave above many other things: predictability. Of course, given the remaining issues of high property taxes and lower rents, this would not be the game changer to put us at a competitive advantage, but offering stability and predictability at least gets us in the game.
Once we’re in the game we need to take the next steps. This involves a much more intensive long-term process that would generate an asset-based economic development plan to build on the strengths of the city and state: our colleges and universities, medical cluster, arts and design community, the Port of Providence, manufacturing, the food and hospitality sectors, marine science, quality of life, etc. We can play an important advocacy role, reaching out to national and international commercial brokers, site selectors, developers, and businesses to proactively market the assets of the city and catalyze foreign direct investment in Providence. We can also work with additional strategic partners such as local capital providers, architectural firms, and local general contractors to guide potential new investment. All of this is based on creating partnerships with a long-term strategy. It’s a slow process, but it’s the reality of how we grow our way out of the tax problem.
The current administration has taken small steps toward improving accommodations for cycling in the City, how will your administration expand those measures to build-out a City-wide system of bike lanes and cycle-tracks?
Bike Providence begins the work of establishing the safe and appropriate routes to connect neighborhoods across the city. My administration will work with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC), neighborhood organizations, and business districts to determine which areas are most appropriate for investments in bicycle infrastructure, especially protected bike lanes and bike parking. Engaging the public in the expansion of bike lanes and cycle tracks will be essential at the outset in order to build momentum for creating a city wide network.
In order to fund the improvements, I will work with the City Council to designate Community Development Block Grant funds toward implementing bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects. Additionally, my administration will seek philanthropic support by presenting a bold vision for transforming the city through bike and pedestrian access.
How will your administration work with RIPTA and RIDOT to improve bus transit and possibly introduce other modes like streetcars to our City’s public transit system?
The new RIPTA R-line on the Broad Street/North Main Street route has been a significant step forward in providing convenient and reliable access along the system’s busiest route. I will work with RIPTA to expand the rapid bus lines to the city’s other busy routes identified through the Transportation Corridors to Livable Communities project: Manton, Chalkstone, and Elmwood Avenue. However, any expansion or change in service must be done with the input of actual RIPTA riders. I will be a strong advocate to ensure that their needs and concerns are adequately considered.
If federal TIGER grant funds are awarded to support the streetcar initiative, I will support the creation of a TIF district to provide the City’s portion of financial support for the project. As the project gets underway and proves successful, I will direct my administration to further develop the strategy to expand the streetcar lines to connect more neighborhoods.
What role does the City play working with the federal government, the state government, and Massachusetts to improve commuter rail services both to Boston and within the State of Rhode Island?
As Mayor, I will be an outspoken advocate in working with state and federal agencies and MBTA to improve rail service to Providence both from Boston and South County. By creating more options for commuters and encouraging more rail commuting into the city, we can attract more economic development, decrease the pressure to create additional parking downtown, and improve our carbon footprint.
How will your administration work with RIDOT to ensure that road projects within the City support full access for pedestrians and cyclists and adhere to Complete Streets philosophies?
As Mayor, I will appoint a permanent director of the Department of Public Works and direct him/her to review State road projects for their adherence to the State and the City’s Complete Streets policies and that they are in accordance with Bike Providence’s planned bicycle corridors. I will also encourage the BPAC to actively participate in public review processes for major projects and advise my office as needed when projects do not comply.
9. Parking Tax
The City of Philadelphia has a parking tax. This tax helps generate revenue for the City and also encourages parking lot owners to develop their lots to higher uses. Would you support a parking tax in Providence?
I’m all for incentivizing alternative forms of transportation, and disincentivizing our over-reliance on cars. While I like the idea behind the parking tax, and it makes sense within a discussion of developing a more progressive transportation system, we can’t adopt it right now. The larger reality is that our citizens are already over taxed, and we can’t consider adding anything new to that burden. Over the long term, if we can manage to lower some of the other taxes – property tax, the car tax, etc. – I would consider a parking tax, because it’s much more progressive tax. First, it requires visitors to the city to share a portion of the tax burden, unlike the property and car taxes, which only impact residents. It also incentivizes other forms of transportation and ride sharing.
However, adopting more Smart Parking strategies is something we can do now to achieve some of those same goals without adding to the tax burden. By using modern technology to track parking and traffic patterns and data, we can use a smart pricing system that charges higher rates at highly in demand spots (say, Westminster Street downtown) to encourage turnover, while offering lower rates in less trafficked areas (perhaps Greene Street) to provide a better value.
10. Capitalizing on our size
Providence’s small geographic size can be one of our greatest assets. We could and should capitalize on our diminutiveness to become the nations leader at something. What do you think Providence should realistically strive towards being the best at? How can we achieve that?
I am a firm believer in the common refrain that Rhode Island can and should position itself as the “Silicon Valley of Food.” This would need to be a statewide effort with Providence as the engine at the center of it, so for the purposes of this topic, I’ll speak in “city-state” terms.
Food is truly a growth industry, and there are two broad categories to this. One is what I’ll call the hospitality side. A nationally acclaimed restaurant scene existing side-by-side with one of the top culinary and hospitality schools in the country is a powerful economic engine. In fact, the National Restaurant Association forecast for Rhode Island in 2014 predicts 2.3% growth to $1,980,821,000 in sales. Similarly, the RI Hospitality Association says the restaurant industry will employ 50,600 this year, an increase from 49,600 last year, and create an additional 3,100 jobs in the next decade.
Food tourism is also a growing industry and Rhode Island is at a competitive advantage for those dollars. It boasts several regionally or nationally renowned restaurant scenes (in addition to Providence: Newport, Bristol, and South County) that are geographically and economically connected to agriculture and aquaculture systems and marine industries, along with a presence on the Coastal Wine Trail and a budding micro-brewery and distillery industry. And all of this can be experienced on a single tank of gas, which is something that larger destinations simply can’t offer.
The second broad category is what I’ll call the innovation side. There are several national and global trends and needs that are likely to represent growth industries over the coming decades. These include: surging demand for and interest in local and artisanal foods; the issue of “food deserts” in cities; the obesity epidemic; sustainable agriculture and aquaculture; using innovative food science to address food shortages and nutritional problems; the impact of climate change on food systems; and product packaging and design, marketing, and branding for food start-ups. With its density of resources, high level of connectivity, and small size, Rhode Island can essentially become one large research and development laboratory for solutions to many of these problems. Among those many resources, we can boast easy connectivity between urban centers and rural food systems; a small, self-contained media market in which to test branding strategies; a local food system with a strong network infrastructure and high level of collaboration; easy access to large metropolitan markets and location along major transportation hubs; an emerging startup community; and a strong “meds and eds” sector. In fact, our institutions of higher learning represent a great example of the network of resources in Rhode Island: Johnson & Wales is one of the best culinary schools in the country with an innovative and scientifically driven Modernist Cuisine program; RISD’s elite design program has great synergy with food, hospitality, and startup industries; the same is true of Brown’s Entrepreneurship Program; URI remains a great agriculture school; and Roger Williams University is offering cutting edge aquaculture programs.
Taken as a city-state system, this heavy concentration of interlocking resources within a geographically tiny area makes a powerful argument for Rhode Island as the so-called “Silicon Valley of Food.” As Mayor, I will work with mayors and administrators in other Rhode Island municipalities, along with advocacy groups, businesses, nonprofits, schools, and many more to establish the partnerships, best practices, and economic development initiatives necessary to make this happen.
Please write a short statement (fewer than 150 words) for the readers of Greater City Providence about why you should be Providence’s next mayor. Please include what you think is the City’s greatest strength, and weakness.
I have the vision and the experience to lead us forward. Our greatest strength is our creative, highly-networked base of talent, from our heavy concentration of college students to our emerging startup community, to our diverse and industrious immigrant populations. Our greatest weakness is, frankly, our inability to get out of our own way. Burdensome taxes and red tape, along with our tradition of “know a guy” politics prevent us from capitalizing on our resources. I have called for bold yet pragmatic plans like doubling our export economy over five years, creating a citywide broadband network, and showcasing our arts and culture on a national stage through a weeklong festival because these all share a common thread: they build on existing community efforts and collaboration in a way that better leverages resources to address big challenges. These will be combined with a culture of professionalism and accountability in City Hall.
Candidate photo courtesy of the Elorza campaign.