Greater City Providence

Scott Douglass: Why you should care about Brown’s surface parking lot


Thayer Street in 1990. (cc) Will Hart

[box type=”note”]Scott Douglass is a South Coast Massachusetts native living and working in Providence. Currently collaborating with Boston based urban design and architecture company Principle Group LLC. Scott is an Alumnus of both the Providence Country Day School and the University of Miami School of Architecture.[/alert]

It has become fashionable to bemoan the pacification of Thayer street in recent years. The Nostalgia that a gritty district known for variety stores and record shops engenders is impressive, although it speaks largely to the quality of the Urban fabric which allowed it to thrive. There are no Thayer streets popping up in shopping malls. in fact, Thayer street has remained a pleasant destination even as the grit and hipness has faded. Even in its more recent role as the food court for RISD and Brown, it has retained its fine grained collection of prewar shops and houses which have incubated the charm which made it a destination in the first place.

Recognizing that the greatest asset the Thayer Street area possesses is its character, it lays in the hands of the stewards of the community to protect and enhance this character over time.

This is not to say that Thayer Street must be as a fly in amber, in fact, many large developments fostered by Brown over the last 20 years have done an adequate job at tiptoeing around their context. In fact some buildings, like the Nelson Fitness Center, have improved upon their context and healed a wound on the edge of one of the largest unstructured parks in the East Side, Pembroke Field.

These many successes are what makes Brown’s current proposal to level half a block of historic fabric buildings so jarring and disturbing, opening a wound on the street wall of Pembroke field, larger and more destructive than the one it healed across Hope Street.

A large surface parking lot in such a sensitive urban context is an atrocity more befitting a 1970s planning discussion, than one in 2016.

For one of the most premiere institutions of higher learning on the East Coast to espouse such a backward and outdated grasp of urban design best practices is a serious oversight, especially when they operate as the steward and largest landowner of historic properties in the East Side.

If Brown wishes to replace these houses with a building, they should do so. But simply demolishing these fabric buildings because it is easier for them administratively in the short term is not the behavior of a steward, it is the behavior of a slum lord.

Providence has made a new name for itself as a city intent on repairing the urban planning mistakes of years past. The entire city has benefitted from the application of proper context sensitive urban design and has helped transform Providence into the Creative Capitol.

Brown made a commitment to be a steward of the East Side, if they intend to continue enjoying this status with the city, they should not make a habit of destroying its urban integrity.

[box type=”download”]Alternate Proposal [/alert]

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  • I wonder if you have been to Thayer Street lately to talk to the businesses and ask them about their falling sales. Have you seen the vacant store fronts? How would you propose to help those businesses on the street. If you think Thayer remains an attractive destination then you truly haven’t been on the street to understand that this is no longer the case. Restaurants and stores have experienced 30-40% decline in sales over the past 5 years. As a business owner on Thayer, I applaud this parking lot. You simply want to bury your head in the sand and protect some outdated notion of protecting the character of dilapidated old houses. I wonder how you would feel if your entire livelihood were at risk.

  • Dave, did you even look at the alternate proposal? The author of this piece proposes a 44-space parking lot that retains 5 of the 7 buildings that would be demolished in the original proposal. That’s a trade of only 20 parking spots for keeping the integrity of the streetscape mostly intact.

  • This is a neighborhood – not really urban – it is not downtown – and shouldn’t look like it or feel like it with bad traffic congestion. Brook is a little street with a lot of foot traffic. They should be thoughtful and nestle it in esteem or behind another one of their big buildings- there are good architects here who could do this. Tearing down these six houses furthers crappy stewardship of a neighborhood Brown is disrespecting.

  • I think you mean “gentrification” and also, Capstone Properties is a major decimator of small businesses on Thayer Street. So bemoan that, as a BIG problem!!!

  • The last time I was up on Thayer Street it was grubby and there was graffiti in a lot of places, trash cans were overflowing and it was not a place I’d be returning to anytime soon. It was missing much of the charm that has made it a “destination” locally. That had nothing to do with parking and everything to do with what I assume is a kind of assumption by the business owners that they don’t need to keep up appearances because they have a captive audience of Brown and Wheeler and Moses Brown students and staff, or make changes that reflect the times. Hope Street has managed to keep their business area clean and attractive, with events several times a year, same with Atwells Avenue and now Broadway/Westminster area.

  • I would propose to help the businesses with frequent transit, which Thayer Street doesn’t have. If you don’t take the bus, the ambiance of buses passing through will make you think that there is good transit there, but any one of those routes is unlikely to be frequent, and when you’re trying to get from/to home, it doesn’t give you anything to know that three buses passed you going somewhere else. The 1 bus, at best, runs every 15 minutes, but is often only every half-hour. We could accomplish more frequency by revising the route to take away its service to S. Attleboro’s parking lot, since that adds about 20 minutes to the route.

    We should also have world class bike infrastructure.

    And I would suggest adding apartments instead of parking. Having more people live near Thayer would mean more customers.

  • The proposed parking lot with likely be for permit holders only no? I don’t see much positive impact for Thayer St. businesses if that is the case. If anything, the removal of those houses and the 100 or so fewer students living adjacent to the street with further the sales decline…

  • Brown has said the lot would be privately operated for commercial use. They’ve also said it is a temporary condition as they have near-term plans for a building there (CPC asked them to present more fleshed out plans for that). Which begs the question, if this lot is temporary, what do the Thayer Street merchants think they’re going to do when this lot is gone?

  • There’s less destructive ways to to accommodate for cars, Dave. In fact, Providence’s Department of Planning produced a study in 2014 that listed possible parking solutions. There’s no need to demolish houses to create 80 spaces.

  • As I understand it, the only choice was between a temporary parking lot for commercial use vs. seven empty, run down houses that Brown purchased in bad condition and are too expensive to fix. Seems like this decision was made long before Brown bought the houses. Let’s hope they build something there that enhances the character of the neighborhood. The houses are a lost cause.

  • Seven dingy houses are proposed to be removed and a handful of people get mad, but most say ‘yeah, something much better could be built there.’ In a few years, 80 parking spaces are proposed to be removed and people will loose their freaking minds. A temporary parking lot in this location will have a very, very hard time being ‘temporary.’

  • ” Restaurants and stores have experienced 30-40% decline in sales over the past 5 years.”

    Funny, there is no less parking than there was 5 years ago. Besides, there has actually been an increase in the number of people who are reasonably affluent yet do not drive!

    Grown-ups who used to find Thayer Street worth visiting regardless of parking issues have found other places to go. Thanks to grasping landlords, Thayer has evolved to offer little besides chains and pretentious bar-restaurants. The indy shops are gone. Hot Pockets excepted, there are better, cheaper alternatives all over town to the snacks and dining. Parking spaces will not fix this.

  • It really upset me when I heard businesses like the Avon Theater and the Flatbread Pizza place say that what matters in parking, because as a pedestrian/cyclist/transit-rider I spend a significant part of my disposable income on Thayer in various businesses there. I really wish that people knew and paid attention to the many people who come to these locations without a car, but it’s not as if I walk into a shop, buy something, and then say, “Oh, and by the way, I walked here.” The loud people complaining about parking get attention, even though they may not even be a very large component of the population that shops in that location.

    I’m really struck by the times I’ve seen Thayer shut down to traffic, and how busy it’s gotten. I’m not naive enough to assume that everyone got there car-free, but then again, if some people drove there, they must have found parking. A lot of people obviously showed up without cars at all.

    We really need to have a parking lot tax, which is used to lower property taxes, because any analysis of what buildings are bringing the most value with the least public investment and the least environmental/social harm will show that it’s these old buildings without parking that are the most valuable. And yet, because they’re old, people would rather knock them down than put the money into taking care of them.

    I’ve also heard this weird opinion expressed amongst merchants/neighbors, etc., that Thayer Street is “too restaurant oriented”. I don’t really understand why that’s a problem. A lot of the places I’ll actually go out and eat at are on Thayer. There seems to be a concerted effort to cleanse the place of any association with students, or even with people of my age group (older than college-age) in favor of some imagined ideal of Cranston house-wives. I’m not sure where that comes from. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someplace to eat.

    Regarding the condition of the buildings, by the way, Brown said that they have broken windows, missing shingles, need repointing of the foundations, and have lead paint. Some of these are significant investments, but generally whatever gets built is going to need those types of investments at some point. Unless we expect to constantly build and tear down every 30-50 years, there’s got to be a plan to invest back into buildings. The lead issue really bugs me, because since this is housing for students it’s not really a health issue (you get lead poisoning by eating lead chips, and it’s children that do that). It’s odd that the zoning officials are able to be flexible on parking, but not on lead, shingles, etc. Ideally, I’d love to see a concerted effort to remove lead from houses, but if we’re not going to invest in that, I don’t think the answer in the meantime is to tear everything down around us.

  • Whoever wrote this post and designed the alternate proposal, thank you for taking the time. It’s a true public service.

  • Providence can’t help itself. The answer for them is to take over a large chunk of the private parking business. They need to install large parking structures on the outskirts of the city and provide reliable (and free) transportation from the parking garage to downtown. Create a standard rate for parking, and implement a parking lot tax to “protect” their investment in the infrastructure.

    They can finance the parking garages by securitizing a portion of the revenue and selling those securities to institutional investors. They will eliminate surface lots and hopefully force those lots onto the property tax rolls, or keep buildings on the property tax roll if they actually show developers that they will never be able to circumvent the no “temporary” surface lots rules.

    Put the parking structure on the Seekonk River, $5 a day to park and complimentary transport onto the East Side/Brown area. Do the same thing on the south side for the hospital, and the west end. A strategy like this will actually support pedestrians, as ancillary development/enhancement of overpasses, sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. would be needed. But instead, we support more parking on valuable property in close proximity to congested areas. It makes no sense.

  • Why $5 a day? That’s probably a lot less than what the cost is. Chances are the price of privately operating a garage would be higher than that, especially if we started to do progressive land-tax policies and so on, that would constrict parking.

    We need to follow what Donald Shoup says:

    *We shouldn’t be building state-owned or city-owned garages at all. People should be free to build private garages, but without any help.
    *The parking tax is a great idea, though, and should be used to help push parking into the privately operated garages.
    *We should ideally have a Zurich-like policy, where when a garage is added, it also triggers the removal of an equal number of on-street spots nearby. Cafes and restaurants could add seating for customers in warm months. Strategic streets could be used for bus lanes or protected bike lanes. Trees and stormwater plantings could be added where parked cars had been. We’ve done three Park(ing) Days in Providence (I helped organize two of the three), and the business community has been very excited about using on-street parking for other purposes when it’s presented as a positive thing.
    *We have to assume that some discomfort on the part of drivers is part of being in a city. Recently someone told me that they work with Brown parking and find the lack of spaces frustrating. There’s no amount of parking that will ever meet people’s perceived demand for convenience. Instead we need to recognize that transit is a serious part of our transportation system.
    *I also think some Providence suburbs ought to be looking at how to make themselves more amenable to transit. How can they do this? I think it’s unlikely that we’ll completely eliminate park & rides, but having increased bike paths to bus hubs on the edges of the city, or in centralized areas of the suburbs, would make more sense overall than park & rides, because it would resolve the last mile issues while also making the suburbs themselves less car oriented. I just don’t buy this idea that people are going to put expense into gas, insurance, road fees, upkeep, etc., get up in the morning and drive part way into a surface lot, park, and then take another bus or train into the city. The only reason that happens in places like Long Island is because of extraordinary traffic and parking prices. We have to build little mixed-use hubs, bike paths, and so on, as the “suburban retrofits” that can make Cranston, N. Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and East Providence places that people will take a bus from to jobs in Providence.
    *We also need to focus on frequency, even if it means reducing some routes to make others more comprehensive. You can take a bus from Central Falls to Providence, but it swerves this way and that, and takes forty minutes to go 4 miles. The same is true for the 54, the 66, pretty much all of the East Providence bus lines, and so on (Even the 60, which it the premier suburban line in the RIPTA system, does this a little in Aquidneck, and also has next to zero pedestrian accommodations where it runs through EP–people have to run across the highway to cross). These bus lines don’t get ridership because they’re trying to stitch together a suburban land design. But that’s the thing we should be using bikes for. Bikes are fun to ride in the suburbs, as long as people feel safe. Riding a bus that goes zig-zagging everywhere is never fun, or financially efficient.

    Them’s my thoughts!

  • There’s no lack of parking near Thayer. There’s only a lack of parking if you’re too lazy to walk a couple of blocks. “There’s no parking!” is Rhode Islander speak for “I couldn’t find a space within 10 feet of the front door.”

    I’ve never had trouble finding a place to park near Thayer. Brook, Hope, Bowen, Llloyd, etc. — I believe most of these streets are unpermitted (though that’s changed a bit recently), unmetered and there are plenty of open spaces if you’re willing to drive around the blog for 15 seconds and walk an 1/8th of a mile. Why are people complaining other than out of sheer laziness?

    Also, +1 to what James says. If you want to increase business on Thayer, provide better and more frequent bus service, shut down the street to auto traffic (it should be like Church St. in Burlington, VT or the Ithaca Commons in Ithaca, NY — Westminster downtown should be, too, for a large stretch), and increase housing.

  • Agree with JCK – never had problem parking as I am willing to walk a block or two. Making Thayer an auto-restricted zone (could be open to residents on the street, delivery and service vehicles, disabled) is another possible way to go to attract people by its ambience, many Europeans cities have such streets.
    Thayer St will never compete successfully with easy at the door parking places even if they level even more buildings.
    I think the buildings proposed for demolishing are actually quite nice if they were proerly maintained, but I like traditional architecture.
    I think James is misdiagnosing why bis routes are slow, especially after the recent RIPTA review of routes. Most of them are quite straight, such as the 1 line whose schedules indicates only 5 minutes to Thayer St from Kennedy Plaza thru the tunnel, then about 29 minutes to the Pawtucket transit system. Its not that long because there are too many stops, they already cut that down. Its not too long because of zig-zags, its a straight run. But it doesn’t have any signal priority and RIPTA doesn’t yet have/promote “smart cards” that can just be tapped to speed up boarding, and they just pretty much eliminated incentives to prepay with passes as most discounts for fare-paying riders are being eliminated. But the big reasons more don’t use RIPTA is the wide availability of “free” parking for those with a car and the widespread perception it is just for the poor.

  • Here’s something I wrote on the #1:

    The issue I see is that relative to the frequency of the route, a lot of time is spent on the ends of the route (from the S. Side to the airport, and from Pawtucket center to S. Attleboro). I’ve gotten feedback from people that the airport service is useful (I don’t fly, so I’m biased against that, but I hear you all!) but haven’t heard anything that’s convinced me that the S. Attleboro service is useful. S. Attleboro exists, basically, as a place to park one’s car to take the T. People don’t go to S. Attleboro much for the purpose of visiting that place alone. The 1 doesn’t go to PVD station, which to me would be good since it would double as a way to get people a transfer to S. Attleboro (if that’s where they want to go) and also act as a way to connect people going to Boston and beyond. I’m not sure a route diversion to the station is necessary, since it’s only two blocks walk. But it would be nice to have protected bike lanes, which also double for people in rascals/wheelchairs.

    The 92 is on my chopping block too. I was talking to someone about this today. There is no bus from my apartment on Doyle to Fox Point, which for me as a young person is okay since I’ll often just choose to walk, but for anyone who is in a hurry, or who isn’t physically able, is a problem. Having the 1 become N/S just up and down Hope Street would make sense. We could get rid of the Brook St. portion of the 92 and use those operation hours to add frequency to the 1, and then we could take the W. Side hours and add them to another existing bus route (I think the 27 or 28 would make sense since Broadway is pretty centralized). Again, a big part of this is making sure that pedestrian infrastructure is maintained, too. Barry’s pointed out (rightly) that the sidewalks don’t get cleared well enough during the winter, but in my view it seems backwards to run buses in an inefficient way in order to correct for an inability to deal with sidewalk clearing. Despite the mayor’s admirable hashtag #GoodNeighborsShovel, I’ve still seen some sidewalks utterly uncleared, especially the other day when I was on the West Side. I think instead of just fining businesses, the city should send a DPW crew out to clear the sidewalk for the business, and then charge the business full price for the service.

    Off-board payment and signal priority would be important too. I spend a lot of time feeding dollars into the bus and holding people up, and it would be nice to do that off-board, especially because it might afford us the opportunity to have better shelters that people pay to get into at the bus stops.

    I do think we still have too many stops on some routes. The 1 bus, just to give an example, stops in front of the YMCA daycare (the more historic building) and the YMCA proper, even though they’re all of 50-100 feet from one another. Longer buses like the 60 have several stops in each downtown, instead of having one (again, the 100-150 feet stop distances exist in places like Warren, when I feel like there ought to be just one downtown Warren stop). It would help to get rid of stops, so long as we can make sure there’s last-mile connections.

  • James, do you really think you will capture the average person with a state of the art bus network? What demographic are you aiming this at? Because it’s not Rhode Island’s average person. I know this blog LOVES buses, but average people don’t like buses and will not ride them. I’m talking about middle class professionals, families, and students (since there are 50K students in Providence). RIPTA is not desirable for any of these people.

    You asked about $5. I was paying $4 at Wickford Train Station’s indoor parking garage, and $4 at the Attleboro T-Station when I commuted to Boston. So… that’s where those numbers come from. City or State supported parking structures are a transition… Boston did the same thing. They are in a process of selling City owned parking structures to developers, and some are even converting them to (affordable) urban residential units. This isn’t a bad thing, the private sector ultimately pays for it as infrastructure bonds, and it more than pays itself off before its flipped to an infrastructure fund or developer. Don’t let an anti-car bias blind you to the opportunity with a deal like that. Centralized parking outside of the city center would be a great middle ground for anti-car/public transit/bike oriented citizens, as well as people who prefer cars.

    Regarding your Zurich comment, I don’t mind eliminating surface lots, but see the elimination of on-street parking as very senseless, if done space for space. I’d rather see the City double the parking meters and charge a real “convenience fee”. If anything, eliminate some spaces in the city core for outdoor seating areas but make sure that any spaces eliminated are offset by new spaces elsewhere.

  • Providence zoning currently requires that parking levels in garages be flat. A series of ramps can connect to flat parking levels, but the parking levels cannot be ramped. This allows for the possible future conversion of parking structures into other uses. If the majority of the structure is flat, it is more easily convertible.

  • I didn’t know that, but that is very pleasing to hear that Providence at least has the foresight to require flat parking levels for potential future conversion. It’s a good thing. All these investments in our rail system will hopefully reduce the need for cars in RI and these parking assets can be re-purposed, as is occurring in Boston.

  • It’s good that we have that policy to allow for conversion.

    My problem with state money towards parking is that it’s procrastination with valuable money. If we put, say $40 million to a “temporary” garage now, why not instead put that same money into transit? The undesirable nature of transit, to me, comes from the fact that it’s back-of-the-bus (puns!). You can’t fundamentally change that relationship without changing it.

    I’m not convinced that putting money or effort into transit will cause miracles. But what I’m sure of is that putting money into the opposite–parking–will block progress on transit usage. Things that make transit unpleasant are its lack of frequency, the lack of reasonably comfortable accommodations in the buildings (e.g., Kennedy Plaza bathrooms being a mess and closed for a great deal of the day). Those things cost money. So it’s always wrong, in my opinion, to put public subsidies towards anything related to driving, because we’re failing at our responsibility to provide good transit.

    Even if you were in a perfect transit place, like New York, and you subsidized the development of parking, you’d impact people’s use of transit. People will always choose the individuated choice if they’re free to not pay for any of what makes that choice expensive (pollution, roads, parking, obesity, housing prices, etc.).

  • To KCB’s point that average people won’t use a bus, the answer is some never will, but some will, even if they have a car, if its competitive in cost and time. Indeed, one reason the #1 goes downtown rather than to Fox Pt is because of some limits on free parking downtown, people do indeed choose to take a bus and that is one reason the Route 1 goes downtown rather than to Fox Pt where there is unlimited free parking for anyone willing to walk a block or two. RIPTA routes that do not go downtown have generally not doe well for this reason.

    James has referenced Don Shoup whose research showed parking policy such as “cashout” (employees charged for parking but given extra compensation to use as they wish for commuting) really does significantly effect commuter behavior and boost transit ridership. People would like buses more if, (as James says) they weren’t given so much subsidy for roads, streets, parking, pollution, obesity, housing costs, military moves to guard oilfields, ugliness such as surface lots (most garages too, accidents, climate change…..

    I’ll add couples can save a LOT if they agree to share a car and use transit or bike instead of a 2nd car (as my wife and I have for along time)

  • I have to disagree with Mothra’s comments – Thayer Street has never been so clean.
    Graffiti is removed immediately. Garbage is picked up, in fact Big Belly trash containers were recently installed. There are bump outs for pedestrians. The tree wells have been fixed and improved. There is someone on the street every day sweeping and keeping it well maintained. They have repaired sidewalks that were in terrible condition. In regards to Brown and the parking – they are going to make is appealing where the edges will be carefully landscaped to screen the vehicles from the street. The uproar should be the parking meters that were installed.The city wants to expand the meters to 9 pm. How are people supposed to go to a movie, have dinner and shop in 3 hrs? The City needs to welcome people to Providence, not deter them. That should be the issue. Not Brown removing dilapidated structures.

  • Paid parking actually does a much better job of turning over customers, and part of the problem with the parking metering that we do is that we’ve artificially set a ceiling on prices where there shouldn’t be. It’s counterintuitive, but think of it this way: you actually want the parking right in front of your building to be the most expensive, and then gradually have the price get less and less pricey further from the business district. In Washington, DC, there are on-street spots set to $15/hour, with garage spots a few blocks away much cheaper, because they want people coming to the sports events to stay out of the high-turnover parking, and go to the garages. For someone who is literally spending 1-5 minutes in a parking spot, the high rate means having to pay $0.25 to $1.25 to pick up a delivery, but always, always, always having a spot to do so (I think there also may be a window, like the first five minutes, when parking is treated as free in those spots).

    The real key is making sure that local parking districts get the money back. That’s something that Providence isn’t doing. From my perspective as someone who often can’t find many affordable restaurants, I’d rather the restaurant have me pay for parking and offer cheaper food than have the parking be free (or even valet) and have the food be expensive. Parking districts that get money back could use that to pay bonuses to employees, to lower prices on their wares, to improve the facades of their buildings, to add street trees, or whatever else they might want. It’s just a matter of making sure they get to decide.

    Check out the video on this:

    We could really resolve the issue with food trucks if we had paid parking, too:

    And parking policy has a big effect on housing affordability:

    So free parking is bad. Bad, bad, bad! 🙂

  • I’m much less bummed if this is actually privately operated and charging for parking. That signals to me that the goal their expressing is more likely true, since they are not permanently changing expectation of Brown staff for parking.

    You guys know they eliminated student passes almost a decade ago right?

    It sucks when we get a new surface lot over any use, even if temporary. But I doubt we’ll see Brown stop expanding by taking over smaller properties or converting many of their auxiliary housing properties into larger, institutional scale spaces. That battle was lost when Sidney Frank was built on Olive Street and when city politics turned strongly against Brown being welcomed in vacant space rather than seen as a destroyer of tax revenue. This result doesn’t surprise me when activating underutilized or vacant space is seen as a political act of treason.

    I hope they do build more dorms and we can relieve upward pressure on rents on the Easf Side and Wesf End so we can have more affordable housing in the area.

  • Temporary chain-link fencing is up around the houses (comically, with big signs with the the Brown emblem and “NO PARKING” hanging on it). Meanwhile, one block north, there’s already a 49-space surface parking lot restricted to Brown use only; one afternoon last week it had all of eight cars in it.

    When did the south side of Bowen Street become all “Business Permit Parking Only”? Presumably this is for employees of Thayer Street businesses so they don’t use the now-metered spaces on Thayer, Angell, and Meeting, but again – restricted parking with space for about 30 cars, and only FIVE cars parked there.

    Tell me again about the parking crisis?

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