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→ WPRI: The Providence economy may need some more apartments

Providence has low residential vacancy, and high unemployment. People want to live here, but developers have a very difficult time building financially feasible projects.

If people want to live in Providence, that’s a good sign for the Rhode Island economy. More residents means more customers, which means more businesses, which means more jobs, which means even more residents – a virtuous circle that drives economic growth. But they’re not going to come here without a place to live.

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→ PBN: Downtown vision tied to ‘Superman’?

Central to the argument for saving Providence’s Superman Building with public investment is a vision of the downtown economy driven by residents as much as office workers.

It’s a vision that’s emerged over the last two decades of downtown revitalization and would take a major leap forward if Rhode Island’s tallest building was filled with 280 apartments in the heart of the Financial District.

The new residents and their neighbors in other buildings would draw different services, such as a supermarket or expanded mass transit, than offices would.

The two recent studies of potential uses for the Superman Building at 111 Westminster St. outline the demographic and market shifts that have local developers rushing away from office construction toward rental housing.

Full disclosure, I work for Cornish Associates.
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News & Notes

→ Streetsblog: The Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, and Why It Barely Registers

In 2010, 4,280 pedestrians were killed in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and another 70,000 were injured. That’s one death every two hours.

It’s impossible to quantify the human toll of traffic fatalities, but as David Nelson at Project for Public Spaces points out, AAA estimates that traffic crashes cost America $300 billion annually in the form of medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other factors. That works out to three times the annual cost of congestion reported by the Texas Transportation Institute. But while we’re spending billions “fighting congestion” with expensive new roads, getting a handle on pedestrian deaths and injuries is almost a non-issue at your average state DOT.


→ The New York Times: Where ‘Share the Road’ Is Taken Literally

“Woonerf” is what the Dutch call a special kind of street or group of streets that functions as shared public space — for pedestrians, cyclists, children and, in some cases, for slow-moving, cautiously driven cars as well.

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Aaron M. Renn: For Commuter Rail, Better Service to Boston, Not Southward Expansion

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MBTA Commuter Rail passing under Providence Place. Photo (cc) Sean_Marshall.

Rhode Island recently spent a large sum of money to extend MBTA commuter rail service south to TF Green Airport and Wickford Junction. Both of them feature large parking garages (although the TF Green Interlink facility is for more than rail transit) that are not typical of suburban train stations and were very expensive.

These stations are only served by select trains on weekdays only, and feature long journey times to Boston – 1:35 from TF Green and 1:50 from Wickford Junction. Though these stations can be useful for commuting to downtown Providence – I’ve used the TF Green service for that myself – Providence is not nearly the employment market Boston is. What’s more, the Wickford Junction station is in a particularly inauspicious location.

Unsurprisingly, ridership is low. TF Green had about 200 passengers per day as of last summer, and Wickford Junction about 150.

With a mind-numbing total price tag of $100 million for this project (the estimated cost of just the transit portions) – almost $300,000 per rider – it’s unlikely that this will ever be viewed as a successful project.

As with the philosophy of the Boston area commuter rail generally, this service expansion was based on expanding the coverage area, but not the quality of service. In effect, it is an equity investment to make access to transit more equally available geographically (though economically more troubled areas like Pawtucket remain without service, so it doesn’t provide more economic equity).

While geographic equity is a legitimate government goal, public transit requires certain characteristics such as origin and destination demand, density of residences and employment, and walkable destinations in order to work well. It’s possible to add service to areas, but that does not mean it will be cost effective or well patronized.

Additionally, the South County expansions don’t move the needle for Rhode Island. One of the biggest challenges facing the area is of course the economy. In the Greater New England there are basically two main sources of wealth generation: New York and Boston. To the extent that you are in New England and are tied to one of those markets, you are generally succeeding. To the extent that you are cut off from them, you are struggling. The Providence area struggles because it is not as able to tap into the Boston economy given the just far enough distance between them by both car and transit.

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Where Would Jesus Park?

WPRI: Store’s opening squashed by judge

Federal Hill and West Side friends and neighbors rallied on Sunday morning in support of Cluck!, an urban farm supply store that is trying to open at the site of a former gas station on Broadway.

The business was approved by Zoning to open but was challenged in court on a technicality and lost, forcing owner Drake Patten to begin the Zoning process from scratch. Read Drake’s commentary on what has happened.

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Upcoming events at The Providence Athenaeum

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Photo from The Providence Athenaeum

Fri 4/12, 5-7pm, The Providence Athenaeum presents the weekly SALON: RI Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg in conversation with Kipp Bradford, Senior Design Engineer and Lecturer, School of Engineering, Brown University; the final Salon in Bradford’s 5-part series, “The Innovation Way of Life: Stories about Community, Culture, and Commerce,” looking at how RI can cultivate a sustainable ecology of innovation.

In 2012 the RI Foundation awarded its first annual RI Innovation Fellowships, designed to stimulate RI residents to create solutions to RI challenges by providing seed funding for social impact. Innovation Fellows receive up to $300,000 for up to 3 years to develop and implement ideas that aim to dramatically improve any area of life in RI. Winning ideas must have potential for big impact, and in the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation, “risk-taking is essential.” Also in 2012, the Foundation hosted a two-day summit, “Making It Happen in RI,” an economic convening of over 300 Rhode Islanders to brainstorm ways to improve the state’s economy. Join series curator and 2012 Innovation Fellowship Finalist Bradford in conversation with RI Foundation President and CEO Steinberg to learn why the Foundation has chosen to invest in innovation in these ways, what the results have been so far, and how the Foundation can best enhance the innovation potential of RI in the future. Sponsors: Michael, Anne, and Amelia Spalter.

The Salon takes place at the Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit Street in Providence; entrance is at ground floor-level door at the corner of Benefit and College Streets. Free and open to the public. More at providenceathenaeum.org.


Tues 4/16, 5:30 – 7:30pm (5:30pm reception, 6pm program), RI Public Radio and the Providence Athenaeum present: Policy & Pinot, a timely conversation series on vital issues facing our state – “Bicycling Toward Urban Renewal.”

Providence is striving to become a city where young people want to live and work. For many, having a green way to commute is vital. Join panelists Providence Mayor Angel Taveras; Cornish Associates Architect Steve Durkee; Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. Director of Bicycle Transportation Planning & Design Bill DeSantis; and RI Bicycle Coalition Board President Matt Moritz, along with RIPR Environmental Reporter Bradley Campbell for a lively discussion about how making the city an attractive place to live and bike could boost the capital city’s bottom line.

Free and open to the public, reservations required: email antonia@ripr.org or phone at 351-2800 to reserve seats. Policy & Pinot takes place at the Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit Street in Providence; entrance is at ground floor-level door at the corner of Benefit and College Streets. More at providenceathenaeum.org.

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News & Notes

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Buffalo Metro Rail – Photo (cc) Sean_Marshall

→ The Buffalo News: Development soars along Metro Rail

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is spawning a housing boom along the Metro Rail line, as developers look to provide lofts and apartments for some of the 17,500 workers expected to be employed there.

Note their take on parking:

The new downtown cluster will provide enough parking for patients and visitors, according to Medical Campus President Matthew K. Enstice. But because the campus would rather spend its resources on medical facilities than parking garages, planners are encouraging the big new influx of employees to use public transportation.

“This is how you force culture change,” Enstice said. “We’re actually doing it.”

Plans call for bicycle racks placed at strategic locations, rental-car checkouts for employees, and an interconnected and walkable campus that will encourage thousands of people to live in the city near Metro Rail.

The plan “has to work” because there is no alternative, Enstice said. There is no room to park 17,500 cars on the 170-acre Medical Campus.

Also, read Stephen Miller’s take on how Providence needs to be taking heed of what Buffalo is doing:

You can have a vibrant small city, or you can have cheap, ample parking in and around downtown. You cannot have both, for the simple reason that parking takes up a lot of space that would otherwise be used by people doing economically productive things. Buffalo seems to have learned this lesson. Providence, meanwhile, is drowning in downtown parking as the metro area’s economy stagnates.


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Developing: Mayor’s Economic Report

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Mayor Taveras unveiling his economic development plan this morning. Photo from the Mayor’s Facebook page

Mayor Taveras is unveiling his Economic Development Reportpdf.

Pledging Action, Mayor Taveras Outlines Plan to Grow Providence’s Economy

‘Putting Providence Back to Work’ report presents roadmap to improve the business climate, infrastructure and human capital in Rhode Island’s Capital City

PROVIDENCE, RI – Mayor Angel Taveras today announced a 20-step economic development action plan to put Providence residents back to work and jumpstart the economy of Rhode Island’s Capital City.

The Mayor said that Providence’s economy must be built on the success of a broad range of industries and sectors, and pledged swift action to improve Providence’s business climate, infrastructure and human capital.

“When we work together, we can compete head to head with any city or state in this country,” said Mayor Taveras. “Nothing will change minds about Providence as much as continuing our track record of success.”
The Mayor outlined five immediate steps his administration will pursue to support and grow Providence’s economy:

  1. Freeze the commercial tax rate – The Taveras administration will work with the Providence City Council to enact a seven-year commercial real estate tax freeze that guarantees consistency and stability for developers in Rhode Island and beyond.


    “Freezing our commercial property tax rate will send a message that Providence is serious about attracting new business. We look forward to the day when economic growth in our City enables us to actually lower Providence’s commercial rate,” Mayor Taveras said.
  2. Fix the City’s Permitting Process – Contained in the FY14 budget that Mayor Taveras will present to the City Council next month are two positions to staff a new unit in the Department of Inspections and Standards focused solely on reviewing and approving small-permit applications of under $100,000. These small projects account for 75 percent of all permit applications in the City.


    Additionally, this summer the City will move its permit application process online. For the first time, developers will only need to log onto the City’s website to apply for a permit and get status updates on their applications.
  3. Remove Barriers to Redevelopment – The City will conduct an inventory of all major properties in need of redevelopment. For properties that are not defined as historic landmarks, the City will put on a fast-track for approval all projects to replace existing structures with new construction.

    “We recognize that the City has an important role to play in facilitating new development. It is time to get cranes in the air and put people to work rebuilding our city,” Mayor Taveras said.
  4. Develop Surface Lots Citywide – To stimulate real estate development and ease the crunch on parking downtown, the Taveras administration will work with the City Council to provide tax stabilizations to developers who commit to new development on existing surface lots. New construction on an existing lot will be taxed based on the property’s current assessed value. This program will create jobs, incentivize new, mixed-use developments, and spur new investment on Providence’s major commercial corridors.
  5. Reinvent Kennedy Plaza – The City will work with the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy, RIPTA and other public and private partners to reconfigure and reduce the number of buses in the Plaza and transform it into a pedestrian destination.

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News & Notes


→ The Atlantic Cities: The Great Senior Sell-Off Could Cause the Next Housing Crisis

In the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, these consumers [baby boomers] were at their peak family size and peak income. And suddenly, there was massive demand in America from the same kinds of people for the same kinds of housing: big, large-lot single-family homes (often in suburbia). In those two decades, calculates researcher Arthur C. Nelson, 77 percent of demand for new housing construction in America was driven by this trend.

“Ok, if there’s 1.5 to 2 million homes coming on the market every year at the end of this decade from senior households selling off,” Nelson asks, “who’s behind them to buy? My guess is not enough.”


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