Greater City Providence

Mayor appoints members to Downtown area zoning/permitting committees

Mayor Taveras has appointed 30+ people to committees that will work to streamline the zoning and permitting policies in the Downtown area, including the Jewelry District and the 195 Land. I am honored to be among the people appointed to the Advisory Committee.

The Advisory Committee is described thusly:

An Advisory Committee will provide feedback on broad development goals and policy issues that affect zoning in the target area.

The committees have not started meeting yet, so I’m not sure exactly how they will roll, but I am for sure open to hearing what you all have to say about it.

See below a press release from the Mayor’s Office outlining the goals of the Committees and listing the members:

Taveras Taps Civic and Business Leaders to Reform Regulations

Dual committees to expedite development and implementation of streamlined zoning and permitting process

PROVIDENCE, RI – The more than 30 civic, government and business leaders who have volunteered to accelerate Mayor Angel Taveras’ effort to implement streamlined planning and zoning regulations will hold their first meetings in the coming weeks. Mayor Taveras has convened the 30+ civic, government and business leaders to work with a federally funded consultant to create better integrated and streamlined planning and zoning regulations in Providence, with a special emphasis on the Jewelry District and new properties made available as part of the relocation of I-195.

The group, organized into two committees, will work with world-renowned design firm Perkins + Will to create a single, streamlined zoning and permitting process that makes it easier and faster to begin development projects and do business in the Jewelry District and downtown Providence. The project is being paid for with a grant from the US Small Business Administration.

The Mayor has asked the group to deliver their recommendations within three months.

Currently, building projects need the approval of as many as four independent boards in certain parts of the City, including the City Plan Commission, the Zoning Board of Review, the Downcity Design Review Committee and the Historic District Commission, all of which have overlapping oversight and often operate without sufficient coordination. The result is an approval process that requires developers to appear and reappear before the various boards numerous times and often takes months to complete.

An Advisory Committee will provide feedback on broad development goals and policy issues that affect zoning in the target area. A Technical Committee will review the finer details of the development options, including impacts to utilities, parking and transportation networks. Outputs from the committee work then inform a set of recommendations on how to create a single, streamlined zoning and permitting process.

At the conclusion of this process, the Taveras administration, in coordination with City Council leadership, will implement recommendations that will shorten the development cycle and ensure properties are developed in ways that best serve Providence and the City’s residents.

“The relocation of I-195 and new development downtown is an incredible opportunity for Providence to attract new businesses, open up new revenue-generating, taxable property, and build a stronger economy in Providence,” said Taveras. “Too often, the efforts of entrepreneurs, business owners and developers get caught up in bureaucratic red tape that has a chilling effect on growth and investment in the City. A direct and streamlined zoning and permitting process will offer efficiency and predictability to those who seek to grow and start their businesses here. I thank the committee members for agreeing to serve and look forward to receiving their recommendations.”

Council Majority Leader Seth Yurdin, who serves on the Advisory Committee, said the City Council looks forward to moving quickly with the Taveras administration to draft new planning and zoning regulations for the city.

“The downtown area represents a unique opportunity for economic development for our city and state. The City Council will work with the administration and all of the stakeholders to reduce red-tape and encourage economic activity while at the same time ensuring quality development projects that add to the fabric of downtown,” said Yurdin.

The Advisory Committee is chaired by Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. The other members of the committee are:

  • Councilman Yurdin
  • Kevin Flynn representing Governor Lincoln Chafee’s Office
  • Brown University Vice President Marisa Quinn
  • Johnson & Wales University President John Bowen
  • Lifespan Senior Public Affairs Director Stacy Paterno
  • Women & Infants Hospital President & CEO Constance Howes
  • Jewelry District Association Vice President Arthur Salisbury
  • Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island President Daniel Egan
  • EpiVax, Inc. CEO Dr. Annie DeGroot
  • Center for Advancement of Minorities in the Building Trades’ Leroy Belona
  • Rhode Island Building Trades Council President Michael Sabitoni
  • Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission Edward F. Sanderson
  • Greater City Providence Publisher Jef Nickerson
  • Hayes & Sherry founder and partner Peter Hayes
  • CB Richard Ellis Executive Vice President Constance R. Pemmerl
  • Cornish Associates President and CEO Arnold “Buff” Chace
  • First Bristol Corporation President James M. Karam
  • Gilbane Inc. Chairman and CEO Robert Gilbane
  • Paolino Properties Manager Joseph R. Paolino, Jr.
  • Betaspring co-founder Allan Tear

“Creating direct and streamlined zoning and permitting in the capital city will lead to predictability for investors – large and small – and help to build a stronger economy in Providence and all of Rhode Island,” said White. “Furthermore, I am confident that this process will help us accelerate the full build-out of the Knowledge District and generate jobs along all points of the skills spectrum.”

The Technical Committee will be chaired by Gilbane Inc. Vice President John Sinnott. The committee’s other members are:

  • Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis
  • Brown University Associate Vice President for Planning, Design & Construction Michael McCormick
  • Johnson & Wales University Vice President Barbara Bennett
  • Lifespan Director of Property Management Jody Bishop
  • National Grid President of Rhode Island Distribution Michael Ryan
  • Capital Properties Vice President Todd Turcotte
  • VHB engineer Renee Codega
  • Cornish Associates Principal Stephen Durkee
  • Planning consultant and former Providence Planning Director Samuel Shamoon
  • Latino Contractors Association President Luis Torrado
  • Procaccianti Group Vice President Michael Voccola
  • Vision 3 Architects Principal Keith Davignon
  • William Kite Architects Principal Christine West
  • Steere Engineering’s Susan Bacher

“Mayor Taveras has assembled a tremendous group of experts to advise the city on the technical aspects of drafting new planning and zoning regulations. We are members of the community who live and work in Providence, and we look forward to bringing our experience to bear on the creation of an improved path for future development in the city,” said Sinnott.

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.


  • Congratulations! You’ve worked hard and with clear vision to make Providence a better place to live, work and move aroound in on foot and bike, public transport and even, in some ways, cars. Now you’ve got an official voice, as well. GET TO WORK!

  • Jef, I also congratulate you on this appointment. It’s a genuine honor that reflects your longstanding intelligent and thoughtful assessments of the city.

    There are several issues that these committees will face from finding a system that will encourage a complementary mix of uses, to developing an approvals system that won’t encumber the development process, to setting zoning standards that are fair that would eliminate or limit the need for special-use permits, multiple board reviews, and variances.

    If the proposed September 2009 Redevelopment and Market Analysis (RMA) for the 195 land is adopted without significant modification, the basic underlying zoning for the new district could be inherently unfair and anti-development.

    Besides reflecting a general wish list of institutional desires for future development, the RMA embraces the findings of previous reports and proposes a more conservative interpretation of land-use rules based on the current 1950s downtown zoning that rigidly adheres to height limits. The RMA would also penalize developers by adding further restrictions limiting the total number of stories for the proposed parcels. Urban design requirements such as special base heights or street standards don’t address the underlying structure of the 1950s regulations.

    It is often said that Providence doesn’t regulate land-use by floor area, which is the fairest system that most cities in the world use in conjunction with other standards. Besides height limits Providence uses a maximum number of dwelling units and percentage of lot coverage to regulate land.

    If each parcel in the 195-district were analyzed on equal basis (apples for apples) using either lot coverage or dwelling unit percentage, the RMA would create inequities from parcel to parcel. By using either measure the 195 parcels would be penalized with more restrictive standards for maximum permitted dwelling units or lot coverage than what’s permitted everywhere else within downtown zoning districts. The same would likely be true if floor area were to be used as a regulating standard.

    The densest development is proposed along the 95 corridor. Why not instead along the riverfront or the proposed streetcar route? This is once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new 21st century economic district. Does this new district have to be constrained by using a dressed up version of mid-20th century zoning regulations?

  • Agreed completely with the above poster. “This is once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new 21st century economic district.” I would hate to see Providence miss this chance by under-developing these incredible parcels of land that have the opportunity to transform the city forever.

  • A new face for Kendall Square []

    MIT looks to fix the decades old zoning mistake that is Kendall Square, but their housing plan may not be ambitious or modern enough. Thoughts for us as we rezone Downtown, the Jewelry District, and the Hospital District and look to attract “knowledge” sector businesses while creating a vibrant neighborhood.

  • I wouldn’t mind actaluly seeing the entire newly opened space be turned into a series of linking parks with connecting bike path, similar to what has taken place in Boston in the area of the former I93 land vacated by the Big Dig, and current surrounding land (i.e. surface parking lots) developed into buildings instead. Such a connection of parks would act as a dedicated (and much needed) pedestrian/bicycle link from the South/West across a future Providence River Pedestrian Bridge and to the East Side.Adjacent land, most of which, currently exists as surface parking lots and would be developed into buildings. Though I am hopeful for the future of this land, its most likely going to take years if not the better part of a few decades to be fully developed (ex. Capital Center) and this seems to be a more plausible suggestion.

  • There’s not enough people downtown or in the immediate adjacent neighborhoods to use such an enormous area of park space. Except for the occasional walker, runner, or dog walker, many existing downtown parks are vacant most of the time. Examples: the park next to the train station is usually void of people, the State House grounds are pretty much always empty, the Roger Williams National Memorial looks more like highway median most of the day, and Waterplace Park particularly around the basin usually only has few people in it, not to mention the new parks on the east and west banks of the Providence River below Crawford Street are also mostly empty. Exceptions are Burnside Park and Waterplace Park near the court house and RISD, as well as the few evenings a month with the periodic Waterfire events during warmer weather when all the parks are jammed with people.

    Perhaps a narrow linear park with paths and bikeways attached to small pocket parks or plazas flanked by high-density development would have a greater potential to be activated with people in the 195-land district. The existing studies and master plans that have been developed for the 195-land have been timid. In spite of seductive renderings illustrating park space overpopulated with people that look more like ants, there’s not enough development adjacent to any of the proposed park space for it to be activated except by a large-scale special event. Conservatively there would need to be at least 10,000 or 15,000 new residents and employees to energize even a linear park. This idea that cities need more and more park space is misguided. If you want endless open space, go to the suburbs. Highly successful cities have very basic elements: streets with walkable sidewalks, retail, buildings that create a mostly continuous streetwall, and high-density population.

  • Several years ago, many Fox Point residents made the point that leaving the space open would increase and maximize the values of the existing surrounding properties. Examples of the phenomenon include areas like Central Park in New York City, and presumably the Boston Gardens. I can’t recall the other areas around the country and the world that were offered. But apart from the obvious benefits of open spaces to livibility, the city could well make out better from a tax receipt perspective if the land were left as an open space.

  • Central Park serves a city with a population of 8 million +, the Boston Common and Public Gardens serve a city of 600k+. Providence has ~180k people and, as Peter pointed out, already existing large swathes of under-utilized ‘open space.’

    Also, how would 20 acres of untaxed, publicly owned and maintained land help Providence from a tax perspective?

  • The Chicago lakefront, South Beach’s Lummus Park in Miami Beach, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Hyde Park in London, are open spaces that add value to adjacent neighborhoods. The difference is that the density in these cities is 5 to 20 times greater than most of Providence.

    How would Providence do better from a tax perspective? Fox Point is essentially built out. There’s no open area for new development within the existing neighborhood. If the 195-land east of the river were left undeveloped, and assuming that the open space adds value to the neighborhood, does that mean property tax should be increased on existing residential and commercial Fox Point properties? Does India Point Park add value?

    Central Park is surrounded by a solid wall of mostly 20- to 35-story residential towers and Boston Common has a mix of 5- to 20-story residential and commercial buildings, both of which has a much higher density than adjacent Fox Point, the Jewelry District, Upper South Providence or the Downcity surface parking lot district is to the 195-land. What would be the tax advantage of a 2-1/2 story 18th-century house or 3-story 19th-century commercial building as compared to 150-unit apartment building or 5-story laboratory?

  • I think the idea is that if you leave the space open, over the very long term the surrounding properties increase in value by far more than they would have if the space were developed. Fill the space with a development, and the surrounding properties appreciate less — and you lose the open space for open space activities and effects. Over the very long term that greater appreciation and resulting greater tax revenues from the surrounding properties could outweigh the totality of tax revenues from any development and the slower appreciation of and lower resulting tax revenues from the surrounding properties.

    As for the density issue, if the space is left open, the surrounding properties become significantly more desirable, in part because there is no development; and increased density of the surrounding properties — carefully monitored — probably would follow.

    I recognize that such really long term planning is out of favor in this area. Now, the city strives to earn the fast buck, often discounted, and then moves on.

    But consider this: if we filled the space with some kind of development, what would be the odds that the city would in any event give away the long-term tax benefits to a private developer (by “tax stabilization”) or allow a tax exempt to put up, say, a laboratory or other educational structure that would not pay any taxes or would pay a discounted rate?

  • Bill, while I am happy that you are engaging in the conversation, the reality is that what you’re discussing just doesn’t work. Providence’s core is severely underpopulated to support existing open space, substantial commercial development, etc. If you want property values to go up in the long term you need the place you live to be more desirable. While an open park can contribute, there’s very little reason to believe with empty parks surrounding Fox Point that the best thing to do on margin for property values is more green space. More likely, an array of richer cultural events, greater access to retail and food services, greater walkability, access to additional jobs in walking distance from Fox Point are all far more likely to add to the desirability of that neighborhood. It’s not as though the parks are overflowing and there is a clear need for additional space like that at the margin.

    Residents = more built structures that are taxed that have value, richer commercial activity (which has indirect benefits of improving value of commercial property), etc.

    There’s no way that a park under any circumstance is better from a tax roll or neighborhood viability perspective than adding say, 5-10k residents would. The short term impact of additional housing supply might depress some values in the direct vicinity, but they would quickly recover and grow as Downcity, the Jewelry District, and Fox Point become far more desirable places to live.

  • Jason,

    I think these are issues about which people can reasonably disagree. Unlike you, I don’t think the issue is black and white and that there is one obvious solution. Very long-term planning in Providence, and in the state, is almost impossible given the very poor economic environment — in part the result of endemic economic mismanagement.

    Avoiding mediocre or worse short-term solutions for a potentially far better much longer term solution is extremely difficult. Do we have the talent and political will for it? Almost certainly not. In fifty or sixty years, I would bet that many will look back at the inevitably crappy development that we will be put there now and wish we had been more thoughtful and imaginative.

  • No one is going to build high rises along the park there. You cannot compare Providence and a non-existent park to Boston and the common or New York and Central Park. And the last thing Providence needs is another huge underutilized and, more importantly, unmaintained park. We have plenty of those.

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