Michael Solomon (D)
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?
Close to home, I think there are things to learn from Boston. While a much larger city, Boston has created partnerships with its universities and health care institutions that we should seek to emulate here. Whether negotiating payments in lieu of taxes, community investments, or infrastructure improvements, Boston is an excellent model of good relations with its tax exempts. These positive partnerships are also reflected in the success Boston has in retaining college graduates, as so much innovation and job development is connected to its educational and health care institutions.
Portland, Oregon is always cited as a model of good planning, because of its think-outside-the-box approach to transportation, land use, and urban revitalization. In fact, Portland’s streetcar, which transformed the city’s Pearl District, was used as reference as we considered our own streetcar system in Providence. The relationship between fixed rail lines, and economic investment and development along those lines is well-documented, and something Providence hopes to emulate. By connecting the city’s largest employment areas–from the hospitals through the Jewelry District, and to Thayer Street–Providence seeks to replicate Portland’s success in spurring economic growth along the proposed streetcar corridor. Portland is definitely a city we can look to for continued inspiration to reduce our dependency on cars, and to embrace a bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly city.
Denver, Colorado has invested substantially in transit-oriented development, and has transformed a historic area of its Downtown, including the creation of an inter-modal transportation hub at its renovated Union Station. This public-private investment is impressive, and while the scale is vast, Providence can learn from the focused vision, intent, and good planning tools Denver has employed to attract young people, become more walkable and livable, spur economic growth, reinvest in neglected areas, and build on its cultural and creative strengths. Denver also has started a pilot program to ensure that affordable housing is created/maintained when the city expands or develops mass transit. They created an acquisition fund for this purpose, which could become a model for other cities.
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?
We constantly encountered this issue in the City Council office, particularly along our main streets. I quickly discovered that when it was a residential or commercial property adjacent to the sidewalk, most property owners were unaware of their responsibilities. As a result, the City Council office sent seasonal communications to property owners to inform them of their responsibilities. Stronger communication and greater access to information is always the first choice. Our inspectors should also be on the lookout for repeat offenders, who again, may not realize it is their responsibility to clear the sidewalk. In the end, public safety cannot be jeopardized, so I would support a measure to have DPW clear the sidewalk and then charge the property owner for the cost associated with clearing the sidewalk.
As far as State and City property is concerned, we are talking about accountability and management. Our first priority is to clear city streets, but snow covered sidewalks pose an equally dangerous threat to pedestrians following a snowstorm. We cannot have our pedestrians–especially students–forced into the road because the City and State have failed to clear an overpass. Through better management of our Department of Public Works we can have cleaner, safer sidewalks in the winter. Similarly, the Department of Public Works should enter into an agreement to clear the snow from sidewalks adjacent to State roads–for example, highway overpasses and bump outs at on and off ramps. It is simply unrealistic to expect the State to clear the snow, and someone should shoulder the responsibility and make sure the job gets done.
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 snowstorms?
This all comes down to public safety and street width. When the City enacted overnight parking, it designated parking based upon street width because of public safety concerns that arose from congestion. I would want to have a similar conversation with the Traffic Engineer and public safety officials to determine what streets could accommodate such a program. It is certainly counter productive to have an on-street parking program that cannot sustain itself through the winter.
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?
First off, we need to do a better job of managing and coordinating City services to ensure each neighborhood receives the same benefit. I will use the Open Data Portal to post municipal service data on everything from potholes fixed to sidewalks repaired. This will increase transparency and accountability.
But keeping our streets clean is as much a community engagement problem as it is a public works problem. It is hard to focus on keeping streets and sidewalks clear of litter when our public works crews are constantly removing large debris, such as mattresses. During my tenure on the Council, the City entered into an agreement for bulk pickup with Waste Management to mitigate the impact of these items on our public works department. Still, many residents are not well-informed, and our public works department continues to expend resources on their removal.
With greater community engagement, we can reduce the strain on DPW and allow them to focus on streetscape aesthetics instead of triaging. E-waste and mattress drop-offs should be a monthly occurrence in wards throughout Providence. The City has limited resources, specifically in its public works department, so we need to look for increased partnerships to maximize efficiency.
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?
From streetscape improvements to pre-permitting parcels, the I-195 Commission has prepared the land for 21st century development. Now, the City must work with the commission to generate interest on those parcels. I believe the current lack of interest is two-fold. First, developers want predictability. Providence is on a fragile road to recovery and commercial real estate investors need to know that they will not face disproportionate increases to their property tax rates the moment the City needs additional revenue. A commercial tax rate freeze was a start, but we need to provide developers with a tax program that lays down the taxes that will be owed on the development for an extended period of time (see question 6).
Second, the City needs to do a better job of engaging interested developers and expressing our vision for those parcels. There seems to be a sense that once the City approved the new Downtown zoning, our role was over. The commission may have approval authority, but that does not preclude the City from taking a more active role in selling downtown Providence to prospective developers. Personally, I would like to see the continued expansion of mixed-use development Downtown, specifically vertical work-live space to cater to the growing entrepreneurial community. We are on the cusp of creating a truly livable, thriving Downtown neighborhood. As someone who invested in Downtown Providence nearly 30 years ago to create residential life, I’m happy to finally see that vision coming to fruition.
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?
Providence needs to grow its tax base to ease the burden on current property taxpayers. I believe that a citywide tax predictability program is needed to redevelop our main streets and Downtown. After years of burdening commercial property taxpayers, developers are leery of Providence. The seven-year rate freeze that we enacted two years ago was a strong first step, but developers need predictability for a longer period of time. That is why I have proposed a 15-year tax predictability program for developments throughout the city.
A project would qualify automatically, that is to say, without needing City Council approval, if a developer invested at least $500,000 in a new construction project, or for a rehab project, made improvements in the amount of half the assessed value of the property, or $500,000, whichever is greater.
The plan would be revenue neutral to the City because the developer would see neither a tax increase nor a tax decrease for the first five years, or what we would term the development phase. Starting in the sixth year, the new assessment would start to phase-in ,and escalate by 10 percent a year until reaching full assessment in year 15.
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?
Freezing the commercial tax rate has been effective, and as mayor, I will continue to hold the line on commercial taxes in order to encourage development. Additionally, the tax plan I have introduced (see question 6) will provide property tax predictability for developers of large and small projects, and help developers more easily secure financing for their projects. Also a priority for me is restoring the state historic preservation tax credits. These tax credits made possible millions of dollars of investment in the redevelopment and rehabilitation of empty or underutilized historic buildings Downtown and in our neighborhoods. In turn, the revitalization of these historic structures increased our tax base, and created jobs.
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?
Creating a holistic plan for connectivity of bike lanes, bike sharing programs, bike parking, and repair stations is key to an effective, user-friendly intermodal transportation system in Providence. A dense, compact city like Providence can be a national model for bold and innovative initiatives that reduce our reliance on cars, and promote greener, healthier ways to commute, shop, and get around the city.
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?
I am excited about the potential of streetcars in Providence, and we will find out very soon if the City will be awarded a TIGER grant from the US Department of Transportation to bring streetcars here. We have worked with RIPTA to successfully implement the “R” line on Broad-North Main, bringing faster, more efficient service to the most heavily traveled bus line in the state. Improvements to bus service and amenities along other major commercial corridors in Providence will be coming soon, and our planning department has collaborated with RIPTA to ensure that these changes reflect our neighborhoods, and provide the best possible service to riders. I will lobby for more reliable and predictable funding for RIPTA at the General Assembly, and I will work with our next Governor to ensure that RIDOT priorities include mass transit and intermodal transportation.
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?
Improved and expanded commuter rail service between our capital cities is critical. Likewise, building a commuter rail service throughout Rhode Island is smart from both an environmental and economic development perspective. As mayor, I will work with Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials to create a long-term plan for system-wide growth in service and ridership, as well as a short-term plan to improve and coordinate commuter line schedules between Warwick and Boston.
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?
Better coordination of public construction projects among public entities is crucial. The City invests millions in its roadways, only to have its work undone by utility companies and other entities, all due to lack of coordination. As mayor, my planning department and public works department will set clearly defined guidelines that incorporate safe design standards and accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists. These guidelines will be signed-off on at pre-construction meetings between RIDOT and the City, and we will work with RIDOT to ensure that all State agencies doing work in the city understand and incorporate these standards.
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 think the parking tax is an innovative way discourage parking lots, and may also make property owners more reluctant to demolish buildings in order to use the land for parking. I would be open to evaluating the effectiveness of such a policy, but would not consider it for parking garages. We have a need for structured parking Downtown–especially with retail on the ground floors. However, the financing for structured parking projects is difficult, and an additional tax would further deter the creation of parking garages.
One policy approach to incentivizing more structured parking and fewer surface parking lots is bifurcating the tax rate on land and improvements. By taxing improvements at a lower rate than land we can incentivize developers to build to the highest and best use of their land. I would call for an immediate economic impact analysis of bifurcating the commercial and residential property tax rates to assess land and improvement differently.
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?
Recently, Providence was named one of America’s most walkable cities. This is due in large part to an active pedestrian community and ever-growing group of individuals seeking to increase access to public spaces. I think Providence should strive to become the most pedestrian- and bike-friendly city in America. We can capitalize on our small size and dense residential and commercial districts, improving connectivity by investing in signage, crosswalks, sidewalks, and access to diverse transit options. We can experiment with demonstration projects like “pop-up” sheltered bike lanes. This initiative would build upon our existing strengths, but would require realistic goals and benchmarks, and funding. And, to become the most walkable and bikeable city in the U.S. would require public education, and education within City and State departments, to ensure roads are safe, and traffic laws are followed. However, with much of the groundwork already laid–from the recommendations of the Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, to existing bike lanes and new infrastructure improvements–I believe that this is an achievable goal we should work toward.
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.
Providence is a city moving forward. We have seen our fair share of ups and downs recently, but we are finally emerging from the Great Recession. Over the last three years, we breathed new life into historic buildings, such as the Arcade, and revitalized public spaces such as Burnside Park. I highlight these projects because they demonstrate just how successful we can be when government works with community stakeholders and private investors. We got our Downtown moving again because we worked together.
I want to bring the same energy and passion for redevelopment to our main streets. From West Broadway to Fox Point, we have thriving neighborhood associations that I view as conduits for neighborhood revitalization. In recent years resources have been limited, so we must think strategically about aligning neighborhood interests and identities with City resources. There are power lines to bury, an armory with a higher use, and public spaces in need of attention and care. As your mayor, I will work tirelessly to revitalize our neighborhoods in a manner consistent with their identity.