Re: Zoning

by Kat Thornton

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published May 2, 2014

I sat in the cafeteria at 444 Westminster Street—the meeting space for the Providence Department of Planning and Development—and listened intently. Yet I couldn’t help but let my mind glaze over a little bit. Through the tedious presentations on overlay districts, parking requirements, R2, W2, 1A, and the like, I found myself thinking: this stuff does not apply to me as a Providence resident. I reminded myself of the reality being discussed here. City streets, residential homes, economic development, and public money. The stakes of zoning bureaucracy for effective and fair development are extremely high. The sentences lining poster boards around the room, once approved, will literally define the built spaces of Providence, Rhode Island.

     Providence is reproducing its zoning ordinance for the first time since 1951, with the last general amendment having taken place in 1994. The Department of Planning and Development began current rezoning efforts back in 2007 when the city was in the middle of the comprehensive planning process. Bob Azar, the director of Planning and Development, told the Indy that the comprehensive plan “sets forth community vision for how [the city] wants to grow and change.”  Zoning, a tool used to implement the comprehensive plan, defines the requirements for building height, car parking, bike parking, sign sizes, commercial functions, and the distances between a building and the sidewalk. Homeowners, developers, and business owners are the primary stakeholders for zoning changes. But you too, dear reader, must live with the results. Development in Providence has largely been of indirect benefit to the community at large. It has often privileged developers over the general public, particularly those in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. To say it simply and concisely: paying attention to zoning is important.


Zoning systems force urban developers to take pause. They can strengthen historic preservation, earmark districts for commercial development, and ensure that developers can’t build structures that are too cheap, too ugly, or too uncharacteristic for determined standards. But its importance is not immediate. Zoning is a tool, not an end.

     The needs and desires of individuals, places, and groups change over time. It’s not possible to permanently, holistically, and effectively dictate neighborhood development. There are always exceptions to the rules. If, for example, a resident wishes to affix a 20-foot-tall suit of armor on top of her house that reaches above the zoning-defined height limit of the neighborhood, then this resident must apply for permission from the zoning board of review. Such exceptions, called “waivers,” must pass a process that is both lengthy and public before they can become reality. This is particularly important when a large corporation wishes to construct something that would contradict the comprehensive plan for the neighborhood. Larger waiver requests, like a plan to construct a textile factory in a primarily residential neighborhood, must be brought before several commissions before they can gain approval. Residents are notified when zoning waivers have been requested in their neighborhood, and they can voice concerns during a public appeals process, where company representatives meet neighborhood residents face-to-face. 

     The DoP claims that it has been and will continue to be committed to community engagement during the rezoning process. One piece of Re:Zoning Providence’s main slogan (Re:Imagine, Re:Define, and Re:Vitalize) calls for the new plan to “create a tool that better reflects economic and cultural potential of our neighborhoods and the demands of residents and businesses citywide.” But it is unclear whether residents’ perspectives are being taken as seriously as the business perspectives. Top-level decisions in recent years have shown that the city’s main development priorities are to create clear paths for short-term business development, primarily in the downtown, while unemployment figures have increased in Providence’s peripheral neighborhoods.

     DoP officials have emphasized the fact that proposed waivers are drafts, subject to revision based on public opinion before being sent to the city council, where additional public hearings will be held before the zoning becomes law. The way the process works, after the first draft (publicly released in March) receives public comment, a second draft will be produced (slated for July), after which it will go through another 30 days of comments before being presented to the City Plan Commission (CPC). The CPC will review the board, and then will make a recommendation to the Providence City Council, which will hold its own public hearings in the fall before making a decision. If approved, the new ordinance will become law by winter.

     PowerPoint presentations from public meetings are available on the city’s official rezoning website, but notes from public comment are not. And reporting on the process has been sparse. It is difficult if not impossible to know what residents have come to say at neighborhood meetings. Representatives from Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and the Olneyville Housing Association both told me they were uncertain about what new zoning proposals meant for the communities they worked with. The DoP has a designated email address to hear public comments, and there are comment sheets at the public meetings. You can also sign up for email alerts by signing in at the public meetings. But these channels of input are insulated and do not spread information among the public. What should be a dynamic process is top-down and confusing to anyone who does not have a specific, vested interest.


The funding for zoning overhaul came from a $2 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities grant awarded to Rhode Island in 2011. The Providence Department of Planning and Development was given roughly $900,000, which was split about evenly between a study on land use and transportation in the city and rezoning, according to Azar. One of the “anticipated project benefits” of this funding was sustained public engagement: an official press release states that the “utilization of a public participation strategy to reach target populations, engaging them in the planning process and ensuring sustained participation throughout the RPSD implementation.”

     Fred Ordonez, executive director of DARE, told me the state reached out to his organization to ask for a proposal for how to efficiently spend this money at the state level. DARE recommended education efforts, hiring a couple of community organizers for each target community for “folks to even understand what the hell’s in these plans: the lingo, the jargon,” he said. “Decision making has to be at these local levels. If people who are the targets of either rezoning or economic development or housing development are not included in these decision making processes, it’s just people who think they know best.” The result is the increasing wealth, education, and health gap that has been apparent for the last several decades.

     Ordonez, who has worked at DARE for five years and in local nonprofits for several years prior, said a lack of education about issues relevant to the community, particularly when it is shrouded in jargon, makes it hard for people to feel comfortable asking questions or even coming to the public meetings to begin with. “We know who’s at the table, and we know whose priorities they’ve had and always had, which is why it takes a lot to organize people,” he said. Regardless of the administration, “developers in this city have ruled this city for decades,” he said. “Money is power.”

     The department of planning has emphasized their community engagement efforts at public meetings, citing a series of “charrettes”—multi-day brainstorming events in a particular neighborhood where visions for the community are brought together and articulated—as the golden example of their outreach. But Ordonez said all the people he has spoken to call these charrettes “charades.” “They were like a microphone that’s not even plugged,” he said, referring to them as “dead ends of input.” At the end of the proposal process between DARE and the state, Ordonez said the Rhode Island government decided to hire a consulting team to determine how they should spend the federal grant money and the community organizer plan was not adopted. The city of Providence also hired a Chicago-based consulting firm, Camiros, to manage the production of the new zoning ordinance.


On January 28th, the department of planning held its monthly public meeting in the cafeteria of 444 Westminster. The room was a little more crowded than usual; representatives from McDonald’s and Family Dollar had come to appeal for a zoning waiver. McDonald’s and Family Dollar hope to construct buildings and parking lots on a razed lot near Olneyville Square, on Plainfield Street. The parcel (planning talk for a piece of land) lies across the street from a gas station, Olneyville New York System, and around the corner from music venue Fête and several residential homes.

     Zoning laws for Plainfield Street require there to be no space between the sidewalk and storefront. According to most recent (2000) data, 41 percent of Olneyville residents do not own cars. The DoP had hoped that street side storefronts could promote a pedestrian-oriented commercial district. McDonald’s and Family Dollars both planned to build parking lots, which is the reason they had to apply for a waiver inorder to construct on the site. As Jef Nickerson pointed out in a blog post on Greater City Providence, filling this parcel with a McDonald’s and a Family Dollar would encourage non-Olneyville residents to drive in for cheap purchases and drive out, like those in neighboring Hartford and Silver Lake, where car ownership rates are much higher. “For generations, Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile,” Nickerson wrote. “First the highways, then the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.”

     At the public meeting, a large group of Olneyville residents held signs that read, “I live in Olneyville,” or “trabajo en Olneyville.” An interpreter helped make the meeting accessible for attendees whose first language was Spanish (though the poor sound quality of the room made it hard for anyone to hear what the representatives were saying). The representatives made their presentations, showing carefully designed architectural plans for the proposed buildings, and promised to construct brick walls with iron gates on the street, to create the illusion of a sidewalk storefront feel.

     In 2004, there was a similar story regarding a potential Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through in the West End. After a significant display of resident disapproval at public meetings, the Providence Zoning Board of Review denied Dunkin’ their application. The only difference between these two stories is that McDonald’s and Family Dollar have been granted a zoning waiver and will proceed with construction.

     Martina Haggerty, principal planner for the DoP and the listed point of contact for public input during the rezoning process, was not present at the January hearing but said she understood that support for the development favored constructing something over the empty lot. The opposition, on the other hand, preferred to be more selective about incoming development and demanded that new construction stay in line with the zoning ordinance for Plainfield Street. Support pointed to minimum-wage jobs for residents, contracts for local construction companies, and something (especially something that wouldn’t contribute to gentrification) on a lot that had been empty for years. Opposition preferred respecting neighborhood development initiatives, as articulated in formal plans and maintaining a primarily pedestrian commercial thoroughfare. The problem isn’t necessarily with the establishments themselves. In an ideal world, residents and PCP members could have taken advantage of an opportunity to make two eager corporations change to fit local priorities. “I really thought that we could demand better from these developers,” said Christine West, a local architect and the chairwoman of the City Plan Commission.          


Think about recent business headlines that tout tax breaks given to corporations, flaunting the number of jobs expected to come as a result. Think about start-ups and the “Knowledge District.” Think of the Providence Place Mall, whose land was essentially handed to developers for free as a result of tax waivers. Think about the fact that despite public outcry, the land made available by the rerouting of Interstate 195 originally belonged to Wards 11 and 13 (representing Federal Hill, Upper South Providence, the West End, and parts of Downtown and the Jewelry District) but was redistricted into Ward 1 (Fox Point, College Hill, and Wayland Square). Think about Providence’s development model.

     Community engagement in macro-level planning is critical. The authorities have acknowledged this by making it part of the stipulations for federal funding and by including it in their rhetoric. But if community engagement remains at this surface level, we can expect to see the perpetuation of a pattern of development that benefits the larger Providence community indirectly at best, and widens the wealth and education gap at worst.

KAT THORNTON B’14 has spent time in an ideal world.