9 things to know about Providence’s new zoning ordinance

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Sixty-three years after Providence officials approved the city zoning ordinance, Mayor Angel Taveras on Monday will sign a major update of the zoning rules into law.

So what kind of changes can we expect from the new ordinance? Here’s an overview.

This was a long process.
Providence’s current zoning ordinance was approved on Sept. 21, 1951, about six months after the “Dennis the Menace” comic strip was first published. At the time, city planners very much had Mr. Wilson in mind when it came to zoning. The idea was that Providence would continue a trend of suburbanization, but that didn’t happen. While there have been amendments to the ordinance over the years, the city felt a full update was needed to set the tone for development over the next several decades. The discussion started under former Mayor David Cicilline with Providence Tomorrow, a 292-page adjective-filled comprehensive plan that envisioned a city that is green, rich in character, dynamic, livable, diverse, active, equitable, efficient, engaging and creative. Flash forward to 2013. The city started drafting its zoning ordinance to reflect many of the goals stated in the comprehensive plan. Over the next 18 months, city leaders engaged key stakeholders, launched a website, met with residents in every neighborhood and held public hearings as the ordinance came together. The ordinance was approved for a second time by the City Council on Nov. 20.

There aren’t a lot of changes.
If you’re a homeowner on Mount Pleasant Avenue, you have very little to worry about in terms of changes. City officials heard loud and clear that the zoning ordinance needed to preserve the quality of life in every neighborhood. Residential zones will remain largely the same under the new ordinance. The key changes are focused on creating new development and economic opportunities and specific parts of the city.

North Main Street and Upper South Providence are considered growth areas.
You may already know about RIPTA’s R-Line that aims to improve service on the Route 99 (North Main Street) and Route 11 (Broad Street) buses. City officials believe the high-transit areas around North Main Street and Trinity Square are ripe for development, so the ordinance allows for higher buildings and removes certain parking requirements for any new residential units.

Parking is a major part of the ordinance.
As PBN’s Patrick Anderson likes to point out, the city’s current zoning ordinance requires residential buildings to provide 1.5 parking spaces per housing unit. The ordinance Mayor Taveras will sign into law today reduces minimum parking in most parts of the city to 1 space per unit, but also removes the requirement altogether for those transit zones around North Main Street and Upper South Providence. The idea is to let the market decide how much parking is needed rather than having a universal policy for the entire city. The ordinance also requires all residential buildings to make room for bicycle parking.

The city has addressed the I-195 area with separate regulations.
If you’re looking for answers regarding the vacant I-195 land, you’re about two years too late. In 2012, Providence unveiled its plan for rezoning downtown, including allowing colleges and health care institutions to build anywhere in downtown without special approval from the Zoning Board. The plan also allowed for higher buildings and attempted to streamline the city permitting process. By most accounts, zoning is not going to be major barrier for development of the vacant land. Tax incentives are a different story.

The working waterfront is preserved.
During the mayor’s race, you might remember that the biggest policy difference between Jorge Elorza and Buddy Cianci was around what to do with the waterfront area along Allens Avenue. Elorza supported the current vision, which calls for heavy industrial zoning. Cianci wanted mixed-use development that would have included a hotel and marina in addition to the working waterfront. In August, Mayor Taveras signed an amendment to the zoning ordinance that was pitched as his way of blocking mixed-use development on the waterfront, but it actually made relatively minor changes to the existing policy. The ordinance he’s signing today includes no real changes to W3 zoning (that’s the waterfront), meaning that the city will move forward the plan Elorza largely supports for Allens Avenue.

All eyes are on Blackstone Boulevard.
Some East Side residents are angry about a plan to subdivide the Bridgham Estate at the corner of the Blackstone Boulevard and Rochambeau Avenue, in part because the property’s owners are moving quickly in an effort to avoid having to follow the new zoning laws once they take effect. The new ordinance requires new construction to be on lots that are at least 7,500 square feet, about 1,500 square feet larger than each of the 10 lots that would be part of the subdivision plan.

The city is strengthening its efforts around historic preservation.
The new zoning ordinance creates a Providence Landmarks District that will allow property owners to opt-in to the new district. Placing your property on this list will limit the ability of future owners to demolish or make significant changes to the property.

Providence no longer needs a Zoning Board.
Well, that’s not entirely true. But it’s a joke Zoning Board member Scott Wolf proudly told during a taping of myRITV’s Executive Suite last year. Because the new ordinance clarifies a lot of confusion and provides predictability around zoning rules, the Zoning’s Board’s caseload is expected to see a significant reduction.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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