Providence will try again this year to drag its zoning code into the 21st century.
Like many other communities across the country, Rhode Island’s capital hopes to remove barriers to urban growth within its 1950s-era, land-use regulations and this month begins a citywide public process to rewrite them.
In a stagnant economy, liberalizing rules on how private property can be used is one of the few ways cities can entice more investment. But it’s seldom an easy process.
The last time Providence tried a comprehensive zoning rewrite, in the midst of a building boom in 2005, the effort met community resistance and was drastically scaled back.
This time around, the Providence Planning Department has laid the groundwork for change with at least 60 neighborhood outreach and planning sessions since 2008 (five for each of 12 neighborhoods.)
And the city has used $380,000 from a $1 million federal grant to hire Chicago consulting firm Camiros to help with the process. The first citywide public hearing was scheduled for Sept. 10.
“We want to present more clarity and certainty and predictability for the folks involved in the planning game,” said Providence Planning Director Ruben Flores-Marzan. “These are global trends, and Providence enjoys an advantage because it is a very walkable city and has a very sound mix of uses where people can live closer to where they work. This is an urban century.”
The rewrite will include city neighborhoods other than downtown, which was rezoned along with the former Jewelry District last year to make way for the development of the former Interstate 195 land.
A first step in the process will be to try to match city ordinances written 60 years ago to today’s historic neighborhoods.
“You couldn’t build the vast majority of housing stock in Providence under the current ordinance,” said Robert Azar, the city’s director of current planning. “We only allow two stories, so most of those triple-deckers are nonconforming.”
But exactly how far Providence planners will go to encourage new and denser construction, a key factor in creating a less auto-centric city, has yet to be determined.
Camiros has written a 42-page report with recommendations for a slew of changes that will be the starting point for the rewrite, but the specifics of the proposal eventually sent to city councilors will be influenced by public feedback.