Primary election candidates make appeal to residents at first of two forums

Representative candidates, from left, Aaron Regunberg, Miriam Ross and Heather Tow-Yick at Summit Commons.

About 150 neighborhood residents and political advocates gathered in a large, muggy room Tuesday evening to hear the candidates for Providence mayor and District 4 representative plead their cases.

Democrats Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley, Michael Solomon and Christopher Young, all vying in the September primary for the chance to run for mayor, joined fellow Democrats Aaron Regunberg, Miriam Ross and Heather Tow-Yick, who will face each other in the primary for the General Assembly seat vacated by Gordon Fox.

Held at 7 p.m. in the main dining room of Summit Commons at 99 Hillside Ave., the forum was the first of two sponsored by the Summit Neighborhood Association. The second will be Wednesday, July 30, and feature both parties’ candidates for governor in the primary. The Democratic opponents for state senator are unable to attend.

At Tuesday’s session, SNA President Dean Weinberg introduced SNA board member Thomas Schmeling, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Rhode Island College, who was moderator. He posed a series of questions developed from topics submitted by neighborhood residents. The first part of the forum was devoted to the General Assembly race.

Responding to the issue of the local economy and what specific proposals they support, Ross, speaking first, cited her support for small businesses and vowed to get rid of regulations that hinder their growth. Tow-Yick urged increased public education, municipal services and support for small businesses. Regunberg denounced the “let’s make a deal” system and called for more investment in education and a bottom-up economic system.

On public education and the controversy over the common core curriculum and standardized testing, Tow-Yick stressed her experience in running Teach for America, Regunberg urged getting rid of the top-down administrative system and Ross said she would make sure adequate funding is available and suggested vocational schools.

All three candidates said they do not support a constitutional convention but would work to repeal the law requiring identification at the polls for voters.

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Fountain turned on in Lippitt Park

By the time of the farmers market in Lippitt Park Saturday, the fountain was full of kids despite the sign warning of the hazards and the threat of damage to the recycling/filtration system, which is not designed to handle human pollution.

The water in the Lippitt Park fountain began flowing again on Thursday evening, but by Friday morning had gone down somewhat. The city Parks Department employee in charge said there appear to still be some leaks. However, it does look beautiful “as long as people stay out,” he said. “People wreck it.”

SNA 2014 Candidate Forums

Summit Neighborhood Association is pleased to announce our 2014 Candidate Forums for the upcoming primary elections!

This election season we will be presenting two evenings of candidate forums featuring the following primary races:

Tuesday, July 22
Providence Mayoral & Rhode Island State Representative

Wednesday, July 30
Rhode Island Gubernatorial

Both evenings will be held at Summit Commons from 7pm to 9pm. Summit Commons is located at 99 Hillside Avenue in Providence.

Come a few minutes early for refreshments and elbow-bumping. We hope to begin the program at 7pm sharp.

Building on our tradition of presenting candidate forums from a uniquely Summit-centric perspective, we ask that you submit your questions that you would like answered at the forums. Please do this ahead of time by emailing questions to SNAProv AT gmail.com. (Please indicate which set of candidates you would like your question presented to – Gubernatorial, Mayoral or RI State Rep.)

This is an opportunity to hear these candidates in a small-group setting and to get answers to the issues that matter to you specifically. We hope that you will join us and participate in these events!

City commission approves NMS plan

The Providence City Plan Commission Tuesday approved a revised plan to construct a fitness center on North Main Street and to replace the Sears building with a 300-space parking lot.

Although 11 neighborhood residents testified against the plan and members of the UniteHere! union displayed a chain of 86 letters, many from Summit, opposing the project, the board voted unanimously in favor of the construction.

The approval was conditional on the LA Fitness chain working with planning staff to develop a system to dim after-hours lights in the parking lot and make the building’s signs more in keeping with the surroundings.

Acting Director of Planning and Development Robert Azar admitted that the proposal would not have been permitted under the new zoning rules currently being codified, but said that “this is today” and under current regulations, the developer had met all the requirements.

Commission chair Christine West said that the zoning revision “is an opportunity to make the city we want,” but also said current criteria had been met. She and other members of the panel thanked the residents who had taken the time to testify Tuesday and at a similar hearing in April.

Board opposes North Main Street proposal

The SNA board of directors, at their regular, public meeting Monday night, voted to continue to oppose the proposal to demolish the Sears building on North Main Street and replace it with a parking lot.

In a unanimous voice vote, the following motion was approved: “Given the very minimal nature of the response to the concerns we expressed at the last meeting of the Planning Board, the Board of Directors of the SNA feels compelled to oppose the LA Fitness Project.”

The members of the board took note of the concerns that the developers might abandon the project in the face of opposition, but decided that a flawed plan was not better than no plan. The consensus was that the residents of Summit have the opportunity and the responsibility to insist that changes to the quality of life in their neighborhood be made only in a manner consistent with their wishes. As one member pointed out during the discussion, “Communities such as Barrington and East Greenwich don’t get ugly buildings built in their neighborhoods because they insist on it.”

Other board members pointed out that the developers have invested time and money in proposing the construction and are unlikely to walk away, but said that replacing a long-standing eyesore with an even worse eyesore was not a worthwhile goal.

The SNA board will convey its decision to the Providence City Plan Commission at a public hearing beginning at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday at 444 Westminster St. and encourages all concerned residents to attend to voice their own views.

Parking-lot proposal for North Main Street resurfaces with few modifications

SNA board member Michael McGlynn reads a letter to the Plan Commission outlining objections to the development proposal as UniteHere members hold up signs protesting the parking lot.

The proposal to demolish the Sears building on North Main Street and replace it with a 300-space parking lot is scheduled to come before a city hearing again, but with few of the changes urged by neighborhood residents and the planning panel itself..

The Procaccianti Group, the Rhode Island developers acting for the LA Fitness chain of health clubs, has filed revised plans with the Providence City Plan Commission that show some modifications to the planned building and a few additional plantings, but the size and scope of parking lot remain the same. (The new plans are included below.)

The plan board will resume consideration of the proposal at the regularly scheduled public meeting beginning at 4:45 p.m. May 20 in the Department of Planning and Development’s first floor conference room at 444 Westminster St. A similar hearing is to be held at about the same time in Pawtucket.

At the April 22 public hearing in Providence, members of SNA joined with other concerned neighbors to urge changes in the proposal.

Testifying before the commission, 11 opponents of the application objected to the starkness and lack of environmental safeguards of the plan. SNA board of directors member Michael McGlynn read into the record a letter detailing the organization’s concerns. Some North Main Street merchants, supported by about a dozens members of Local 217 of the UniteHere! union displaying protest signs, also voiced objections.

The commissioners said the city “can do better from this developer” and voted to table the plan until the next meeting after having denied the applicant’s request to combine master and preliminary plan hearings, which would have moved the project along quickly.

The action puts off consideration of the proposal so “we can work together and figure this out,” the board said. The panel also requested an environmental-impact study and told the developer to come back with improvements to its parking-lot design.

At the beginning of the hearing, Andrew Teitz, the lawyer for the applicant, outlined the scope of the proposal, which includes a new building on the Pawtucket side of the city border and the parking lot on the Providence side. The new LA Fitness center structure would face the parking area, not North Main Street, and the only entrance would be from the lot. The building would have large windows looking out onto the street.

The plan calls for the new parking lot to meet just the minimum requirements of the Providence Master Plan, but with few plantings. The lawyer said storm-water runoff management would be better than exists now, but also meet only minimum requirements.

After the developer’s lawyer presented several witnesses who testified to the economic benefits of the proposal, the commission opened the floor to public comments

The first was in a letter from City Councilman Kevin Jackson, who represents the district and who said he supports development, but not in a form that violates the city’s Comprehensive Plan. He wrote that the current proposal doesn’t fit with the urban model of mass transit and needs more landscaping.

The first live witness, who identified himself as Bob Bacon, the owner of a restaurant across from the site, said the plan was the perfect proposal and that the area needed more parking.

Next was SNA Vice President Kerry Kohring, who said the organization supported development but had serious reservations about the proposal and deferred to the presentation of the letter from SNA.

The specific objections in the letter were read by McGlynn, citing problems with streetscape and layout, parking-lot size, landscaping and architecture. The complete text of the letter [PDF].

SNA board member Chris Bull said there was no vision in the plan and that it needed more than a bare minimum of environmental safeguards. Another board member, Grant Dulgarian, testified that the plan does not do justice to a vision of the city on a human scale and that more surface parking is not desirable. He pointed out that a parking deck already exists in the rear of the proposed building.

Several North Main Street business owners also criticized the plan. Peter Kammerer supported LA Fitness but called for a more imaginative proposal that would be interactive with pedestrians. Peter Gallant echoed the need for development along the street but said he had problems with the design and that it should be more pedestrian friendly.

Greg Gerritt, who called himself a friend of the Mosshasuck River, said the storm-water drainage plan was based on the size of the parking lot and was not friendly to the environment.

Jenna Karlin, the staff director of UniteHere! and a city resident, presented pictures of LA Fitness facilities elsewhere in the country that had better building designs for urban locations and did not have large surface parking lots.

Aaron Regunberg, a candidate for state representative from the district, urged the developers to “do it right” and said the current proposal isn’t the best possible design.

Plan Commission Chairwoman Christine West summed up that the board had a duty to the citizens of the area and that much of the current development proposal “works to the detriment of the City of Providence.” The panel then voted the continuance.

Peter Kammerer, of the Sandwich Hut on North Main Street, cites problems with the plan.