City planning director explains proposal for complete overhaul of zoning ordinance

Providence is currently engaged in a total overhaul of its zoning ordinance in an effort to “craft regulations to guide the markets in a way that is beneficial to the city,” a representative said Monday night.

Speaking to local residents attending the Summit Neighborhood Association’s board of directors’ monthly meeting, Robert Azar, director of current planning for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the major thrust of the reorganization is to “recognize what we have and preserve it.”

He said the zoning document now is “held together with tape” and has too many loopholes relating to rules dating to the 1950s. Azar said planners in the 1970s began a change that adopted a suburbanization outlook with a separation of uses that is not consistent with today’s urban attitude. He pointed out that cities do not have enough land to compete with suburbs and their vast parking lots surrounding commercial centers. In town, he said, “we love our walkable urban forms and we should seek to preserve them.”

Now, Azar said, there is “a great opportunity for the community” to try to keep the things it has and enhance them by using zoning tools to carry out the vision of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. He cited federal funds available and said planners had hired Camiros, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in zoning laws in urban situations, to assist.

An initial draft report is being reviewed “in house” by the planning department, Azar said, and is not yet ready for public view. He said presenting a huge, detailed and dense document is a challenge and his staff is seeking a way to communicate with residents about the proposed ordinance. It must be approved by the City Council with public input and all “clients” must come together, he said, predicting that a comprehensive proposal would be ready in less than a year.

Azar projected that the final document would be completely reorganized with consistent terminology and voice, clearing out archaic sections on measurements and temporary use. He said there would be better design guidelines to preserve traditional concepts, but would not rule on esthetics, which are subjective. Commercial districts, including Hope Street, should have design regulations that don’t put undue pressure on developers, such as continuing to demand a set number of off-street parking spaces for a certain amount of floor space, he said, adding that zoning should encourage pedestrian activity and biking. He said houses shouldn’t be lost to parking, but that adapting parking rules would be subject to further discussion as the process continues.

The planning director also said the new zoning would support linking public transportation to land use and develop North Main Street as a rapid-transit corridor. “Zoning should be in tune with transportation policies,” Azar said, and “we want to encourage residential with transit” use.

He also said that planners would be evaluating signage and landscaping standards plus how the zoning ordinance would be administered by government and how much public review would be meaningful in refining institutional restrictions and development.

In response to questions, Azar said the variance process would be more transparent, but that some of it was governed by state law. He said that the zoning board should not be changing “use” rules and that planners are developing a citizens’ guide to the new ordinance.

Answering another question, Azar said public parks are zoned as possibilities but do not always occur. He noted that the city cannot take away property rights, such as on the Butler Hospital campus, by zoning and that park use is determined by the Parks Department with public input.

Concerns about excessively tall construction are “well founded,” Azar said, but that “we are trying to encourage development in sync with correct usage.” He agreed that enforcement of current standards is a problem but is under the control of the Department of Inspections and Standards with recourse to Housing Court, not the Planning Department. He said getting compliance or remediation is difficult because only the courts can order changes and usually don’t want to cause financial hardship. He admitted that people who are savvy can manipulate the system to their own advantage.

State law requires that current non-conforming situations be “grandfathered” to continue under the new rules, Azar said, but that they cannot be changed or altered. He said that there is still much controversial debate in the planning community about requirements for developers to comply with the new rules, but noted that downtown projects now have to have building plans in hand before any demolition can proceed. He said “demolition by neglect” was a challenge not addressed by zoning but that the Department of Inspection and Standards has the power to enforce the building code.

Azar pointed out that in Summit, most house lots are undersized according to the old rules. “Some of the things we like best about our city are illegal under current zoning,” he said, but they’re trying to change that “based on what we hear from communities.”

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