Tonight at 5:30, the Zoning Board of Review will hear Providence Public Library’s request for relief from Zoning Ordinance limits on the size of signs at the Rochambeau Branch. The Library says it has promised this sign in return for a sizable gift. Concerned neighbors and patrons, including board members of the SNA and the Friends of Rochambeau have pressed the Library to move the donor recognition inside the branch without success. SNA will appear to oppose the request at tonights hearing and will present written opposition from 11 neighbors. We encourage other to attend and speak.
SNA’s letter outlining its opposition follows:

To: John M. Kelly, Chairman, Providence Zoning Board of Review

From: Jonathan Howard, President, Summit Neighborhood Association

Re: Variance request for signage at Rochambeau Branch of Providence Public Library

The Board of Directors of the Summit Neighborhood Association opposes the Providence Public Library’s request for a variance for signage on the exterior of the Rochambeau Branch Library. We will speak in opposition to the request this evening.

I attach two petitions and two letters from 11 abutters and close neighbors to the branch who also wish to be on record as opposed to this variance. I will submit the notarized originals of these letters at the hearing tonight.

We oppose granting of relief for these reasons:

  • The branch lies in an R2 residential zone within sight of many homes.
  • A14’ X 18” sign far exceeds the six square feet of signage allowed in R2 zones.
  • The branch already has an internally lit sign post that exceeds R2 standards.
  • The branch displays 40 to 60 square feet of additional signage etched into the glass façade of the new wing. (“ROCHAMBEAU” in very large block capitals).
  • Added signage at the Library further extends the character of the commercial district of Hope Street into the adjacent residential areas.
  • The total signage at Rochambeau Branch will exceed that of many commercial establishments in the C2 area of Hope Street immediately to the north.
  • Neighbors and patrons of the branch overwhelmingly oppose the sign.
  • The Providence Public Library suffers no hardship from the Zoning Ordinance.
  • PPL has promised a donor recognition in the form of signage which it did not have the legal right to grant under the Zoning Ordinance.
  • The Library has feasible alternatives for suitable recognition, including its full discretion to use the interior of the branch or any other Library property in any way it sees fit.
  • There are no reasonable legal or philanthropic standards setting the size of donor recognition in relation to the importance of a charitable gifts.
  • Granting relief on the basis that it facilitates a prospective charitable gift of a certain (not fully disclosed) size creates a very dangerous precedent.
  • The community is grateful to the donor for this investment in our community institution. We would gladly work with the Library to express our thanks within the bounds of the Zoning Ordinance.

    Sincerely yours,

    Jonathan W. Howard,

    President, Summit Neighborhood Association


    4 Comments

    Allan Tear · April 4, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    I’d like to clarify that the library did not say they would absolutely lose the donation if the sign was not approved as requested.

    One of the Zoning Board of Review (ZBR) requirements for a variance is proof of “hardship” from the existing zoning ordinances, and “hardship” has a pretty high standard, because many people and organizations attempt to claim it. Their lawyer implied that the donation “may” be in jeopardy if the donor sign was not approved, but offered nothing conclusive to the ZBR.

    The argument of “save the libraries or deal with a sign” is a false choice, obscuring the real battle.

    “Saving the libraries…” is going to take committed engagement by volunteers who care that the libraries stay open, are managed well and transparently, and thrive as an integral part of our neighborhoods. It is not a question of one private donation which was likely never in jeopardy anyway. It is the real battle, and there are some great groups to get involved with if this lights your fire.

    “…or deal with a sign” was a distraction, a tempest in a teacup. It was a sign that never should have been offered to the donors anyway, because the library knew they were already over their signage limit, having received a signage variance from the ZBR when they added the wing. Despite engagement initiated by the neighborhood association and the Friends of the branch, PPL was uninterested in finding a design that didn’t put them more egregiously over the signage limit and better matched their own signage and the building. Their variance request was headed for rocky shoals regardless of the intervention of SNA and the Friends, and the ZBR even gave them two bites at the apple, inviting them back for a second hearing. Everyone involved recognizes how valuable the library is, and tried to give them every opportunity to be successful.

    I hope that folks on this list are passionate about whether the library system turns the corner. There is a true battle afoot on this issue, and lots of ways to get involved in it ! But I’m afraid it’s much deeper than sponsorship signs.

    Maurice Methot · March 5, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    Dear Mr. Howard:

    After sitting on my hands for an hour at the March 5 SNA meeting at the Rochambeau branch library, I was finally able to ask for clarification on the proposed zoning variance to allow for library signage in recognition of a “sizable donation” to the library. The concern I expressed in my question goes beyond the specific issue of the proposed sign and concerns the openness of the process which led to the denial of the zoning variance.

    Given the breadth of my concerns, I made the mistake of introducing the issue of the traffic bumpouts as yet another example of an emergent pattern in which the SNA has continued to exert an inordinately strong influence within my neighborhood without adequate consultation and solicitation of a full representation of community members. The distraction I myself introduced into my original question regarding the proposed zoning variance resulted in a discussion that touched upon a number of points without bringing real clarification to any. Therefore I am writing this to restate and refocus my concerns.

    Basing my recollection of your retelling of the events leading up to the rejection of the zoning variance, my sense is that once again the SNA has functioned as a lobbying organization which, while purporting to represent the best interests of the Summit neighborhood, is often found aligned to a narrow and pre-determined agenda that has little to do with the welfare of the neighborhood as a whole. Your response to my question “Was an architectural rendering of the sign made public so Summit residents could make an informed decision?” was evaded with rationalizations such as:

    “It’s not the SNA’s responsibility to publish information on the proposed signage.”

    “The sign was an embarrassment to both the library and the donor and we did not want to add to the embarrassment”.

    “Legally it is required that only those people within 200 feet of the proposed sign be informed of it”.

    You then proceeded to sketch the following background to SNA’s opposition to the zoning variance: a request for the zoning variance was indeed published in the newspaper which was spotted by the watchful eye of a dogged SNA member. Galvanized into action, the SNA “canvassed the immediate neighborhood” and mustered a petition with twelve signatures, which was presented at the zoning hearing. Presumably influenced by this petition, the Zoning Board voted to reject the variance and the “sizable donation” was forfeited.

    As I stated at the March 5 meeting, I am concerned with what feels like a genuine lack of openness in the process. How can the SNA presume to know the best interests of the Summit neighborhood when it is so eager to mount opposition to a proposal that has scarcely been made public? Even more troubling is the disingenuous and misleading information in the SNA’s letter to Zoning Board Chairman John Kelly, on SNA blogs, and in the SNA newsletter:

    — “The branch already has an internally lit sign post that exceeds R2 standards.”
    As far as I can see, the Rochambeau Library is for all intents and purposes without visible signage. It is unclear to which sign the above comment refers.

    — “The branch displays 40 to 60 square feet of additional signage etched into the glass façade of the new wing. (“ROCHAMBEAU” in very large block capitals).”
    The sign to which this point refers is so integrated into the facade of the building as to be virtually invisible during the daytime, and barely visible at night.

    — “Added signage at the Library further extends the character of the commercial district of Hope Street into the adjacent residential areas.”
    A library is not a “commercial” building – it is a “people’s university”. The clear and public identification of this invaluable intellectual and social resource can be seen as a strategy which does not “extend the character of the commercial district” so much as it adds to the public awareness of the library and the services it provides.

    — “Neighbors and patrons of the branch overwhelmingly oppose the sign.”
    Nonsense. The SNA opposes it. I am deeply suspicious that in it’s “canvassing of the neighborhood” the SNA simply gathered the signatures of twelve core members certain to be opposed to this, any, and all signs. I wonder if these members were ever shown an architectural rendering of the sign or if they in fact even live within 200 feet of the library? Setting aside the mechanics of due process, do all SNA members really feel that they were adequately informed or included in this decision?

    — “The Providence Public Library suffers no hardship from the Zoning Ordinance.”
    Nonsense. It forfeits a “sizable donation” the actual amount of which was “never fully disclosed”. Certainly, given budget cutbacks and limited resources, the library stands to benefit from this and any donation.

    — “Granting relief on the basis that it facilitates a prospective charitable gift of a certain (not fully disclosed) size creates a very dangerous precedent.”
    Given the pressing need for after school resources, books, non-print media, technical resources, maintenance, and outreach programs, might it not be the case that there may in fact be a positive precedent established in granting just such a zoning variation for certain kinds of vital public resources? To describe this precedent at “very dangerous” is alarmist and hysterical.

    It is my sense that the SNA has once again demonstrated a lack of insight into the social, cultural, and intellectual forces that give life and shape to a vital and evolving neighborhood. It is not only the library building nor the signs that identify it that are important here. Worth careful consideration are the many ways in which this donation might have benefited collection development, educational and cultural programs, librarians’ salaries, and other human and physical resources. As a member of the community, I feel that the SNA’s action represented an unfair process that failed to solicit the input from those very people most influenced by the eventual decision – the parents of children in the Summit Neighborhood whose work schedules may not allow for the kind of dogged scouring of the daily paper to sniff out the evils of zoning variance followed by a mustering of like-minded crusaders to prevent it. That this decision should be smugly presented as a fait accompli, or even that the SNA should find itself “at odds” with the interests of the very neighborhood resource in which their meeting was held is not without a kind of bitter irony. And yes, I understand the Friends of Rochambeau were also opposed to the signage – I only hope that the members of that organization were made more aware of the details of the proposal than the SNA seems to deem necessary for the rest of us.

    I want the members of the SNA to understand that my point is not that I am necessarily in disagreement with the decision to reject the zoning variance – without knowing more about it, how can I or anyone else come to an informed decision? But I am profoundly disturbed by the machinations that led to it.

    Ultimately, Mr. Howard, it seems I disagree with the current practice of the SNA at a very fundamental level. My hope is that the SNA will make an effort to restrain its tendency toward the unilateral policing of the aesthetics of my neighborhood without a fair representation of the all of the people who call it their home.

    Sincerely,

    Maurice Methot
    50 Summit Ave.

    Mt. Hope· Providence, Rhode Island · July 11, 2007 at 10:42 pm

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