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.