Smart Growth, Business Challenged by RhodeMap

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state Division of Planning has an enormous task: Make Rhode Island more livable while acquiescing to the state’s business interests.

The opposing sides are distinct. One promotes a bottom-up, community-focused reshaping of local zoning ordinances and planning policy. The other wants businesses, most notably development, to remain unfettered.

This disparity was apparent at a recent RhodeMap RI public forum hosted by the Division of Planning. It's a public process to establish long-term objectives for housing, land use, transportation and economic development.

A central objective of RhodeMap RI is to refocus population centers into multi-use village centers. The idea is to make the nation’s second-most densely populated state more walkable, bikeable, and less centered on cars and sprawl. This is accomplished by combining apartments, retail and business space in village centers that have access to public transportation. In rural areas, the concept aims to preserve local character and open space. Zoning changes are sought for allowing combined development and to protect land for recreation and agriculture.

This “smart-growth” concept is nothing new. It’s been happening nationally for decades, and has proven popular in many tourist destinations — think Vail, Colo., and Disney World. Europe, of course, has been at it for centuries. Post-industrial cities and towns have embraced it as well, such Northampton and Lawrence, Mass.

Locally, Hope Street in Providence and Wickford Village in North Kingstown have maturing village centers, while South Kingstown, Burrillville, Exeter and Richmond are adopting the principles.

“It starts with a vision,” said Peter Flinker, one of the independent planners working on the RhodeMap RI project team. Let’s stop construction that stresses natural resources, he said, such as single-family housing developments that eat up swaths of open space, while lacking water and sewer infrastructure.

Developers, Flinker said, can be reluctant to embrace mixed-use construction because of concerns about financing, return on investment and even insurance.

While trends show that baby boomers and other age groups want the village centers, the areas don’t always have the infrastructure, such as sewer and water to handle concentrated development.

John Marcantonio, executive director of the Rhode Island Builders Association, said he has lobbied for federal funds to help rural and urban communities get funding for municipal sewage systems.

“Without proper infrastructure in place it’s just a plan, it’s just a dream,” Marcantonio said of the village-center concept. The state builders association favors smart-growth development, and will be collaborating with Statewide Planning on the RhodeMap RI process. However, “smart growth cannot mean no growth,” Marcantonio said. Private landowners can’t be told how to build on their own land, he said. Municipalities may also not like creating density areas that increase population and put more stress on services and schools.

Not to worry said Kevin Flynn, associate director of the Division of Planning, who describes RhodeMap RI as simply “a road map of how we move forward in the state.” One of the project's main goals is to grow the economy — and multi-use neighborhoods can make that happen, he said.

“Builders will build where people want to buy,” said Flynn, citing the recent sale of micro-lofts at the Arcade in Providence as proof. Progress also is being made by regional groups such as the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission and the Washington County Regional Planning Council.

Adoption of smart-growth concepts are decided at the local level, typically when cities and towns update their comprehensive plans, Flynn said. “We can enable them, but we can’t make a community make decisions," he said. Communities can also offer tax breaks and other incentives to promote development. Most important, however, are jobs to keep people in Rhode Island, Flynn said.

Preliminary feedback, at least in online surveys and forum surveys, has revealed a call for less government intervention to improve the economy. Deregulation seems to contradict a push for stronger zoning standards. But planners note that development won't occur where it's not wanted.

"We'll try to figure out the ones that we can do, that have the best bang for the buck, that we can accomplish," Flynn said.

Many attendees of the recent meeting at the East Providence Senior Center had more pressing concerns than deregulation.

Several college-age students and recent graduates focused on affordable health care and paying high tuition. While others wanted to see a broader participation from the disenfranchised in the process. “We have to reinvest in helping the silent people to participate in a very active way,” said local resident Ellen Goodman, a retired college professor.

The forum location wasn't accessible for those who didn’t have a car, said Patrick Verret, an urban planning student who is struggling with college costs. “If you’re talking about urban density, (the meeting location) doesn’t reflect Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls."

But he’s committed to the process. “We’ll see. It’s a good start if anything," Verret said.

Funding for RhodeMap RI ws awarded through a $1.9 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The forums were the first of three phases for RhodeMap RI. Follow-up workshops will be held in October and February. Local planning boards and other stakeholder groups also will be invited to hold workshops over the course of project.