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Providence's Sustainability Report

These are some of my land use recommendations to improve the Providence Sustainability Report.

A word that's missing. Density is mentioned twice in the whole report, but in neither case does it relate to future land use policy. The report refers to the benefit our city has from its historic density making it walkable, and talks about how density and nearness to Boston and New York are advantages in its food system. Although coded language about housing diversity opens the door to talking about more density in our city, it's really not broached directly. This may have been a political choice to keep people who don't like urban development from kvetching. I'm going to kvetch from the other direction. Density needs to be a goal. A lot of what the city can do best to encourage density is get out of the way.

One of these things is not like the other. The report makes a lot of strides towards improving parking policy, but also has some problems:
Did you spot it? Removing parking requirements, good. More payment options, good. Municipal parking? Puke face. The city has too much parking. The last thing we need is to develop more, which we appear poised to do with the new, expensive, Garrahy Garage. 

You have seen a map of the downtown, right?

Also, the city needs to remove all parking minimums, and the new zoning process is only removing some. It also needs to have effective parking maximums around major transit lines, but the parking maximums off of the R-Line, for instance, are really weak.

The city should not try to artificially preserve farmland in the city. The rubric question asks:

We shouldn't have any land zoned specifically for agriculture in the city. Note that I'm not saying we shouldn't have any farms in the city, I'm saying that we shouldn't have any zoned category for particular plots to be agriculture now and forever. The best practice for the city in terms of sustainability is to allow development on urban farms if the owners of the farmland want to allow it, and the development is urban in nature. So, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall or an urban farm, the choice is pretty clear. But, then again, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall and anything.... you get the drift.... I have three chickens in my backyard, and Rachel and I pay our $25 a year to the neighborhood association to have a community garden plot, and we value both, but there's no reason the city has to stand in the way of, say, an apartment building in order to preference that.

This requirement feels to me like someone who is enthusiastic about urban farming as a use of vacant land got too enthusiastic.

Which brings us to:
The city should not require any acreage to be used for green space. The rubric prompt states it this way:

I couldn't help but think of a famous passage from The Death and Life of American Cities:

In New York's East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. Asocial worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the usual answer was, "What good is it?" or "Who wants it? "Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: "Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, 'Isn't it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!'"
I very much think the city should encourage the planting of street trees, and should maintain active and well-maintained parks. However, this prompt suggests that the approval process for a building would expect 10% of the acreage for that building to be green space, and that's a bad idea. Does the Superman Building have 10% of its acreage dedicated to green space? How about City Hall? The historic department stores on Westminster Street? No. By all means, I wouldn't say we should prevent green space, but I really think that the preference for it creeps in as a cultural bias leftover from urban renewal.

In some parts of the city, where land isn't expensive, adding green space may not be very expensive, and developers will likely do it without a prompt. What concerns me to about this is that for this to be here as a rubric question suggests it's there for the situations where developers might normally opt to use their whole plot for buildings, i.e., on expensive downtown land. Making 10% of land be green space means 10% fewer apartments, which means more expensive housing.

I think this requirement also irks me because the city is only taking meek steps towards reforming its parking situation, but apparently has no problem putting green space requirements on buildings. I mean, if we get to a point in our development where we can talk about green roofs and so on, I support figuring out a strategic plan to make that more common. But the first thing to go before anything else should be parking lots, and yes, where possible, garages. Remember, a lot of buildings in the city only take up a tenth of an acre, and might have several apartments and retail or office space. That 10% is a whole building if applied to an acre of land. If that land is seated where a really tall building can go, then it's an even bigger effect.

The city should avoid Community Benefits Agreements for development. The prompt puts it this way:

Our goal should be to develop housing and other building stock. Although we definitely should have some zoning rules to encourage things like walkability, frontage to the street, minimization (or, better, elimination in some places) of parking, etc., we shouldn't institutionalize allowing neighbors to object to buildings and then use their leverage to get CBAs, which are essentially a bribe. This is one of the ways that rich people actually cause housing prices to go up and to gentrify poor people out of neighborhoods: they decide they like the way things are and try by all means to prevent others from moving in. Many people intuitively (including me, if you had talked to me a few years ago) have the feeling that new buildings will "price neighbors out", and so CBAs are often presented as a kind of compromise between the gentrification of the new building and the community benefits that can offset that. In reality, CBAs will make gentrification worse.

Should the community be able to engage with a developer about issues that genuinely affect community health? Yes, of course. We don't have this here, but in many states there are community fights over proximity to fracking, and community input has been one of the few ways that people have been able to make in-roads against the dangers of that process to water quality. If a builder shows up deciding to put a hazardous materials plant next to a school, or something of this gravity, then of course people should have a say in that decision. The problem I have is not that communities should have a voice in these weighty, important questions, it's that this sustainability guide appears to pervert that in order to allow single-family residences to demand something of new apartments in order for them to be built, or for annoyed condo dwellers to block a new building that might obstruct their view of the sunset. 

These are some of my thoughts about the land use issues in the Sustainability Report.


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