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#AskJoePaolino

Not my strongest photo ever: Joe Paolino turns to talk about the
Allens Avenue complex, where he believes more development
should happen.
Update: One of my claims in this article has been challenged by RIPTA and Providence Planning (see Floating Bus Island on Fountain Street section). I am writing up an article to address the specifics of this, as I think the issue is complicated.

Following a discussion over Former Mayor Joe Paolino's comments in the East Side Monthly on the 6/10 Connector and bike lanes, Joe Paolino agreed to show Transport Providence some of his concerns from the vantage point of his Mercedes, cruising downtown. 

Paolino is someone that Transport Providence has been in disagreement with a lot, so it would be fair to say that our opinion of his views is a critical one. However, we found the former mayor cordial and enjoyed talking with him, and to the extent that Paolino was open about his ideas, that helps the public hold him accountable for his views.


Transport Providence has tried to organize this article to give Paolino the opportunity to express his views fully, but where contrasting information exists, especially on objective factual issues, we've tried to provide that as a reality check. In some cases the views that Paolino holds are merely differences of opinion, but there are also some cases in which his views clash with established consensus views among experts, or with objective data.

Buses at Allens Avenue
Paolino interviewed for a Projo article with James Baar in 2014, in which Baar described Kennedy Plaza as a cesspool of criminality and poverty, and quoted Paolino as a supporter of policies that would "fix" Kennedy Plaza. In that article, Paolino said that he wanted the buses at Kennedy Plaza moved to the "fringes" of the city, additional policing of panhandling, and more parking for suburban drivers. Paolino said that he supported turned Kennedy Plaza into an underground garage. Online and during our interview with Paolino in his car, he reasserted that Kennedy Plaza would be better as a garage, saying it should "have at least one level of cars below ground". He also said that he thought that having a garage there was something he preferred but "didn't want to make a big deal about."

Paolino had surprisingly positive things to say about buses during our interview:

"A lot of the people, the middle class from the East Side use the buses to come down. A lot of the people from Broadway, from Elmwood, Cranston use the buses. I think it's definitely a mix."

Paolino described his efforts to get the Kennedy Plaza bus hub to move to Allens Avenue as not about being anti-transit, but about activating Allens Avenue. Asked if he thought people might have trouble getting to downtown if the bus hub was at Allens Avenue, he said that "I don't mean to say that there shouldn't be buses stopping in downtown, just that the hub shouldn't be there." 

Paolino stated support for the panhandling ban that was recently passed by Cranston Republicans and rejected by all the Democratic officials on the Cranston city council. Transport Providence asked Paolino whether it was fair for him to blame Mayor Jorge Elorza for allowing panhandling when the decision had been made by the courts. Paolino said correctly that no official decision had been made by the courts about Providence, but that instead different rulings had been made about neighboring towns and cities. Wasn't it a good decision for Mayor Elorza to cooperate with what seemed like a pattern of rulings against this type of law? asked Transport Providence. Paolino said no.

Although Transport Providence and many liberal-minded people might reject Paolino's view of panhandling ordinances, not all of his comments could be construed as anti-homeless. Paolino spent a lot of time talking about how he wanted to expand services available to homeless people. 

Passing the pedestrian island near the confluence of Bridgham, Elmwood, and Broad Streets, Paolino pointed to a homeless man, saying, "See, this just breaks my heart. Why don't we have services available to this person so that he's not standing here?"

Paolino said that before the buses were moved to Kennedy Plaza, Crossroads (formerly "Travelers Aid") used to offer direct services at the bus depot along Sabin Street. Paolino viewed connecting bus services directly to homelessness services as key.

In an interview with the Providence Journal, Crossroads Rhode Island's executive director expressed some frustration with Paolino's approach:
Karen Santilli, president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, who was invited to speak at the news conference Tuesday, said she hoped to dispel "lots of misinformation and rumors" about the proposal.

Fliers circulated in the neighborhood on Monday saying that the plans involved moving the Crossroads shelter at 160 Broad St. in downtown Providence into the former hospital building on the city's South Side.

"There's no way we would ever move out of the (downtown) building we are in," Santilli said.

Last summer, she said, during community meetings about panhandling in Kennedy Plaza, Paolino, who chairs the Downtown Improvement District, had approached her about moving Crossroads residents out of their current building.

"If I bought this building, would you be interested in turning it into a shelter?" Santilli recalled Paolino saying. "I said, 'No. The solution is housing, not shelter.' And then he agreed and said, 'OK, let's talk about housing... ' "
Paolino also came under criticism from some advocates for meetings he held that appeared to bar some advocates and many members of the press from attending.  

As Paolino showed Transport Providence the hospital complex and parking lots he had bought in South Providence, he said that he hoped to make permanent housing rather than shelters an option. Whether this was just an off-hand comment or a true commitment remains untested.

When it comes to permanent housing, there are a lot of things that city planners have learned over the years, and questions remain about how these lessons would fit into Paolino's plans. The hospital appears to be a location where people would live in a concentrated location, while the most noted successes in public housing have been by following theorist Oscar Newman, who believed in dispersing homeless individuals within otherwise middle class locations, and giving them access into "defensible space" that is clearly private and owned by the individuals being given housing. Newman's successful work in places like Yonkers, New York has become well known to the layman public after the HBO series Show Me a Hero highlighted it.

Describing the relationship between himself and homelessness advocates, Paolino said that he found it "frustrating that I'm not being given any thanks or credit for what I've done. You tell the homelessness groups you're going to give them this new building, and they don't thank you or anything."

Fountain Street Protected Bike Lane
"Now what's this here? Bicycle lanes and people are parking in them." said Paolino, pointing to the Fountain Street protected bike lane. The protected bike lane has been criticized by cyclists for lacking actual separation, and the results of that design choice were clear as Paolino pointed. Cars had parked in the appropriate place against the bike lane, but also had parked in the bike lane. There was virtually nowhere in the bike lane where cars had not been parked.


Not news: somebody parked in the bike lane. News: they got a ticket! pic.twitter.com/3pMS1Rez4w

— Car Free in PVD (@carfreepvd) February 8, 2017


Paolino saw a different problem than cyclists, saying the protected bike lane itself was a bad idea, not people parking in it. "Look, you've got cars parked in the middle. Rhode Islanders aren't used to this. This is the only street I know of in Rhode Island where cars are parked in the middle. So you've got the bike lanes being done, cars parked in the middle, and there's going to be accidents here. 



Paolino pointed to the Dean Hotel, along Fountain, where cars had parked both against the bike lane (where it is allowed) and in the bike lane. "What do you do," asked Paolino, "when you have a hotel and cars can't park right in the front?" 


Transport Providence reached out to the Dean Hotel a number of times for comment, but was not able to get an official response in time for publication (comment will be added if we receive one after publication).

Update: The Dean Hotel reached out by email and provided the following statement:
Regarding the Fountain Street Bike Lane: We are very supportive of improving bike infrastructure in Providence as part of a comprehensive and integrated biking network. The Dean partners with DASH to provide bikes to our guests as a preferred way to explore our compact city. 
That said, we believe there are ways to improve the safety, efficiency and usage of the Fountain Street bike lane as it exists today. We believe that the interaction with our guest valet drop off and lack of signage or barriers to enforce that the bike lane remains a bike lane and not a parking lane, along with lack of connection to other city bike lakes and the construction which will narrow Fountain Street for two years, renders this bike lane not only possibly unsafe but a potentially undermining black eye for the efforts the city is making to support a bike culture as critics of bike lanes generally can point to its less than perfect design or implementation. We would be glad to work with bike advocates and the city to help support and implement an effective city wide system.
The comments that the Dean Hotel provided are consistent with my criticisms: a protected bike lane that cars just park in is not a protected bike lane, but a protected parking lane. A protected bike lane that comes from one busy street with no bike infrastructure (Empire) to another busy street with no infrastructure (Dorrance) is ineffective. We need a full network, and we don't have that right now.  These are of course diametrically opposite complaints of the ones heard from people like Paolino, who say to remove the bike lane entirely.

The Dean Hotel website advertises a guest bike program as a major accommodation of staying at their facilities. 

The Dean seems to actively sell itself on bicycling. In the New York Times review of the hotel has a section called "Amenities" which is taken up primarily by bicycle-related features, small pets and Wi-Fi notwithstanding:
The Dean provides five free refurbished bicycles byRecycle-a-Bike, great for short trips around the city. More ambitious cyclists can access the 13.8-mile East Bay Bike Path along Narragansett Bay between Providence and Bristol, R.I. There’s also free Wi-Fi. Small pets are welcome.
As Transport Providence commented in the East Side Monthly (see page 4), the design of the protected bike lane is frustrating insofar as it allows cars to easily park in it. Paolino said that the bike lane should exist only in the warm months (see seasonal bike lanes).

Floating Bus Stop on Fountain Street (See updated article here)
An article by People for Bikes highlights the great design that Rhode Island has for floating bus stops, but the Fountain Street floating bus stop doesn't actually follow that design. -->Instead of letting buses stop in traffic, allowing bus riders to use the island as a place to wait and board, the bus pulls ahead of the bus island, forcing disabled people to use the bike lane to go backward towards the island. The whole arrangement makes no sense and should be fixed<-- I've gotten pushback on this. This deserves deeper attention, and so I am adding another article.


Paolino pointed to the floating bus stop at the end of the Fountain Street protected bike lane. "And then you've got this stupid thing here. Dumbest thing I've ever seen." 


See update-->Probably as a concession to dumb traffic concerns by engineers, buses don't stop in traffic where it would be convenient for them to do, but instead have to pull in front of the bus island. Why?  Note that the ramp is kind of pointless if the bus doesn't pull up to this island, as it should.<--
Transport Providence has criticized the floating bus stop, which is designed incorrectly (which is sad, since the design guide that Rhode Island uses is great and has gotten deserved national praise). -->The city has reserved a space in front of the bus stop for the bus to pull in front of it. The bus riders then have to get off the bus, walk in the protected bike lane, and back to the floating island, where the wheelchair ramp is oriented the wrong way.<--See my additional article on the controversy surrounding my claim. I originally issued a retraction on Twitter, but now after looking deeper into the issue feel that I was partly right about this. The correct way to create a floating bus stop is shown here:


Floating bus stops sometimes additionally allow bus riders to pay before they get on the bus, allowing the bus to stop only briefly as everyone piles on together. The RIPTA floating bus stop doesn't do anything like this. 

Paolino's concern about the bus stop was not the same as Transport Providence's. Paolino thought the floating bus stop should be removed.


Dorrance, Fountain & Exchange
Today: slipway gone. More pedestrian space, and two-way traffic.
2011: Slipway that disconnects park from pedestrian space.
"This is another dumb thing we do," said Paolino, pointing to the sidewalk extensions near the confluence of Dorrance, Fountain, and Exchange. "Before you could cross right here, said Paolino, pointing to where the sidewalk had been extended, getting rid of a slipway from Exchange to Dorrance.

"I know this is convenient, to have two-way traffic, but I don't know if it's safe," said Paolino. Engineering information is pretty clear on this question. Multi-lane one-way streets tend to encourage speeding, while returning those streets to two-way traffic lowers speeding. One-way streets that are narrower and one-lane in design don't have the same problem.



Today: extended sidewalk and expected development of a garage into condos and apartments.

2011: Lots more space for cars. Disconnected pedestrian space a blank-faced garage.
Slipways are also pretty clearly studied by the engineering profession. Slipways are where corners have been made to have a very big radius, which allows fast turns by drivers without pausing. This increases danger for pedestrians.

As we came past the Biltmore Hotel to Kennedy Plaza, Paolino continued to express his concerns about safety. "Safety should be our number one concern," he said. As he turned left off of Dorrance, Paolino cut off a pedestrian trying to cross at the pedestrian crosswalk. "Ooh, sorry!" said Paolino, sounding genuinely concerned. He waved to the pedestrian as sorry gesture, slowed his car down, and continued down Washington Street.

In August 2016, Michelle Cagnon was killed at that particular crosswalk when a Peter Pan bus turned across the crosswalk and hit her. 

Seasonal Bike Lanes
Paolino said that bike lanes should only be "from April 1 to December 1". 

"We live in a cold place. We need to accept that Rhode Island can't have some of the same things work here that might work in Fort Lauderdale, Florida," said Paolino, of bike lanes. 

Things aren't working so well in Fort Lauderdale, by the way. It was #1 for pedestrian deaths according to a count done by Smart Growth America.

A number of very cold places are successful at biking. Notably, the #1 location for commuter biking in the United States is currently Minneapolis, beating even (not as cold, but rainy) Portland, Oregon.

The Netherlands, though not quite to New England levels of cold, maintains 60% of trips in cities by bike, and about 30% nationwide. Transportation data from the Netherlands shows that there is a dip in biking in the winter: about 80% of the trips usually taken by bike are still take that way, though 20% move to transit, walking, or driving.

Biking in the snow in the Netherlands

There's no doubt that weather impacts biking, but not to the levels expected. In fact, when Danish designer Jan Gehl describes the objections he first heard about making more spaces in the Danish capital of Copenhagen bike- and walking-friendly, he reports that people responded with, "This is not sunny Italy." Yet today Copenhagen is among the most bike-friendly places in the world, where more bikes are on the street than cars.

Transport Providence asked Paolino what he thought the logistics of having seasonal bike lanes would be. Would they be removed? How would the city do that? Paolino did not have an answer to these questions.


"You probably won't print this on your blog," said Paolino, "But we have not seen a single bicycle rider today during our trip." Paolino was correct, and after 45 minutes in his car in many parts of the city, no cyclists had turned up.

Then, on Finance Way, between Waterplace Park and the MBTA train station, the unicorn bicyclist appeared: magical and rare, it was the first cyclist we'd seen that day.

"There you go, Joe. There's your cyclist"

"Well, and look! He's biking right in the middle of the street!" said Paolino. 
"Where would you have him bike?"
"I don't know."

Paolino drove respectfully behind the cyclist at a reasonable speed.

A Junk Yard
I had asked Paolino on the phone whether he would be open to doing a second and third interview by bike and bus respectively, and at the time Paolino's response was, "This is just the first date. We'll see." At the end of our interview in the Paolino's car, I repeated the request: Perhaps Paolino would be open to experiencing the downtown on a bike when it got warmer, as a way of seeing what the issues cyclists might face were? Paolino was unequivocal this time. 

"No, James. I would be a afraid to ride a bike here in Downtown Providence with the way it is currently designed."

Allens Avenue Scrap Yard



Photo of the scrapyard from Go Local Providence's archives.
"This area here is ideal for development. That scrap metal here, over there." Paolino pointed to the large pile of scrap metal on the Providence dockyard off of Allens Avenue. "Have you ever taken a good look at that? Let's take a drive so you can see it."

Paolino pulled around in front of the docks. 


"When I was a kid growing up-- Do you know where India Point Park is?-- India Point Park was a junkyard."


Paolino pointed. "It was a junkyard. It was scrap metal just like that. Just like that but worse."


"If Providence wants to expand its tax base, the gentleman's club isn't going to do it, the adult videos isn't going to do it." Paolino pointed out the window to these things as we passed. "The scrap metal yards aren't going to do it. My belief is all this area is under-utilized. And from Thurbers Avenue which is where that bridge is, going all the way downtown, should be targeted for development. Mixed used development. Commercial. Residential. Hotel."


Transport Providence asked "What are the challenges to that? Are there people who oppose that?"

Paolino said he doesn't think enough is being done by the city. "This should not be this way. If we only had more tax dollars coming into the city-- You get tax dollars so that you can spend money to help people who can't help themselves. So the city should condemn all this, or put together some program like they have for 195. And by doing that we'd have more tax dollars come into the city. This is valuable property. This should be utilized. It's not being utilized now. And to have scrap metal. All those environmental problems? All that pollution? Shame on the city to allow that to happen."


Said Paolino about Allens Avenue: "This is better than I-195 land."



Paolino's Parking Lots
From PBN: red represents parking lots, and orange represents parking
garages in downtown Providence. 
Paolino had stated that he thought the land at Allens Avenue's docks was under-utilized to the point that he had recommended condemning it. So we asked Paolino about a related topic, under-utilized land used as parking lots.

Transport Providence: About the 195 land. How many parking lots did you say you owned there? 

Paolino: I don't own any on 195.

Transport Providence: You don't own any-- not on the official state parcel, but-- you don't own any nearby in the Jewelry District?

Paolino Zero. I only own parking lots near my office buildings. And the only reason I have parking lots is so that I can rent my buildings. Because we're not in the parking business. We don't rent-- we don't operate those parking lots. I rent them out to a parking operator. Only-- It's really a defensive move, just so that we can have a law firm, or an accounting firm, anybody who's looking for space. They say, "Where can we park our car?" And we have parking for them.

In 2015, Paolino commented on Twitter that the parking lots near his office buildings came to eleven in downtown:

See tweet conversation: https://twitter.com/paolinoproperty/status/571042235443228672

Transport Providence Now, what did you think of when the city reduced parking minimums, the requirement that you have parking for a building? Were you supportive of that?

Paolino I didn't have an opinion on it. I don't-- in fact, I don't remember when they did it.

Transport Providence I think it was under Taveras. I don't remember the exact year. 

Paolino I don't even remember. 

Transport Providence: One policy we've looked at a lot at our blog is taxing parking lots and using the revenue to lower general property taxes on buildings, as someone who owns a lot of buildings but who also has parking lots, would you have any opinion on that?

Paolino: I'm not for any increase in taxes.

Transport Providence: Just to be clear about it, though, it would be an increase in parking lot taxes and reciprocally all the money would come back as property taxes. How would you feel about that? 
Paolino: You know, it may sound nice to say it but the parking in Providence-- these parking lots-- The way you can tell a successful parking lot, financially, is if they're-- It's like a restaurant. How many meals can you serve in a restaurant? At that table? Do you have more than one table used at lunch? Or can you sell at two? And then at dinnertime, can you sell more than two times over. That's how you can tell. It's hard to keep those parking lots full.
Boston vs. Providence Parking Prices



The former mayor made a comment during our discussion that parking per square foot was almost as expensive as in Boston, stating that to put a tax on it would make it even more expensive. I wanted to follow up with Paolino on this, so I called him the next day:


Transport Providence You said something about parking cost per square foot in Providence being high, could you give me more detail on that, what you meant?

Paolino Providence is not a growth city. There's not a lot of growth in Providence. There's not a lot of companies moving to Providence. There's not a lot of suburban companies moving to Providence, or out-of-state companies. I mean, the only way that we're getting companies is some of the programs that Governor Raimondo was doing. And I'm sure that's not her first choice, to be giving out dollars, incentives to get companies, but it's the only option she's got right now. So, saying that, the parking lots I have is strictly for the purposes of trying to rent my buildings, because tenants want parking. If you don't have parking-- like one spot, people parking in the daytime so that there's no turnover like a restaurant. Parking, no matter what the cost is, the tenant is always complaining about the cost of parking because people want free parking.

It's kind of a mindset that when you're competing with a suburban location like Warwick, or Cranston, or East Providence, where people can get parking for nothing it's a large cost.

If you have one hundred employees, for example, and the parking is $100 a car, so that's $10,000 a month, and that's $120,000 a year. That's a lot of money. It can add a number of dollars on a per square foot basis, so by putting a parking tax it would be a signal to a lot of companies and a lot of employees saying "Why do we want to go downtown? Not only do they want us to pay for parking, but they want us to pay a parking tax."

Transport Providence Did I understand you right? Did you say that the square foot-- you were comparing the square foot cost to other cities. Was I right that you were comparing it to Boston?

Paolino Well, all I said is parking is probably more. If you want to build a parking garage as an example, to build a garage, it wouldn't be that much different, the cost, between Providence and Boston.  But for the developer building it, the return in Boston-- in Boston, you'd be able to get that higher rate, whereas in Providence you're not going to get that higher rate. When it comes to flat parking, it all depends on where you are. Are you in the Financial District in Boston, are you in Back Bay, South Bay, on the waterfront? So it's not as easily defined in Boston as it is here in Providence.

Transport Providence So, I guess what you're saying that the costs are the similar, but the return on investment is less here in Providence to build parking?
Paolino Oh, much less here in Providence. And there's a mindset here in Rhode Island that people just don't like paying for parking. They just don't like to do it.
Transport Providence Now, if someone is looking at their square-foot cost-- the cost for rentals, right? That's what you're really talking about? Right?
Paolino Right.
Transport Providence Right. But if you're using all the revenue from the parking tax to lower property taxes, wouldn't that, in turn, make their square-foot cost for the office space cheaper-- so that parking goes up, but office space goes down-- so wouldn't it be a wash?
Paolino I don't think it would be-- you'd really need an economist to help you with that-- with how much you're looking to raise. If the bottom-line is the same, why even have it? But you'd have to talk to an economist to look at how much more of a tax you're looking for.
Transport Providence tried reaching out to Donald Shoup of UCLA, who is considered by many to be the premier international expert on parking policy. We were unable to get in touch with him by publication time. 

In 2015, the Providence Business News explored the idea of a parking lot tax (full disclosure, although Transport Providence was not directly quoted in the article, James Kennedy was contacted for the article). In that article, Shoup was interviewed:
In Montreal, Quebec, the city adopted a tax on parking lots based on square footage, according to Donald Shoup, distinguished professor of urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles.

"It worked beautifully," Shoup said, adding it encouraged redevelopment of surface lots. "The profits from surface parking go way down. It isn't that other things became more profitable, it's that surface parking is less profitable."
Paolino's own comments seem to unwittingly reflect this same lesson. He pointed numerous times to the fact that parking was as expensive to build in Providence, but less profitable. 

Given Paolino's concern with creating permanent housing for the homeless, he might also be interested by studies that show that increasing the amount spent to provide parking for buildings added cost to housing, making it less affordable. The Rhode Island state government has allocated a lot of money to parking over the past several years, buying up a parcel of land near the Statehouse, turning part of the Statehouse lawn into a parking lot, coordinating to add a new garage near the nursing complex in the Jewelry District, and planning to build another garage by the Garrahy Courthouse. When will Rhode Island make the same commitment to affordable, attractive housing with good transit and biking for all?

Another Paolino Interview?
Taking to Twitter to stir up questions for Joe Paolino from the public, a number of the #AskJoePaolino questions were about whether the former mayor had ever used a bus, or whether he intended to try to. Other questioners wanted to know if Paolino rode a bike, and whether he was willing to do so.



During the first call confirming the drive around town, Transport Providence asked Paolino if he was open to another version of the tour on bike or bus. "This is only the first date," said Paolino at the time.

During the drive-around interview, Paolino stated that he often takes the train to New York City, and commented that he was a lover of transit. He also stated that he rode a bike "everyday", meaning a stationary bicycle for exercise. Asked if he would commit to another meeting out of his car and on a bike or bus, he declined. 

Paolino said that "I would be afraid to ride a bicycle in Providence as things are currently designed."

~~~~

1 comment:

  1. He seems like a relatively decent guy with a traditional RI drive-everywhere mindset so that buses, bikes, even pedestrians are an afterthought. What that mindset has produced decline in Providence and other similar cities that cannot compete with the easy and free suburban parking, I wonder why he thinks more of the same can turn Providence around. Still, as a city person I can understand his struggles with the difficulties of running downtown property. That transit, including the commuter rail, comes to Providence from every direction should be seen as a potential competitive advantage seems to have escaped him.

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