Robert Whitcomb: Forever and a day to build something


Excerpted from Aug. 18 Digital Diary column in GoLocalProv.

Please, city, don’t hold this up too! MSI Holdings LLC wants a few waivers to build an 11-story retail/residential building on what is now a parking lot on Canal Street in downtown Providence, most notably a waiver that would let the owners exceed the official height limit for the neighborhood in the city’s zoning rules.

The Providence Business News also reports that “the applicant has requested waivers from the recess requirement, and ground floor and upper level transparency requirements for the portion of the building that faces a narrow alley, called Throop Street.’’ Few people would see that side.

The applicant  ought to get the waivers promptly. Having lots of parking lots downtown in place of buildings is deadly. They shout urban decay. Density, on the other hand, speaks of vitality and prosperity. Jam in those buildings!

Time and time again, excessively rigid zoning rules have prevented what would be perfectly respectable structures from going up in Providence, or has grossly delayed them. The parking lot that this building would cover is an eyesore. Let’s get as much bustle as we canfrom people and businesses in downtown Providence, an eminently walkable place.

Which gets me to how long it takes to get anything done in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation expects to  finally award a bid in October to build the long-delayed (for 10 years!) pedestrian bridge over the Providence  River, with completion expected by November 2018. It looks like this thing will cost about $20 million.

The bridge will link College Hill and Fox Point with downtown, creating various commercial and other synergies. It should become a kind of tourist site and popular meeting place. Let’s hope that a brilliant architect designs it. Friedrich St. Florian?

Of course, because of the necessary oversight of publicly funded projects, the zoning-ordinance labyrinth, constituency politics and the vagaries of the economy, public projects usually take much longer than private ones. Still, 10 years is far too long! Businesses and individuals take negative notice of places where minor but needed repairs, such as filling potholes, let alone big projects,  seem to take eons to happen. Such delays are particularly frustrating in a place as small as Rhode Island, where you might think it would be easier to get things done.

It’s a problem around America.

Common Good, run by my  friend Philip K. Howard, has a very useful and proscriptive report out called Two Years, Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals  that among otherthings discusses the huge costs of delaying infrastructure permits.  To read the report, please hit this link. 

Robert Whitcomb is the overseer of New England Diary.