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Hearing set on proposed zoning changes

September 13, 2011

PAWTUCKET — Changes to the city's zoning ordinances that are designed to make the downtown more business-friendly—including one that removes parking requirements-- have been proposed by the Planning Department.
A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be held by the City Council on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at Pawtucket City Hall. The City Council could give first passage to the changes that night, and a second vote will be required for adoption.
City Planning and Redevelopment Director Michael Davolio said that the proposed zoning changes are based on the recommendations from a Downtown Design Plan that was commissioned by the city and The Pawtucket Foundation and drafted by Pawtucket-based architect Maia Small of Thurlow Small Architecture. The study also included proposals on zoning and land use from Nathan E. Kelly of the Horsley Witten Group.
Davolio said the intent of the changes is to make the zoning regulations, as they apply to the commercial downtown district, be much more flexible, and the process itself be more simplified and streamlined in order to attract new businesses. He said the Planning Department drafted the zoning changes in conjunction with the suggestions made in the Downtown Design Plan.
For example, Davolio said the city currently has many “use” regulations in place for the commercial downtown zone that require a special permit.
He said that if the city is more focused on the general type of development that it wants for the downtown, it can eliminate the need for a special use permit for many projects, and therefore reduce the development plan review process by 30 to 90 days.
As such, under the proposed amendments in the zoning ordinance for Section 410-12 “Table of Use Regulations” for the Commercial Downtown (CD) zone, the following uses would change from a “special use permit” to “by-right”: multi-family (5 dwelling units and over); mixed residential/commercial uses; and multi-tenant commercial structures.
Also among the proposed changes, “bed and breakfast” businesses would be allowed by-right and drive-in windows would be prohibited. Additionally, in the Riverfront Development District 2, gardening and farming (not to include the raising of animals) would now by included by-right.
Davolio also noted that one of the biggest changes being proposed centers around parking, and the idea that a new business coming into the downtown doesn't necessarily have to provide parking spaces for customers or staff. Instead, he said that developers can cite the available public parking that already exists in the downtown, either from on-street spaces, the municipal parking garage, or public/private parking lots.
“The city was built when people were not so auto-dependent,” said Davolio. “But, as it stands now, a developer of a new building would have to knock down an existing building to make room for parking. Instead, the idea is to let the marketplace determine the parking.”
The planning director said that besides encouraging greater utilization of existing parking spaces, businesses will be allowed to offer some creativity with their parking plans, such as sharing parking spaces with a nearby business that is open during different hours. “For example, a restaurant with mostly evening hours could share parking with an office building with daytime hours,” he said.
Davolio also said that financial lenders have become strict about what projects they will lend money on, and said a plan could be rejected if it appears that the project can't accomodate the parking according to the city's regulations. By loosening the parking regulations, the hope is that more projects will be approved for financing.
“We believe that developers are being protected sufficiently with the parking that has been identified within a one-quarter-mile radius in the downtown,” said Davolio. “We felt comfortable going forward with these proposals.”
Under the Article IX Parking and Loading, proposed changes would remove any parking requirements for development within the Commercial Downtown District. There are also proposed parking maximums for retail and restaurant uses and a proposed increase in the number of cars in a parking area which trigger landscaping requirements from 4 to 6 vehicles.
The proposed amendment reads, in part, that for the Commercial Downtown (CD) District, “The provision of off-street parking is not required for residential or non-residential uses within the CD District. However, applicants choosing to have the on-site parking must abide by the provisions of this Section.”
It also states that “No provisions withing the Zoning Ordinance shall be construed as providing exemptions from requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” and that “All parking facilities shall comply with the Rhode Island State Building Code with respect to number of spaces designated for handicapped persons.”
Also as part of the concept of taking a softer approach to zoning regulations in the Commercial Downtown zone are several proposed changes in section 410-44 concerning Dimensional Regulations. The new recommendations would reduce the minimum lot size from 5,000-square feet to 2,500-square feet, frontage from 50 feet to 25 feet and height of structures from 100 feet to 65 feet (in the CD zone only). It would also dictate that a maximum front yard setback within the downtown district is 40 feet and parking within the front yard would be prohibited.
In an effort to streamline the city's Development Plan Review process, several sections of the review criteria, Procedure, Design Standards and Final Action, are being removed from the Zoning Ordinance and placed under the Land Development and Subdivision Regulations.
Davolio said that, particularly at the design phase, city planning officials feel strongly that they want to encourage quality development in the downtown. To ensure this, there will be more review of proposed designs ahead of time, which should help keep projects from getting bogged down.
Davolio, who has 25 years of planning experience and previously worked in Olympia, Washington, praised the consultant's Downtown Design Plan, which had been completed just around the time he was interviewing for his job. He called it “very well thought out,” and said that while he might have done a few things differently, he agreed with the bulk of the recommendations.
“These are relatively easy fixes that will make it easier to develop property downtown,” Davolio said, of the zoning amendments. He added that there are other proposed changes in the works, particularly in regard to the downtown, that will further aid developers and encourage new projects.

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