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SNA I-Zone Letter to Department of Planning

    March 12, 2003
Thomas Deller, Director
Department of Planning and Development
400 Westminster Street
Providence, RI

Dear Mr. Deller,

On November 26, 2002, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) issued "Proposed Changes to the Regulation of Educational and Health Care Institutions." We offer the following comments and suggestions.


The current Institutional Zone (I-Zone) ordinance has clearly failed to achieve its original goals. Created in response to an extended period of unrestrained destruction of neighborhoods by educational and health care institutions, the I-Zone established fixed boundaries for those institutions, while allowing them extra latitude to grow within those borders. But time has shown that the pendulum never really swung back onto the side of the neighborhoods.

The changes proposed by the DPD address only the process and not the substance of the I-Zone regulations. More sweeping changes are needed to remedy the imbalance between the interests of institutions and those of neighborhoods.

Summit Neighborhood and Miriam Hospital

For more than a quarter century before Miriam moved to Summit, hospitals were classified as commercial entities for the purposes of zoning. Just after the city council amended the zoning ordinance in 1952, completely exempting hospitals from zoning regulations, Miriam acquired the former Jewish Orphanage of Rhode Island building on Summit Avenue, and moved their entire operation from Parade Street to our one- and two-story residential neighborhood.

Over the next 34 years, Miriam tore down 50 houses and a school, swallowing up three residential city blocks and a street. After the I-Zone was established in 1986, Miriam continued to expand by purchasing commercial property on North Main Street. Summit neighbors hoped Miriam planned to focus its growth along this commercial corridor. Instead, Miriam's North Main Street properties have languished or been sold off. This year Miriam proposed a 10-year, 40-million-dollar project to rebuild and expand operations on their main campus, in the heart of the Summit Neighborhood.

How the I-Zone Has Failed

The I-Zone has failed to contain institutional sprawl.

Though institutions can no longer convert residential properties to institutional uses, they are free to purchase nearby commercial and industrial properties. Such expansion might be desirable were institutions not also encouraged to continue to develop their I-Zone properties. The absence of tax consequences allows them to underutilize valuable real estate. Three prime commercial properties on North Main Street owned by non-profit institutions have for years been vacant, boarded-up eyesores.

The I-Zone has failed to buffer neighborhoods from sharp transitions.

Because the I-Zone contains growth in residential areas, it also concentrates it. Institutions build out to their borders at maximally allowed height and lot coverage. Residents who abut I-Zones are likely to find themselves living next to large industrial buildings or vast parking lots that bring trucks, traffic, litter and pollution; lower property values, and ultimately and inevitably change the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Current project proposals from both Brown University and Miriam are large industrial buildings at the very edges of their I-Zones.

The I-Zone has failed to discourage nonconforming uses.

Zoning regulations are usually designed to tolerate existing structures that would not otherwise be allowed, while at the same time forcing new construction to comply with regulations. The I-Zone does the opposite. Where grandfathered nonconforming structures would normally be prevented from expanding by zoning, the floating I-Zone distorts otherwise residentially-zoned areas, allowing and encouraging increasing zoning nonconformance. As new I-Zone development is free of underlying dimensional requirements, recent and current projects rise higher and cover more ground than would otherwise be allowed.

The I-Zone has failed to establish a fair and effective planning process.

The Master Plan requirement of the I-Zone ordinance is meant to both make public the plans for expansion of hospitals and universities and ensure they act in concert with the City's overall plan for growth. But the ordinance has no teeth. Institutions are little more than honor-bound to submit these plans, and some have openly flouted the law. The process for review is informal and lacks sufficient public input. For some institutions, the master plan is simply a formality, and may be amended for each new project.

The Scope of Changes Needed

Tinkering with the I-Zone ordinance is not going to bring relief to beleaguered neighborhoods. In 1952, the zoning ordinance was dramatically altered, freeing educational and health care institutions from zoning regulations. In 1986, the zoning regulations governing those institutions were completely revised, establishing the Institutional Zone. We think it is time for another major change.

Zone Hospitals Commercial

Hospitals build only commercial and industrial buildings. Efficient medical care dictates dense clusters of large buildings connected by interior passageways. Hospital campuses are interior spaces, uniformly directed inward. Outside, hospitals draw traffic, truck deliveries, litter and parking congestion. Hospitals are as indifferent to their surroundings as factories.

The 1923 zoning ordinance had it right. Hospitals are a commercial activity, and they should be located in commercial and industrial zones. Remove hospitals from the Institution Zone ordinance and allow their campuses to revert to the underlying zoning. If that happens to be commercial, the hospital is located in an appropriate area. If the zoning is residential, hospitals may be grandfathered, but must direct their growth in commercial and industrial zones, away from residential neighborhoods. This is the simplest and most effective way to save the city's neighborhoods from the threat posed by health care institutions.

Differentiate Commercial and Industrial Institutional Uses

Institutional buildings that are commercial and industrial in character and impact should be subject to ordinary zoning. Institutional zones should not provide cover for any building type, only buildings that neighbors can live with. The Institutional Zone should limit new construction by height, lot coverage, and proposed use, and prohibit buildings like Brown's proposed Life Sciences Building in otherwise residential areas.

Scale Institutional Zones to the Surrounding Community

The current I-Zone ordinance provides a one-size-fits-all maximum height for all I-Zones wherever they are located. A 75-foot ceiling may make sense in a C4 or even an R4 zone, but it is overwhelming in an R1/R2 zone. Limit institutions to the maximum height permitted in the surrounding community.

Use Dimensional Limits to Provide Neighborhoods with a Buffer

Institutional zones are more palatable when they rise up gradually. Dimensional limits should feather their edges. The current ordinance allows the maximum height in an institutional zone to rise from that of the surrounding zone at a 45-degree angle upwards to 75 feet and establishes, right at the border, the same maximum lot coverage and minimum setbacks as commercial zones. This is no buffer at all.

Nearby residential property owners may not build on more than 40% of their land and must honor setback requirements on all sides. Provide a buffer to neighborhoods by imposing similar restrictions on the border areas of I-Zones. Establish an I-Zone border region of 100 feet from the curb and abutting properties. On each segment of this 100-foot-deep outer strip, allow no more than 40% of the property to be built upon and restrict building height to that allowed by underlying zoning.

A simpler way to effect the same kind of change would be to roll back the I-Zone from the edges. Withdraw the zone 100 feet in all directions, and allow the underlying zone to regulate those border areas. At the interface of institutions and neighborhoods, institutions would have to play by the neighborhoods' rules.

Neighborhoods First

Private hospitals and universities benefit from tax exemptions and other concessions given to them in recognition of their contributions to society. But that compromise is meaningless if, at the same time, it allows and even encourages these institutions to act in ways that harm city neighborhoods.

Zoning regulations governing tax-exempt, nonprofit institutions should put neighborhood interests first. They should protect neighborhoods and require that institutional growth conform with both the letter and the spirit of the Providence 2000 Comprehensive Plan. It is time to require that our non-taxpaying institutions comply with the interests of city residents by fundamentally reshaping our zoning laws.


John Bazik

Xc: Mayor David N. Cicilline
      Council President John J. Lombardi
      Councilman Kevin Jackson
      Representative Gordon Fox
      Senator Rhoda Perry
      Catherine Horsey, Providence Preservation Society
      College Hill Neighborhood Association
      Fox Point Citizen's Association

This Page Last Updated: Sun Apr 20 04:41:55 2003