Cities are faced currently with the delicate challenge of balancing progress with the preservation of their historical identity. The architectural remnants of the past often find themselves in the crosshairs of development projects to modernize. Recognizing the irreplaceable value of older buildings, many municipalities have implemented innovative ordinances to regulate demolition.
Providence has survived better than many older cities through a combination of poverty and preservation, but a recent spate of demolition and development has people questioning what the City is doing to preserve its historic assets. Most recently, the demolition of useful and architecturally interesting 209, 211 and 217 Angell Street, three houses contributing to the College Hill National Historic Landmark District, raised such questions as: What is and is not a protected resource? Why is there no notice given when a demolition is about to occur? and What can be done to preserve more historic places? Answers are deep into what is currently legal practice.
Three Ways to Currently Delay Demolition
None of these questions is easy to answer. Only properties that have been designated by the City Council and Mayor, through an ordinance, to be sufficiently important merit protection via a historic zoning overlay. This overlay is familiarly known as historic districts or, individually, historic landmarks. For the sake of this article, they are all referred to as “historic districts.” When demolition is requested by an owner, there is an automatic public notification and demolition delay because the Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC) has purview. Notification is to a limited number of neighboring property owners and the delay is as long as the PHDC takes to rule on the action, which is rarely more than a couple of months. Demolishing one of these properties takes heroic effort; there is a high bar, so applications are rare.
The city has an additional type of zoning district that is similar to the historic district: Downtown. Exterior changes to buildings within the downtown zone are overseen by the Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC). They consider a building’s historic significance, but they are not as beholden to it as is the PHDC. The DDRC has a very strong demolition delay mechanism that was put into place after the demolitions of the former Police and Fire HQ and the three smaller buildings where the Weybosset Street facade currently stands. In the Downtown district, no demolition may take place until there is a solid plan for what will replace it. It has been tested only once in the decade of its existence, when the brutalist-style Fogarty Building was replaced by the Residence Inn by Marriott.
Finally, there is a demolition delay mechanism that exists within the purview of the City Plan Commission. When a project comes forth that requires land development approval, no demolition may take place until such approval is gained. In these cases, unless the property also happens to be in a historic district or the downtown district, there is no consideration for the potential historic significance of the property.
Outside of these designated historic districts and the downtown district, there are hundreds of properties that are considered historic by the state and federal government, but there is no demolition review. (Unless they are threatened by state or federal action, but that’s too outside the purview of this article.) That was the case of the three houses on Angell Street, the former Duck & Bunny on Wickenden Street, and dozens of houses on or near Thayer Street (all located on the East Side) to name a few. State and National Historic Districts are great for recognizing the significance of places, but not good at protecting them from demolition.
There are also thousands of properties that might be considered by the community to be worthy of preservation, but they are not on any list. The last wide-ranging survey of Providence’s historic places occurred in 1986 and many parts of the city were not surveyed carefully. A “windshield survey” is used to assess whether places retain their integrity (appearance, materials, details, etc.) and then additional research is done. Surveys often overlook places that may have significance but are not obvious, or for which the surveyor’s own biases deem unworthy of attention. In the past, places associated with important (i.e. white, wealthy, connected) people were of interest while places associated with people of color, people of lower economic means, or places with dark histories were not. Today, preservationists recognize that all stories contribute to a greater understanding of history and to retain those stories means preserving a broader diversity of places.
The city has tens of thousands of properties about which very little is known. The current city planning staff is comfortable with the historic zoning overlay as its primary tool to regulate the demolition of older structures. Unfortunately, that tool is onerous. According to the Preserve RI Executive Director Val Talmage, “Creating or expanding local historic districts is very difficult. Only a few have been done in RI in the last fifteen years. The demo delay ordinance helps fill a gap.” Historic districts can also be inequitable, inflicting financial burden on homeowners unable to afford, and Providence no longer offers incentives for historic district owners, as it did in the past.
Parts of the city that are undersurveyed have resources worth preserving, such as the former Eddy Street School, now the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, located on Eddy Street in South Providence. The building was not on any historic survey when it suffered a devastating fire on Christmas 2020. Having unsympathetic changes, it was almost unrecognizable as a historic resource. Yet it has a profound history associated with Providence’s immigration history and a more recent and long association with Black civic organizations. In the hands of an indifferent owner, this important building could have been torn down with a simple “emergency demolition” permit that has been issued all-to-easily in the past. With a demolition delay ordinance in place, it would have come before the PHDC for review and perhaps gotten a lifeline.
It must also be noted that Councilman Goncalves (Ward 1) recently helped institute a mandatory seven-day waiting period after a demolition permit is issued but before demolition can occur.
There is otherwise no demolition delay ordinance in Providence that provides for public notification outside the mechanisms listed above. According to the city, there are 230 active or completed demolition permits for the past five years, for an average of 46 per year. Does anyone know what is being lost?
Demolition Delay Ordinances: Balancing Progress and Preservation
Demolition Delay ordinances (“demo delay”) have emerged as powerful tools in cities across the country, including some in Rhode Island. These regulations introduce a waiting period before the demolition of a historic structure can proceed, no matter where the structure is, allowing for thorough assessment, public input, and exploring alternatives to demolition.
One of the most stringent demo delays in the region is in the city of Newton, Massachusetts, which has had a demo delay ordinance since 1985. It has been updated several times and has helped Newton regulate development without imposing stringent design guidelines via historic districts. The demo delay mandates a comprehensive review process before granting partial or full demolition permits, ensuring that owners explore reasonable options to demolition.
Properties must be deemed historically significant and “preferably preserved” by the historical commission, so not every building more than fifty years old will qualify. They allow a maximum 18-month delay for properties listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A delay of twelve months can be imposed for all other properties. The public may offer testimony on the significance of a property at a public hearing in front of the Newton Historical Commission. Once a delay has been put in place, a property owner may apply for a waiver. This approach not only safeguards the city’s cultural heritage and protects private property rights, but also fosters community engagement and awareness.
Communities across the country have implemented demo delays, from Chicago to Dallas, Portland (OR) to Helena (MT). Closer to home, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has issued guidance and a model bylaw that communities may use to implement their own demo delays. As of April 2023, 159 communities in Massachusetts have implemented such an ordinance, with delay periods ranging from less than six months to greater than twelve months. Preservation Connecticut, on the other hand, states that a 90-day delay is most common in that state.
In Rhode Island, there has not been a groundswell to put demo delays in place. They are allowable through the State’s Zoning Enabling Act, according to land use and zoning law attorney Andy Teitz, and must conform to the state statute to have their historic district commissions “regulate the construction, alteration, repair, moving, and demolition of buildings and structures” which they do in historic districts. Unless given specific authority by the state, that authority does not seem to extend behind established historic districts. One that has been enabled is in Pawtucket, which has an ordinance that defines demolition as “removal of more than 25% of a structure” and allows a six month delay, an amount of time Talmage says is “reasonable. It gives advocates or the municipality time to make an earnest effort to find an alternative to demolition, but it does not unduly impair the owner’s ability to move forward with plans.”
The public has a reasonable right to know what properties are subject to such an ordinance. To ensure transparency, municipalities typically use one of two methods. The first, an age-based criteria, is most common. Ages of properties are listed in the assessor’s database and accessible online. The second method is list-based and is used by communities that have comprehensive surveys of historic properties. That is not the case in Providence.
Demolition delays are not guarantees of preservation success. Sometimes, the proposed development project is simply too profitable and a developer will outwait the delay. Yet there are success stories for both grand buildings and for smaller buildings that may not be obvious candidates for preservation. In E astham, Massachusetts, for example, the simple home of a midwife, where many residents of the town had been born, was preserved by moving it to a nearby vacant lot. In Framingham, Massachusetts, an 1898 hotel was slated to be replaced by a chain drug store. Today, it is a mixed use building, with housing on its upper floors. Success stories are typically associated with active preservation commissions and staff who work with owners to find alternatives to demolition.
The implementation of demolition delay ordinances represents a reasonable approach to regulation of urban development. By preserving the past, cities not only retain their unique character but also foster a sense of community pride and identity. As we look toward the future, it is essential for cities to embrace innovative preservation strategies that ensure a harmonious coexistence between the old and the new. One such strategy is the implementation of the demolition delay ordinance.
To Get Involved:
Urge your City Council person to advocate for a demolition delay ordinance or contact their Office of Constituent Services at 521-7477.
Email the Mayor and ask him to have the planning staff create a demolition delay ordinance.
Resources for further study:
Preserve RI Demolition Delay Info
Cape Cod Commission Demo Delay Workshop Presentation
Mass Historical Commission Demo Delay Presentation
Newton, Mass Demo Delay Application
Newton, Mass Review of Demo Delay New Bedford,
Mass Demo Ordinance
Freetown, Mass – Purpose of a Demolition Delay
Brent Runyon is an independent historic preservation consultant and real estate agent who lives in Providence’s West End neighborhood and is easy to find with a Google search. He was the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society and is an avid fan of historic places and the wise use of resources.