What’s Wrong with the Land Use Plan?

Port of Providence

Editor’s Note: Providence is currently engaged in a once a decade endeavor, writing its Comprehensive Plan, and this Comp Plan will be the foundation for zoning and development decisions throughout the city.  The Providence Eye will be publishing discussions about specific sections now under consideration.  The first regards the Land Use Plan and is in the form of a letter written by the Providence Sustainability Commission:

Dear Mayor Smiley, Council President Miller, Director Mulligan, and Deputy Director Azar,

On behalf of the Providence Sustainability Commission, I thank you and your staff for the hard work invested in updating the city’s comprehensive plan and for engaging with the Sustainability Commission during the process. We appreciated having the Department of Planning and Development’s Director Joe Mulligan and Community Planning Manager Tim Shea join us for our April 2024 Commission meeting to share the current draft of the plan including the release of the chapter on sustainability.

However, as we shared with you at that meeting: the initial draft of the comprehensive plan specifically the Land Use chapter and maps, is not in alignment with the Climate Justice Plan. The  Sustainability Commission calls for significant edits to the land use chapter and maps (Growth Strategy Map¹ and Future Land Use Map²) to address the major environmental justice problems around the cumulative impacts of pollution in frontline environmental justice (EJ) communities in Providence. Until these changes are made, the Sustainability Commission cannot support the draft comprehensive plan and will call upon the City Plan Commission and City Council to reject the draft plan until the land use chapter and maps adequately address the environmental justice needs of frontline communities in Providence. Details about these communities and the changes needed are described at length in the following comments.

On February 1, 2023, at the start of this administration, the Sustainability Commission and the Racial and  Environmental Justice Committee (REJC) hosted a Climate Justice Briefing with Mayor Smiley and  Providence City Councilors including Council President Miller. During this public meeting, we all committed to the implementation of Providence’s nationally recognized Climate Justice Plan by integrating it into essential policy documents and processes for the City. In particular, we discussed the importance of the Comprehensive Plan and agreed that it is essential that the community voices and vision represented in the Climate Justice Plan are represented in and supported by the next comprehensive plan. This is an important once-per-decade opportunity to recognize and address past harms and build on successes to position Providence to become the equitable, healthy, low-carbon, and climate-resilient city envisioned in the Climate Justice Plan.

As you know, the comprehensive plan, which establishes the vision for the city over 20 years, is the City’s most important policy document. The comprehensive plan heavily influences the City’s zoning ordinance and land development regulations, which delineate residential, commercial, and industrial zones, permit and prohibit uses within those zones, and set physical limits on development.

Together, these documents and regulations have real-world impacts on Providence residents. Over the past decade under the prior comprehensive plan, our Commissioners and other environmental justice advocates in the city’s frontline communities have witnessed countless developers attempt to overrule community concerns about public health and environmental quality by claiming their projects align with the goals and strategies of the existing comprehensive plan. Unfortunately, the existing comprehensive plan promotes polluting industrial growth at the expense of frontline communities. This misguided approach has left near-port communities with asthma rates that rank among the highest in the nation, among other negative health outcomes and inequities.

Community concerns about environmental justice are backed up by national data from the EPA, CDC, and White House. CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry created a national Environmental Justice Index (EJI) that pulls from multiple data sources to generate an EJ Index score from 0-100 for every census tract in the nation. 19 census tracts in Rhode Island score in the worst 10% nationwide including nine census tracts in the worst 5% and three in the worst 1%. Providence has seven of these tracts including five in worst 5% and two of the three in the worst 1%.

Based on the federal government’s current EJ Index data, Providence’s highest priority environmental justice communities are primarily in South Providence and include the area around Allens Avenue next to I-95, I-195 and the hospitals, Washington Park and South Elmwood near I-95 and RI-10 neighborhoods along Thurbers Ave, Eddy Street, and Prairie Ave. The following seven census tracts are listed in priority order starting with the worst cumulative impact (99% EJ Index score)

1.      99% Census Tract 6.0: South Providence, Allens Ave, intersection of I-95 x I-195 and hospitals

2.      99% Census Tract 3: South Providence, Elmwood Ave between Trinity Square and Reservoir Ave

3.      98% Census Tract 5: South Providence, Thurbers Ave from Eddy Street to Broad Street along I-95

4.      98% Census Tract 7: South Providence, Trinity Square, Broad St, Prairie Ave behind hospitals

5.      97% Census Tract 1.02: Washington Park and South Elmwood along I-95 and RI-10

6.      95% Census Tract 4.0: South Providence, Broad St, and Prairie Ave along Public Street

7.      93% Census Tract 26.0: Orms St, Douglas Ave, and Chalkstone Ave next to RI-146 x I-95

These high-priority areas are more disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices than 95-99% of the rest of the entire country. And yet in the current comprehensive plan’s land use maps, these frontline communities in Providence are the very places where the polluting industry is encouraged to expand as “General Industrial Growth” in the Growth Strategy Map and marked for “Business/Industrial” in the Future Land Use Map.

Photo courtesy of the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute

Data from the EJ Index and White House Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool are attached at the end of this letter for each of the seven high-priority EJ census tracts in the top 10%, including each category that is flagged as high risk by these tools. We urge you to review these data in depth and consider whether the comprehensive plan will mitigate or exacerbate these long-standing injustices.

Industrial development is only one land-use-related challenge faced by the city’s frontline communities. Looking forward, our communities cannot afford ten more years of the status quo. The updated comprehensive plan must prioritize public health, quality of life, and environmental quality and prohibit economic activity that is not aligned with these priorities. The Providence Climate Justice Plan and the subsequent “Zoning Assessment” study to incorporate the Climate Justice Plan’s strategies into the comprehensive plan offer many suggestions about how to achieve this goal.

The opportunity for a major revision to the comprehensive plan only arises once a decade. The role of the Sustainability Commission, per its establishing ordinance, is to “advise the council, mayor, municipal departments, and other boards and commissions on the city’s sustainability and climate agenda,” and “provide a level of accountability and transparency for the sustainability initiatives the city is implementing or planning to implement.” As such, the Sustainability Commission has reviewed the draft Land Use chapter of the comprehensive plan and appreciates your attention to the following areas of concern.

Industrial Zones and the Port of Providence

Port of Providence    photo courtesy of RI Division of Statewide Planning

The draft Land Use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan fails to identify the harmful conditions around the Port of Providence as a problem. Unless we name the problem, we cannot have a meaningful conversation about policy solutions and comp plan objectives and strategies.

The Land Use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan must be revised to clearly name the Port of Providence as a problem, and then articulate a vision for the Port of Providence over the plan’s 20-year planning horizon and beyond. This vision should prioritize the health and quality of life of near-port neighborhoods and recognize the Act on Climate’s mandatory mandates to decarbonize our economy by 2050.

Currently, the draft land use chapter says that “businesses need areas where they can they can predictably grow and expand in the future without the concern of conflicts that often arise between industrial uses and residential uses.” However, these conflicts are already occurring due to poor planning and bad decisions in the past. The industrial area along Allens Ave is adjacent to hospitals, health centers, schools, and residential homes and the truck traffic to and from the port travels directly through our neighborhoods. By prioritizing industrial growth and banning residential uses the draft plan will deepen the existing conflicts and increase environmental injustice in communities that are already disproportionately impacted by polluting industry.

The issue of cumulative impacts must be centered in this section of the plan. There must be a clear statement that cumulative impacts are an issue of concern and that reducing cumulative impacts is a specific goal of the comprehensive plan. One of the ways we reduce cumulative impacts and restore equality is to mandate that all future developments in places that are already suffering from cumulative impacts must contribute to the cleaning of the environment and the overall reduction of health hazards. Not just cleaner than current uses, but new development must contribute to an overall less polluted community and environment.

The draft plan gives lip service to community concerns but does use vague and undefined phrases such as “making industrial areas, especially the Port of Providence, ‘cleaner and greener’” and a strategy to “prioritize clean, sustainable, and resilient economic development.” Vague terms like “clean,” “green,” “sustainable,” and “resilient” are easily used by polluting industries. Problematic polluting businesses like Rhode Island Recycled Metals, which has violated numerous environmental laws and court orders, can claim to be “green” or “sustainable” due to recycling. Just ten days after the Sustainability Commission met to discuss this comprehensive plan, yet another major fire broke out at Rhode Island Recycled Metals. Despite the City issuing a Cease-and-Desist Order and taking RIRM to court for operating without a license, and despite the City Council passing a resolution calling for RIRM to be shut down, the business continues to operate with impunity.

RI Recycled Metals on Allens Avenue    photo courtesy of rirecycledmetals.com

This underscores the difficulty in changing or removing problematic entities in this area and highlights the importance of making sure that no more problematic polluting businesses are allowed to get established or expand in these already overburdened areas. Allens Ave and the Port of Providence are filled with asphalt, fossil fuels, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, concrete, and scrap. High-heat plastic pyrolysis, which was proposed for the Port of Providence in recent years, is another polluting industry that sells itself as being a green solution to plastic waste. The comprehensive plan should not allow for any “general” industrial growth and should be very specific in which types of industries, such as offshore wind, would be allowed to expand. Any additional industry that increases the cumulative impact of pollution should not be permitted.

Finally, The Land Use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan must include a strategy to amend the Zoning Ordinance’s use table to align with the vision for the Port of Providence, described above. Economic growth that aligns with the vision should be allowed and promoted, while uses that are contradictory to the vision should be prohibited in the use table. Uses not specifically permitted or prohibited by the use table should permitted as special uses based on whether they align with the priorities of public health, quality of life, and environmental quality. Overall, any future development should be required to meet strict standards of improving environmental quality and reducing cumulative impacts rather than adding to the existing burden in these priority environmental justice communities

The language in paragraphs 2 and 3 of page 11 of the draft Land Use chapter and strategy LU5-E represents a start to this process but does not go nearly far enough to name the problem, articulate the vision, or develop strategies aligned with the vision.

Housing Affordability

Housing affordability is one of Providence’s most significant problems and a priority concern of residents. By clearly identifying this problem, the Department of Planning and Development enabled a conversation about the issue, which led to a set of meaningful strategies to increase the overall supply of housing in the market as a means to reduce costs. With that said, the Commission is concerned that the strain associated with increased housing density will inequitably burden already dense and under-resourced neighborhoods. For example, while all residential zones are being upzoned to some degree, most new units will be built in existing, higher-density neighborhoods, with the potential to strain services such as stormwater management, public open space, and emergency response. If the comprehensive plan is going to enable increased density, resources must be equitably allocated on a per capita basis to ensure services can keep pace.

The Commission recommends that the City should prioritize housing growth and permit greater density in the current low-density zones. Accessory dwelling units, cluster development, and rowhouses should be allowed by right, duplexes should be allowed by right, and language should be added to make clear these new unit types intend to increase density.

The Commission also encourages the Department of Planning and Development to further increase housing units and affordability. The draft Land Use chapter has set many restrictions on the development of residential units (building height, units per lot, etc) to strike a balance between existing neighborhood character and affordability. Given that we are in a housing crisis, the restrictions are too conservative and should be eased.

In Conclusion

The opportunity to update the comprehensive plan comes once a decade. Providence’s frontline environmental justice communities do not have 10 more years to wait for a change in the face of the escalating climate crisis while living with the daily risk of health impacts from pollution and/or chemical disasters.

On May 15, 2024, WJAR aired an investigative journalism special on the persistent noxious odors that residents in South Providence and Washington Park have been complaining about for years (the Sustainability Commission had a special meeting on this very topic last fall with RIDEM Director Terry Gray). WJAR investigative journalist Tamara Sacharczyk stated, “Some residents are also concerned about Mayor Smiley’s comprehensive plan, which actually calls for more industry along Allens Avenue.” Mayor Smiley said “My vision is that we are assembling wind turbines, that we’re doing research on undersea vehicles” to which Sacharczyk asked, “Why not just say to residents today that will not put in any other asphalt businesses, any other businesses that lead to these noxious fumes being in the air that you’re breathing in, why not just promise that right now?” The Mayor’s response was “Uh, that’s not the way zoning works.”

Mayor Smiley – this IS how zoning works, in coordination with the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plans lay out what kinds of development the City wants to see where – which is then implemented through the zoning ordinance. The City commissioned a study with Camiros, the organization that helped write the last zoning ordinance, to study how to embed the Climate Justice Plan into zoning. The recommendations for the most transformative part of the Climate Justice Plan, which focuses on the environmental justice issues around the Port of Providence, would be inconsistent with the previous comprehensive plan and the comprehensive plan must be changed first for the Climate Justice Plan to be integrated into the zoning ordinance.

We have alignment around wanting to expand offshore wind, we have your commitment to implementing the Climate Justice Plan, and now is the time to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan reflects these shared goals.

These is a link to the Land Use section of the proposed Comprehensive Plan and appendices:

Appendix B – new

The Providence Sustainability Commission is a community advisory board providing a diverse range of perspectives, expertise, and support on the City’s sustainability and climate agenda, including implementation of Providence’s Climate Justice Plan.  Its eleven members of the public meet monthly.