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Mayoral Candidates Highlight Preservation Policy

As Providence approaches the 2014 Mayoral election, PPS believes that historic preservation should be at the forefront of candidates' policies on economic development and land use. Over the past three months, PPS has met with all current mayoral candidates with conversations touching on economic development, downtown revitalization, demolition policy, and resurrecting the Rhode Island Historic Tax Credit.

Following each meeting, candidates were given short surveys addressing the City's most pressing preservation topics. Below please find Democrat Jorge Elorza's and Republican Daniel Harrop's responses to our survey on historic preservation in Providence. 

PPS is constantly working to educate and engage policy-makers by advocating for stronger preservation planning, and exciting and relevant educational programming. Please support PPS by becoming a member or donating to support our mission.

Economic Development– Historic Preservation is more than just saving individual buildings. It is about preserving authentic places, including entire neighborhoods and commercial districts. Many cities use historic preservation as an economic development tool – to create a unique sense of place which is marketable and can attract people to invest, live and work in a place with character and a past. If elected Mayor, how would you integrate historic preservation into your economic development strategy for the city?

Jorge Elorza
Jorge Elorza: In this city, historic preservation and economic development must go hand-in-hand. This is for two reasons: One is that our rich history and architecture are valuable assets that can be leveraged to build up our economy. This is true in obvious ways, such as the value they add to our tourism industry, and also in areas we haven’t fully explored yet. For instance, as historic preservation becomes more of a priority in America’s younger cities, Providence’s expertise and experience could become a valuable commodity. This is why historic preservation must be integrated into economic development.

The flip side of the equation is that economic development must also be integrated into historic preservation. Simply put, if architectural treasures like the Superman Building and the Arcade aren’t redeveloped in economically viable ways, they can never truly be preserved. These building aren’t simply pieces in a museum collection – they’re vital and active parts of our cityscape. The micro-lofts and shops in the Arcade are a great example of a project in which historic significance adds value to what is otherwise a very modern idea for commercial development. For instance, I’ve heard people talk of putting a permanent indoor farmer’s market and a micro-brewery in the Armory – that’s the kind of idea that excites me. As Mayor, I look forward to having those conversations, because a building that is occupied, active, and economically healthy is one that will never wind up on your “Endangered Properties” list.

As Mayor, I will also work with any developer who presents a viable plan with a real public benefit to establish TSAs and help streamline processes in order to spur revitalization of historic buildings. I will also work with agencies like the City’s Department of Art, Culture + Tourism and the Providence Tourism Council to better market Providence as a historic destination worthy of interest and exploration. For instance, why is the Benefit Street “Mile of History” not as famous an attraction as Waterplace Park or the Zoo?

Daniel Harrop
Daniel Harrop
Daniel Harrop
: One of Providence’s key economic engines is tourism. Tens of thousands of parents visit their children at colleges, conventions bring in tens of thousands more, and our natural beauties (beaches, the ocean, etc) bring in still more. Historical tourism has to continue to be part of our attractions, and is a good area for expansion. Historical and preservation groups should have a specific ombudsman, or source or contact, at city hall, reporting directly to the Mayor. Permitting and zoning needs to be simplified for all businesses, including historic preservation. The Mayor also needs to act as a major fundraiser to see that attention, and private sources of funding, are directed to projects needed to boost historic tourism.

Tax Credits– Historic preservation is an important Providence industry. It is an economic engine. In the last ten years, state tax credits assisted rehabilitation of 128 historic buildings, with several more being rehabilitated in 2014. These projects have generated $574 million of private investment in Providence, which created jobs, rehabbed 1,500 homes and apartments, and increased the city's tax base. Currently, the state historic preservation tax credit is not available to any new projects, at a time of high unemployment in construction trades and as Providence neighborhoods are struggling with disinvestment and foreclosures. What will you do as mayor to reinstate the state historic tax credit program in order to stimulate historic preservation projects in Providence again?

Elorza: As Mayor, I am committed to being a tireless advocate for Providence at the State House. So many cuts in State funding over the past several years have impacted everything from historic preservation to school funding to the car tax. We need to make sure that our legislators and State agencies understand that the economic health of the entire state is inextricably linked to the economic health of its capital city. I will work closely with our city’s delegation in the General Assembly to advocate for the increase or reinstatement of funding for a number of programs, including the historic preservation tax credit. So many buildings here in Providence are historic, and that kind of incentive can be a powerful tool to spur investment and development. Some investments are just worth making.

Harrop: I agree the tax credits need to be restored, and will work to lobby state government officials to make this a priority as the state’s finances stabilize over the next few years.

Demolition– Providence represents one of the most architecturally intact cities in the country. As mayor, what would you do to prevent demolition of historically and architecturally significant buildings from happening while still promoting development? How would you protect Providence’s architectural legacy?

Elorza: As Mayor, I will work actively with groups like the Providence Historic Districts Commission to ensure that they are engaged with developers and acting swiftly on project proposals. With a commission that meets only monthly and needs a quorum of volunteer members to act, we run the risk of projects being automatically given the green light when 45 days pass without action from the committee. We have to make sure we are recruiting members for these commissions that are responsive and eager to be engaged in the process.

As Mayor, I will also be an advocate for preservation, instilling in the HDC and Planning and Development the importance of preserving historic buildings, and ensuring that developers abide by the intent of the law rather than using the City Council process to exclude a property from the district or convincing a building official to deem a building unfit. I will see to it that City building officials operating under State law are aware and reminded of the executive order issued by Mayor Cicilline in 2008 that created a demolition delay policy in Providence. I support adhering to the following three processes depending on the condition of the building:

1) If the structure is deemed to be safe and not hazardous, the building official should not issue any demolition permits until HDC review.

2) If the structure is unsafe or hazardous, but not under an immediate threat of collapse, the building official should not issue any demolition permits and shall order the owner to secure the building until HDC review.

3) If the structure poses an immediate public safety hazard, a committee shall meet immediately to discuss demolition prior to HDC review. The building official may require demolition or preservation based on specific criteria.

Harrop: As noted in #1 above, there needs to be a particular Ombudsman within city hall reporting to the Mayor to bring attention to buildings the city will need to pay particular attention. The Ombudsman’s job evaluation (and retention) will be based on reports from the agencies s/he is to represent, so there will be active representation of their interests. The city also need to have a grants-writing department to help various city agencies obtain available funding from federal or state or private resources.

Downtown Revitalization– Providence is the capital city of Rhode Island. During the past 30 years, Capital Center has been successful in attracting funding and development. Currently the I-195 corridor is receiving much energy, attention, and funding. These efforts have neglected to address the issues of our historic downtown core, the heart of our capital city. What is your overall strategy and vision for a resurgent central business district in downtown Providence?

Elorza: I believe we already have a very vibrant and exciting central business district in Downtown, but we can always do better. Downtown needs to be a place where people can live, work, and play – whether it’s residents, visitors, commuters, etc. As Mayor, I will work with the private sector to encourage the development of more housing Downtown. The 2010 U.S. Census showed a 65% increase in the population of people living Downtown and with rental occupancy at nearly 100%, there is clearly room to grow. Downtown living is in demand, and population density in the urban core is vital to a city’s health, because people and activity attract more people and activity. Visitors and tourists will go a long way towards filling the seats at PPAC or keeping The Dorrance’s reservation books full, but it’s the residents – the neighbors – downtown that will keep places like Amenities Deli or Small Point Cafe viable.

Beyond that, we need to make sure there is activity at the street level on every block of downtown. Studies show us that when there is variety to the architecture and usage of a city block, people are likely to spend more time on that block. That’s why I love to see things like the redevelopment of the Biltmore Garage, which took a formerly inactive block that most people would just pass by, and filled it with life. Now people are sitting outside and dining on that block. They’re stopping there for their morning coffee. They’re buying clothes there. That’s a wonderful improvement, and we need more of those, because too many blocks downtown still lack that sense of life – especially after dark. The City needs to take a proactive approach to commercial property owners who have vacant properties; we need them to activate those spaces and I commit to travelling to Boston, Hartford, or any other city to recruit prospective tenants.

Downtown is our city’s showcase; it’s the face we show to the rest of the country. So it must be a place that is exciting and attractive to visitors, whether they are tourists, staycationers, conventioneers, or prospective residents. It’s also our city center, and it must be a place for residents from every neighborhood around the city to come together and interact. Finally, Downtown is a living history exhibit for the state, a place where modern amenities freely intermingle with architecture and landmarks from various periods of American development. That is a unique asset that many cities simply can’t offer. As Mayor, I will work every day to ensure that Providence has the vibrant, historic downtown it deserves.

Harrop: Currently, our near-highest-in-the-nation commercial tax rate is stifling development throughout the city (as the home rate is stifling neighborhoods). If unable within a short period of time to reduce the commercial rate, since the city budget will remain under stress until a receivership reorganization is completed over the next few years, then at the very least three special commercial zones (waterfront, 195 land, and downtown) need to be designated as economic development zones with lower tax rates than other parts of the city. At that point, the free market can help development of these areas. As noted before, zoning and permitting need to be significantly changed and made more business friendly. Finally, I would conduct the most ethical and open administration this city has seen. Corruption is inimical to the process of sustainable development. Corruption creates unsustainable inefficiencies and inherent weakness in the economy for the long term. Developers and investors simply will not come to areas where corruption is considered endemic; they cannot believe they will get a fair deal under the law. When corruption is low and government acts ethically, there is a perception, hence a reality, that it is safe to do business there. Providence needs to have a leader whose personal history is beyond reproach if it is to move forward economically.