Councilor wants more approvals, neighbor notices for Great Streets projects

Providence

Advocate held signs demanding “safe streets now,” as city councilors discussed an ordinance to require more community engagement for Great Streets projects.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The majority leader of the Providence City Council wants homeowners and renters to have a larger say in roadway projects — such as the installation of bike lanes — that might alter their streets or sidewalks.

The ordinance introduced by Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, the majority leader, is aimed at preventing another Eaton Street debacle, where two-way bike lanes were installed and then quickly removed last year — at taxpayer expense — amid an outcry from neighbors.

But bicyclists, pedestrians and other advocates argue the ordinance sets up roadblocks for Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Great Streets plan, which aims to make Providence’s roads safer for everybody.

The Great Streets plan is centered around the installation of two-way “urban trails” that will connect streets throughout the city for bicyclists, pedestrians, scooter-riders and others. It also includes traffic calming measures and improvements to dangerous intersections.

Ryan backed off part of her proposal Monday night, which originally would have required more than 50% of property owners along the length of a project to give written approval before it’s installed.

An amended version of the legislation, submitted by Ryan at Monday’s meeting of the Ordinance Committee, requires instead that the street projects go through the City Plan Commission’s existing approval process for major land development projects.

The amended ordinance would also require the city provide written notice of each project to all property owners and tenants on lots adjacent to the project, in addition to the councilperson for the ward. Projects subject to the notice requirements would include bike lanes, the removal or expansion of parking spaces, or traffic calming measures.

“We tried to ask the administration to stop, to engage the community,” Ryan said of the Eaton Street situation. “The response was, ‘We’re going to push forward and we’ll make it more safe.’ In the end it didn’t make it more safe, it made it more dangerous.”

She has also opposed the two-way bike lanes on Mount Pleasant Avenue, which would remove street parking spaces.

Multiple people who spoke against Ryan’s proposal at the meeting said they appreciated the amendment to remove the requirement for property owners’ approval, pointing out that many landlords who own Providence buildings don’t actually live on the streets that will be redesigned. But the opponents said the ordinance amounts to adding more red tape to the process of improving streets.

“We should be streamlining this process, not adding more time to it,” said Liza Burkin of the Providence Streets Coalition. She said her group was formed in December, after the Eaton Street debacle, and has been working to engage community members about the Great Streets initiative.

Rachel Peterson, who lives in the Mount Hope neighborhood, said she primarily walks in the city and believes many streets and intersections are not safe for pedestrians.

“My major concern with this ordinance is that you’re delaying the work in the Great Streets initiative,” Peterson said. “Every day I walk through an intersection where a 30-year-old woman was killed walking to work. … Every single time I see that I’m so scared that I might be the next one.”

Patricia Socarras, the press secretary for Elorza, said the ordinance would “add unreasonable cost and time to projects that are desperately needed to improve our streets and ensure they are safe, equitable and sustainable.”

“Many of these projects are included in our Capital Improvement Plan already go through an extensive public process with the City Council, in addition to community meetings, online forums, and mailings for projects like those included in our Great Streets plan,” Socarras said.

But Ryan says neighbors were not directly notified about Great Streets meetings that would affect their specific streets, and contended the meetings were packed with bicycle advocates.

“They wanted to push a bike agenda,” Ryan said.

Bob Barry, who lives in the Elmhurst neighborhood near Eaton Street, said a community input meeting last year was billed as a “general information meeting,” so he decided not to attend. He said his neighbors didn’t understand the plan to redesign Eaton Street until “after the lines started showing up on the street.”

“If it was made clear that this was an actual meeting to discuss the revision of our roadway, I would’ve gone,” Barry said.

If the Great Streets projects were to go through the City Plan Commission’s process for major land development, it would require multiple stages of review and public comment, including a postcard mailed directly to residents in the area 10 days before a public hearing.

Leo Perrotta, the acting director of public works, said putting roadway projects through the CPC would “slow the process down significantly.”

Certain projects would be exempt from the requirement, including routine maintenance, utility work and putting up signs.

Asked by Ryan how the DPW would plow snow from the two-way bike lanes, Perrotta said they would use two existing Bobcat machines owned by the city, and would look into acquiring more. (He added that he wants to start using the Bobcats to plow city sidewalks, eliciting excitement from everyone in the room.)

Following the public comments, Ryan said she was interested in working on the ordinance further. The committee voted to continue the matter to a future meeting.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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