Council puts train zoning on hold amid call for 10 percent affordable units

Council puts train zoning on hold amid call for 10 percent affordable units

PAWTUCKET – Creation of a new zoning district around the city’s coming train station is too important to approve it in a “half-baked” form, say City Council members.

The council, at its meeting last Wednesday, April 10, heard lengthy testimony from advocates who want to see a 10 percent minimum requirement for affordable housing in the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zone in the Conant Thread District around a coming commuter rail station off Main Street and Pine Street.

A majority of council members has been against including such a requirement. In the face of testimony, they voted to postpone a vote.

After those in the audience had testified, the council learned that the proposal to add such an affordable housing requirement within the proposed new Conant Thread Zoning District needed more work to even align with state law, as City Solicitor Frank Milos confirmed that it wouldn’t hold up without some corresponding incentive for developers. Council members sent the measure back to the subcommittee level to try to come up with something workable.

Council members, particularly Terry Mercer, expressed frustration that years of planning and collaboration could lead to a zoning proposal that doesn’t pass the legal sniff test due to issues with a few sentences.

Director of Planning Sue Mara said the added language came about due to talks with affordable housing advocates in the city. She conceded that she and others should have caught the issue.

Council President David Moran, answering questions about what this delay might mean to developers of potential projects around the station, said he and other city leaders expect this situation to be resolved fairly quickly.

“I am confident moving forward that in collaboration with the administration and the joint committees of both ordinance and ad hoc economic development and neighborhood improvement will work together in a speedy and efficient manner to bring something back to the full council to deliberate and vote on,” he said. “I have faith in the political process and we need to ensure we are all on the same page and get this right.”

The plan by the joint committees is to have something officially back to the full council within 90 days, he said, but it could potentially be sooner than that.

The council heard from one advocate after another last week who want to see the 10 percent minimum on affordable housing put in place, several suggesting that they believe the council is getting pressure from developers not to include such a requirement. Many also said they see 10 percent as the very minimum that should be required, saying it should be 15, 20, even 25 percent in the TOD district.

Mayor Donald Grebien issued a statement this week in response to last week’s move to hold off on a vote.

“Pawtucket has always had a diverse mix of housing options and it is the city’s goal, as stated in its comprehensive plan, to continue to foster a strong mix of housing opportunities,” he said.

For affordable housing, residents have to be at 80 percent of the area median income to qualify for it.

City officials last year declined to require a percentage of required affordable housing for the TOD district, but did pass a resolution encouraging such development.

Anne Grant, executive director of the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, emphasized the difficulty of finding affordable housing in the state. She shared how diverse neighborhoods with quality affordable units improve a community’s fabric and decrease crime.

Phil West, formerly of Common Cause, said he knows officials are facing pressure to take out the 10 percent requirement, but urged them to do the right thing and perhaps even increase the percentage to 15 percent.

“They will do it because this is such an opportunity,” he said of developers, warning against the gentrification that happens without safeguards put in. Once an exclusive community is created, he said, you “never get it back. Now is the time to insist on it.” He described the TOD district as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city of Pawtucket.”

Some who testified said 10 percent is far too low, pointing to neighboring Central Falls, where the number will be 20 percent for that city’s portion of the TOD.

Mara corrected assertions that the district will be 50 percent in each community, saying it’s actually about 75 percent in Pawtucket and 25 percent in Central Falls.

Mara clarified that the TOD district is designed to promote residential, commercial and leisure uses that are within easy walking distance.

Resident Andi Wheeler said it’s imperative to support affordable housing options. Even if it wasn’t the right thing to do on its own, quality affordable housing means fewer people in shelters, jails and hospitals, said Wheeler.

Laura Burkett, of the Broad Street Initiative and a Bayley Street Lofts resident, said she loves the diversity of Pawtucket, and a 10 percent mandate on affordable housing would help promote that for the area around the train station.

Resident Lori Barden noted the importance of affordable housing to younger generations who crave metro living and want to come back to the state.

Kristina Contreras Fox, of the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless, was among those who emphasized the state’s serious problem with homelessness, saying development of affordable housing is a key solution.

City resident and former council candidate Andrew Maguire noted that developers, with only a 10 percent affordable housing component, will only lose about 2 percent on their price.

“We can’t bend over backwards for 2 percent,” he said.

Other young professionals emphasized the importance of bringing in other people who are looking to add value to a community.

Jessica Vega, a councilwoman in Central Falls, urged city officials to go beyond the 10 percent, calling it a “bare minimum.” Minimums of 20 to 25 percent would be better, she said.

Andrew Pearson, of Pawtucket Central Falls Development (PCF Development), urged leaders to pass inclusionary zoning, saying it would be a mistake to make the Conant Thread District “100 percent exclusive.” Such developments near other commuter rail stops are seeing rents start at $2,000 per month, he said, meaning someone would have to be earning $84,000 per year to afford them.

A 10 percent limit is a fair compromise to create a “more equitable and inclusive TOD,” he said.

Pearson emphasized that these are not low-income units, but moderate-income ones housing people earning up to $60,000.

Alison Bologna, an Oak Hill resident and owner of Shri Yoga, spoke in favor of the 10 percent mandate, noting that she’s trying to bring a 37 percent affordable housing component to her her new Pine Street location.

“Other larger developers could do the same,” she said.

Bologna said she loves Pawtucket for its diversity and said she sees a tremendous opportunity create an example of inclusion and affordability here. Ten percent is the minimum officials should go with, she said.

Wilma Smith, of the PCF Development Board of Directors, said developers should not be using housing as a bargaining chip. Pawtucket already has a shortfall of about 362 affordable units, she said, 2 percent lower than the 10 percent state standard for affordable housing.

Board member Kevin Kazarian agreed, saying displacing existing residents should be avoided. If developers walk away, so be it, he said, as others would take their place.

Jeremiah O’Grady, former council president in Lincoln and state representative now working for the Local Initiatives Support Corp., or LISC, noted the 25 percent affordable mandate Lincoln previously used for its mill overlay district.

Comprehensive community development should promote neighborhoods where people can work, worship, play and shop, all with easy transit options, he said.

Linda Weisinger, executive director of PCF Development, emphasized that units around the train station would be filled with residents of moderate income levels. She said there are plenty of federal resources available to develop such housing, as her organization has proven.

Mara said the planning for the district around the future train station, with construction due to get started this summer, first started nearly 15 years ago. The effort to fill vacant old mills and tie in local neighborhoods is important to the city, as it will maximize residential, commercial and leisure space, she said.

About 100 parcels of the development, or 140 acres, are located in Pawtucket, while another 30 properties covering 40 acres are in Central Falls. These are largely vacant and underutilized properties that are ripe for development, she said, and the city is seeing a lot of interest from developers.

Councilor Meghan Kallman took offense to suggestions of stepping back to consider options on the proposal, saying she opposed separating out the affordable housing component and approving the rest of the zoning ordinance amendments and saying she would want a guarantee that the council will consider the affordable housing mandate at a later date. She questioned why the document seemed “hastily and poorly put together.”

Councilor Tim Rudd said he also didn’t want to see the sections separated, as developers could easily move forward as officials consider the affordable housing component, starting the gentrification process.

Mercer took issue with suggestions that the council is against affordable housing. He said he hasn’t heard from a single developer who has pressured the council to vote their way, saying he’s simply trying to do what’s best for his constituents and the city.

“The council’s not anti affordable housing, we’re anti half-ass statutes,” he said, adding that he, too, found the proposed ordinance to be irresponsible.

The council heard from a couple of landowners within the district, William Coyle III and George Hovarth, who weren’t happy about being included within its confines and questioned why they would be included with little advance notice.

Director of Commerce Jeanne Boyle assured them that their properties would be grandfathered into the district, even if they were sold in the future. Hovarth said he would like to see an opt-out clause added to the final ordinance.