It was 1929. Automobiles back then were mostly Fords, and almost entirely one color. “Give the customer any color they want, as long as it’s black,” said Henry Ford famously. Here in Providence, an ordinance was passed that effectively outlawed overnight parking in the city. And that’s the way it’s remained ever since – at least until this month.
Over the years, the primary arguments to maintaining the tradition came from public safety officials. It’d be easier to navigate the sometimes narrow neighborhood streets in the event of fire. It’d help late night crime enforcement if there were fewer cars to hide behind. In some areas of the city (College Hill and Fox Point are two), there are streets that are indeed too narrow to facilitate parking and vehicles.
In other sections of the city, however, especially in areas without driveways or obvious parking areas, the overnight bans were met with frustration. Even worse, desperate (or frugal) homeowners often chose to blacktop lawns to gain a place to park legally to avoid late night tickets.
About 18 months ago, the City began a pilot resident sticker project on the West Side to test the waters on an alternative model to deal with the problem. And while the number of stickers sold is well below what the City had hoped for, there has been very little pushback from neighbors upset with the new initiative. Expect there to be much more resistance as the roll-out launches on the East Side.
The City is scheduled to continue its sticker program, which started for the East Side in June, into all sections of the area. Fueled largely by fear of sticker-abuse because of the large number of renters, particularly in Summit, College Hill and Fox Point, many homeowners worry that the curb space in front of their homes will be a thing of the past. Leo Perrotta was hired by then Mayor Cicilline in 2007 and has been the parking administrator of the city since 2011. He’s convinced the program will work, though he admits there is still some tweaking to be done.
In an attempt to ensure the roll-out proceeds as smoothly as possible, Perrotta has been holding a series of public meetings with all of the neighborhood associations and while he acknowledges some residents have expressed concerns, he says the meetings so far have been productive and mostly non-confrontational. One interesting issue that has arisen is that the overnight expansion has not proceeded through traditional channels – from the finance and ordinance committees of the City Council and then to a full council vote – but rather directly through the mayor’s office. The ordinance stalled in the finance committee last fall, so the mayor’s office opted to just expand the pilot program on its own. This, to some residents, represents an unfortunate lack of transparency, which is troubling.
The program will be introduced on the basis of existing police districts. Precinct 9, which includes Fox Point, the Wayland area and a good chunk of College Hill, began mid-June. The Summit area, Blackstone and the balance of College Hill (Precinct 8) began the following week. The plan calls for the new sticker program to be set up as an 18-month test, after which it will be re-evaluated. In addition, if 66% of the residents of a street choose to opt out of the program, the program will not go into effect in that area. At a neighborhood meeting, one East Sider asked what would happen if the program proved to be unsuccessful. While Perrotta admitted that at present there really isn’t much of a plan B, he assured the questioner he was confident it would indeed work. Many attendees at the public meetings we attended clearly remain unconvinced.
All streets throughout the East Side (and throughout the city) will be divided into three categories: where overnight parking is permitted on both sides of the street (green), where it is allowed only on one side (yellow), and where it remains prohibited on both sides (red). On the maps included here that illustrate the change, streets are drawn as green, yellow or red, depending on their status: District 8 map | District 9 map.
Sitting at his modest office on Ernest Street, just off Allens Avenue, Perrotta concedes that his job can be a frantic one, responding as he does to all manner of daily parking issues in addition to the new sticker roll-out he’s about to launch. Since the neighborhood meetings generally are held at night, he has seen his workload expand this month, but feels it’s an important part of what he has to do. He is prepared to deal with specific individual resident issues as they come up as well. He can be reached at 781- 4045 x573. The City's official website includes information on the program, including downloadable forms.
The most critical issue, of course, is how the program will work. Here are the basics:
For $100, you can buy a year-long permit for any cars you have registered at your property. The limit is two per household/dwelling unit. Any apartment building with more than six units will not be eligible for the program unless, according to the current City guidelines, tenants can demonstrate a “significant hardship” – a total lack of any off-street parking options, for example. The Summit Avenue Neighborhood Association is raising some concerns over this issue in that they feel “the hardship bar” is set pretty low. Basically, any building that does not have enough parking spaces for its tenants can get two stickers per unit simply by declaring that it doesn’t have room to accommodate them.
In addition, permit holders can also purchase special guest passes for $25 that would allow five overnights per month. As with the regular stickers, the cars must be parked in a specified overnight area and must be consistent with regular normal parking signage, hydrants, distance from corners and the like. The guest passes can only be bought by individuals who have signed up for the overnight sticker. So what happens to residents who don’t need an overnight sticker but have a guest who needs to stay on the streets for a night or two? Perrotta suggests that homeowners buy a sticker and move their car to the street and, as a good host, allow the guest to occupy the driveway.
At a recent public meeting with Perrotta, convened by the College Hill Neighborhood Association, some residents expressed concern over possible abuse of the permits. One point that was made clear was that any resident, whether student or renter, would have to have their car registered in Providence to be eligible for the overnight sticker. “I want to be clear on that,” Perrotta explained. “The registration has to be for Providence, not just Rhode Island.”
A second area of concern was the possibility of a car with an overnight sticker being left on the street indefinitely. Perrotta assured attendees that after about 48 to 72 hours, tickets would be issued nightly to avoid long-term abuse of the regulation. The key, of course, will depend on the actual level of enforcement of the regulations, several neighbors were quick to point out. And the City’s record in this regard is spotty at best. “Cars rarely even get towed in snow emergencies,” growled one attendee, “so do you really think it’s going to happen now?”
Several of the local neighborhood organizations have taken the trouble to poll their memberships as to their thoughts on rescinding the overnight ban. Not surprisingly, reactions are split more or less down the middle. The most recent was by the Summit Avenue Association, in which 55% percent of their voting members were against lifting the overnight ban.
It would seem that on one side are students, landlords, renters and newer arrivals to the East Side, most of whom came from cities where overnight parking is the rule of the road. In recent months, an email campaign in support of overnight parking has also been making the rounds of some sections of Providence.
On the other side are residents who worry about safety concerns like walking to their cars at night, the dangers of clogged streets in case of late night emergency vehicle runs and the specter of losing control of the curb space in front of their homes as the number of parked cars expands. And then there are some that just don’t like the idea period. “One of the things I love about Providence,” said one relatively new resident to the East Side, “is the quirky uniqueness of our city. People who visit us are amazed, and enjoy the fact that our streets are relatively empty at night, almost suburban in feeling. To them, and to me, it’s what make us both attractive and special.”
A more tangible issue was raised at several of the meetings. Why can’t residents be allowed to “opt in” for overnight parking rather than forcing them into the more burdensome path of “opting out?” At the Summit Avenue meeting, several older residents were vocally upset with needing to find a younger participant to help them initiate the necessary door-to-door petition. In response, Perrotta felt there was a simplicity and efficiency to the process as now slated to go forward.
Another obvious issue that has arisen during neighborhood meetings is what happens in the event of special emergencies like snow removal, hurricanes and street sweeping. In all these cases, Perrotta says the City will communicate directly with the sticker-holders to have them move the cars as required. He confirms that “all overnight sticker purchasers must supply a phone number or email address to facilitate these kinds of warnings.”
Perrotta also maintains that, based on the levels of sticker sales on the West End, the actual number of participants may be significantly lower than what residents fear. In the West End test area, the percentage of cars requesting stickers never rose above the 6 to 10% level. Areas of high student density, like College Hill, Fox Point and Elmhurst (near PC) undoubtedly might have higher numbers, Perrotta conceded. A student apartment with four units, for example, would be eligible for eight parking stickers. The stickers, however, would only be for a specified Providence-registered vehicle and could not be passed around.
So after 83 years, the City of Providence is about to join the ranks of the majority of other cities around the country that allow overnight parking. To some, it’s a long overdue response to the way we live our lives in the 21st century. To others, especially here on the East Side, it’s just one more diminution to that illusive (and subjective) catchphrase, “one’s quality of life.”