Op-Ed: Brent Runyon’s Thoughts on Housing and Transportation

From new development to car use, the former Providence Preservation Society executive director weighs in


We’ve always liked and admired Brent Runyon, the former head of the Providence Preservation Society (PPS). So when he called to mildly suggest we may have misinterpreted one of his quotes, we were both surprised and chagrined. Since we like his perspective, we asked him to share his expanded thoughts.

We have always felt strongly that one of the best characteristics of Providence are the unique and different neighborhoods that make it such a livable historic city. We need a plan that creates more housing that preserves neighborhoods and benefits all residents. 

Like everything, the devil is the details. Zoning needs a relook to prevent neighborhoods from being overrun with four-story boxes, and design review needs a more prominent place. More affordable housing is a must. Is allowing college students to leave cars on streets for months at a time a benefit to any neighborhood? Cars aren’t going away, and public transportation isn’t delivering. Maybe bring back the trolleys. Or use smaller buses and create a shuttle service like Brown and RISD which would be ideal.   

The need to redo the development and zoning guidelines of Providence is long overdue. With a new mayor and head of planning, the stage is set.

“Providence is at an inflexion point. The city desperately needs more housing. More housing often – but not always – necessitates more cars if alternate transportation options are not available. My experience being car-free for three years has shown me that living car-free in Providence is possible, but not easy, and that more people are apt to do it if we build compact, walkable, connected neighborhoods with better public transit. But not everyone has the ability, time, or inclination to use alternate modes of transportation, so it is a reality that car use is going to be a reality for many years to come. A good step is for the state to fund the Transit Master Plan that would give the entire state a functional transit system.

“‘There isn’t going to be enough on-site parking,’ is something I heard often in my nearly 10 years at the PPS. The effects of adding new residents to already-dense neighborhoods is an ongoing concern for existing residents. It is frustrating when you can’t get into your driveway, when your friends can’t find a place to park when they visit, or when maintenance servicers or health care aids can’t park nearby.

“Regarding new real estate developments, those who want a good urban environment should favor new buildings over surface parking. Those who want to see the city thrive should want land to generate more taxes for our city. So what is to be done with the cars of those new residents or workers, especially in our densest neighborhoods?

“In 1988, PPS, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Department commissioned the College Hill Growth Management Plan. The objectives included identifying needs for growth management, ‘in response to continuing development pressures,’ to ‘… make recommendations to help preserve the physical heritage of College Hill,’ and to ‘identify traffic and parking issues and make recommendations for improvements.’

“Providence’s next century will likely look and feel a lot different than the last one. And that will require everyone to reconsider and reimagine what it means to be neighbors and residents of this magnificent city. To get there, we need a well thought-out plan, more focused than the comprehensive plan, to help manage these issues for long-time and new residents – and not just on College Hill, but throughout the city. Providence can preserve its heritage, ensure its citizens have a good quality of life, and make room for these other concerns, people, and buildings.”

Brent Runyon is an independent preservation and nonprofit consultant and a real estate agent at Residential Properties, LTD.



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