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Historic Districts
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This overview of historic districts is presented to provide a foundation for understanding the evolution of historic districts in Providence and their active, instrumental role in defining the parameters for preserving specific structures — and entire areas — in the city.

Providence is the only major city where the entire downtown ("Downcity") is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As early as the 1950s, Providence initiated ways to develop historic districts through innovative funding and partnerships at all government levels. Today, the city continues to broaden our understanding of historic district management by developing the country's first thematic local historic district — the Providence Industrial and Commercial Building District.

College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal publication, 1969 100-106 Benefit Street, College Hill National Historic Landmark District. September 2002

College Hill
In 1958, the Providence Preservation Society, a private, nonprofit (NGO, nongovernmental) organizations founded in 1956, was able to partner with the Providence City Plan Commission to use private funds and federal money from the Urban Renewal Administration of the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency (known for its slum clearance and urban renewal practices) to produce a study of the College Hill area: 318 acres and 1700 buildings, including most of the city's original 17th-century settlement. The resulting 1959 report — College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal — forwarded a new intent: “…to develop methods and techniques for a program of preservation, rehabilitation and renewal in a historic area which can serve as a guide for other areas with similar problems." At the time the country had 21 regulated historic districts.

In 1960, a Historic District Commission was formed, and the College Hill Historic District was created to include 500 buildings with 348 significant structures. By 1966, approximately 75 houses had been restored. The district is now the College Hill National Historic Landmark District.

The United States enacted the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966. This act is still the basis for much federal and state preservation work. In 1968, the Rhode Island General Assembly established the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHP&HC), which — among its many duties — is responsible for conducting a statewide survey of historic sites and places, and recommending that significant properties be nominated for inclusion of the National Register of Historic Places.

The Commission also compiles and maintains a State Register of Historic Places. The criteria for inclusion in the State Register are the same as those for the National Register. In Rhode Island these two registers include the same structures. In other states, they may differ.

The National Register protects properties by requiring review of federally-funded and licensed projects to "consider adverse effect" of proposed projects on listed properties, as required by Section 106 of the NHPA, which was enacted largely to counter the many federal incentives in place that encouraged the uncontrolled destruction of cultural resources.

The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) reviews state projects to determine their effect on properties listed in both the National Register (on behalf of the federal government, which is forwarded the state's preliminary findings and recommendations) and the State Register.

However, these listings only provide a review process for projects that use public funding or licensing; otherwise there is no protection against alterations that may diminish or destroy historic resources — unless the structure is under the purview of a Historic District Commission.

In 1969, the Rhode Island Statewide Historic Survey was started. Since then the Commission has surveyed over 52,757 historic properties and nominated fifteen thousand properties to the State Register and National Register of Historic Places, including 133 historic districts. Providence has 28 historic districts. These efforts help Providence assess its resources, control the impact of federal and state projects, and provide financial and regulatory incentives.

Meanwhile, in 1959 Providence established a local historic district zoning ordinance to protect and preserve special areas of historic and architectural value. This made possible the creation of the Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC) to carry out the provisions of historic district zoning.

The historic district commission has substantial powers, as provided by state enabling legislation. In a local historic district, a design-review process guides development and change in a way that preserves important elements of the past for the benefit of future generations. The PHDC reviews proposals for all exterior repair, alteration, new construction, moving, or demolition of buildings, structures and their appurtenances within the local historic districts. Before starting any work, a property owner must file an application and obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness for the project. The commission employs the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, which are also used by the state and federal government to review projects.

The incentives for property owners of listed properties include: federal tax credits for substantial rehabilitation of income-producing property; state tax credits or rehabilitation of income-producing property; and maintenance work on private residences. The state's Historic Preservation Investment Tax Credit — the fifteenth in the nation—was passed in 2001, with the support of 45 organizations that endorsed the credit. It took effect in January 2002.

Commercial projects can receive up to 50% tax (including federal and state, combined) credit for approved rehabilitation projects where they meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.

Today, Providence has designated nine local historic district overlay zones. Eight of these are under the jurisdiction of the Providence Historic District Commission. One, the Downcity District, is under the Downcity District Design Review Committee, established in 1992. The Downcity District is the core commercial downtown area of Providence. This district was established (in part from an existing district) after publication of Downcity Providence: Master Plan and Implementation Plan in 1994.

The Downcity District combines traditional and innovative legislation, mixed-use zoning, and economic incentives to help achieve a vital downtown that respect preservation of historic sites while fostering innovative, sensitive approaches to new design and construction. Preservation legislation (including historic district designation) is only one way protect against inappropriate treatment of historic sites. Here, a community fights against the destruction of a mill complex and construction of single-story "suburban"-type commercial buildings.

The Downcity District has different rules and regulations, and a specific mission: it is designed to direct development in the downtown, to protect its historic architectural character, to encourage round-the-clock pedestrian activity, to promote the arts and entertainment, and to support residential uses. As with the PHDC, the Downcity committee reviews work on any structure in the district — historic or “modern” — and vacant sites.

In the past two years, Providence has developed a noncontiguous Providence Industrial and Commercial Building District — the first thematic local historic district in the country. This is profiled in the "Industrial Sites" study.

East end of Westminster Street, view east toward Providence River. September 2002.

Preserving Buildings and Districts: From Preservation of Power… to the Power of Preservation
Until the early 20th century, preservation in America focused on individual buildings or “monuments” — usually built with reference to powerful, rich, white, men, and preserved to sustain this elitist, privileged approach; it was a preservation of power, not just buildings.

By the 1930s cities — at first, Charleston (South Carolina) and New Orleans (Louisiana) — established historic districts through legislation, which included provisions for documentation and architectural controls through design review of historic and non-historic houses, now considered in their setting. The scope and scale of preservation became more inclusive, but these districts were still frequently exclusive: they focused on high-style buildings, many owned by wealthy citizens who wanted to preserve their "attractive" — and historic — neighborhoods.

Today, historic district survey and nomination efforts are frequently initiated by neighborhoods, by citizens who understand that historic district designation, coupled with other initiatives, can be an an important means of preserving neighborhood character while considering options for change.



Historic Districts: Sources Cited and Resources

College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal, Conducted by the Providence City Plan Commission in cooperation with the Providence Preservation Society and the Housing and Home Finance Agency, 1969

Downcity District Design Review Committee, Providence
http://www.providenceri.com/government/planning/historic/drc1.html

Downcity Providence: Master Plan and Implementation Plan, developed as Plan 1A of the Area Plan Series of Providence 2000: The Comprehensive Plan by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Palter-Zyberk, Town Planners; and 1B of the Area Plan Series of Providence 2000: The Comprehensive Plan the Downcity Task Force and the Department of Planning and Development, January 1, 1994

Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service
http://www2.cr.nps.gov/tps/tax/

Historic Homeowner Tax Credit, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/fin_ri.html

Historic Preservation Investment Tax Credit, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/fin_ri2.html

Local Historic District Zoning, Rhode Island (including Providence), Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/hdz.html

National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers
http://www.ncshpo.org/

National Historic Landmarks, National Park Service
http://www.cr.nps.gov/nhl/

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended through 2000 [with annotations], National Park Service
http://www2.cr.nps.gov/laws/NHPA1966.htm

National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service
http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/

Providence Historic Districts (28, including seven under the PHDC), Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/nr_list.html#Providence

Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC)
http://www.providenceri.com/government/planning/historic/BROCHURE.html

Providence Neighborhood Profiles: Downtown, City of Providence
http://providenceri.com/Neighborhoods/downtwn.html

Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/

Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service
http://www2.cr.nps.gov/tps/tax/rehabstandards.htm