University News

Downtown, big ideas are soon to be tested

Fifth in a Five-Part Series

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

Brown plans for expansion into the Jewelry District include the evolution of a retail corridor similar to Thayer Street.

This article is part of the series Town-Brown

In fewer than two years, Brown’s new Medical Education Building will welcome its first class of students. But looking at the building now, it is hard to tell.

The block-long former factory sits waiting, its 165 windows staring blankly out onto Richmond Street.

And though the Med Ed building sits just under a mile from Faunce Arch,  few University students now find themselves strolling past its entrance — not to mention anywhere within the Jewelry District itself.

The Jewelry District, once a bustling manufacturing center but now in flux, lies between Brown’s College Hill campus and the Alpert Medical School’s partner hospitals downtown. Over the past decade, the University has looked to the area as an outlet for growth beyond College Hill. Administrators view the planned opening of the new Richmond Street facility in 2011 as a step toward a vibrant intellectual center.

The dream is infectious. Imagine sitting at a small sidewalk cafe on Richmond Street, sipping a cappuccino, discussing the applications of stem cell growth. A renewed Jewelry District, administrators say, will bring new life to downtown Providence. It will be like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s  Kendall Square, like a less-urban New York University.

But dreams will soon require blueprints, and glossy images must give way to nuts and bolts. As that process unfolds, the University will have to reconcile its goals with those of the city as a whole, and the future of Brown in downtown Providence will hang in balance.

A CAT scan with that coffee?

The opening of the Med School’s new home in August 2011 will represent a key moment in Brown’s history. By then, there will be more than 1,000 members of the University community present in the Jewelry District — what administrators consider to be a “critical mass” — according to architectural consultant Frances Halsband.

Halsband, who drafted the University’s 2003 Strategic Framework for Physical Planning, was one of the first proponents of the University’s growth beyond College Hill. Growing research interests demanded large-scale facilities that simply wouldn’t fit within current bounds.

The Jewelry District emerged as an area with the capacity and flexibility to allow for University expansion, but also as a place that could support community development in a broader sense, said Richard Spies, vice president for planning and senior advisor to President Ruth Simmons.

Research activity by universities and hospitals in the district has “mushroomed” since the 1990s, said Edward Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences. The district is on a trajectory to become an intellectual hub.

In 2003, the University purchased property at 70 Ship St., and bought seven more properties in the Jewelry District in 2006. Administrators have looked to land freed up by the relocation of I-195 as another potential opportunity to acquire space.

Halsband presented a new “capacity study” for the Jewelry District to the Corporation at its meeting in October. The study, which included recommendations for mixed-used development surrounding Brown-owned properties, described “lively promenades,” sidewalk cafes, tree-lined streets and restored access to the historic waterfront, she said.

The Jewelry District Association, an advocacy group for neighborhood residents and businesses, has been working with Brown to develop plans for the area.

“Obviously they want the students to have some life outside the building that they’re in,” said Jim Brown, president of the association. Brown has been working closely with the community throughout the planning process, he said, and he anticipates that the influx of students will foster new interaction.

This focus on community outreach represents a new tack for University planners. The 70 Ship St. lab, completed half a decade  ago, has been used as an example of what not to do. The facility was designed primarily to maximize lab space, Spies said, not to encourage openness.

“If you walk by the building, the shades are drawn,” he said. “We need to think about making those spaces friendly to the street.”

In contrast, the Medical Education Building will encourage accessibility and interaction. The building will feature large windows, displays of student and faculty work and maybe street-level cafes, Wing said.

“With all these people down there, other kinds of businesses that they need will spring up,” said Clyde Briant, vice president for research. He pointed to Thayer Street as an example of a retail corridor that depends on Brown as its economic driver.

Brown officials hope the name “Richmond Street” may soon conjure a similar image.

Providence weighs in

Many of the proposed improvements, including grooming and restoring streetscapes, require cooperation with neighboring landowners and community groups in the area.

“There aren’t too many things that we can snap our fingers and do,” Spies said. “Brown can’t do it alone. And we don’t want to do it alone.”

The University’s vision parallels the ideas of city planners, legislators and community members for future development, although the city’s official vision is not yet fully articulated.

The city’s official Jewelry District Neighborhood Plan will be complete in about two months, said Thomas Deller, Providence’s director of planning and development.

Once that happens, the task in the coming months will be to integrate the University’s planning with the broader goals of the city.

But some of the city’s long-term goals are already becoming clear. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority — in addition to reexamining existing transportation routes — is planning a new streetcar line, which in the next decade could connect “meds to eds,” running a loop from Brown through the Jewelry District to hospitals downtown.

There have been 15 or so studies in the past ten years examining planning for the district, said Brown, the neighborhood association president. “In the broad sense, they’re all in agreement,” he said. The Jewelry District can and should become a hub of the city’s intellectual economy.

Not quite a tea party

But the I-195 properties, continued University planning in the area and local budget crises have brought to the surface underlying conflicts over taxation between the institution and the city.

Perhaps it is not her style to don feathers and start dumping Brown property into the Narragansett Bay in the dark of the night, but Simmons has made it clear that she will not stand for increased city taxes on the University.

The city — which collects no income tax and relies on property taxes to fund its schools — sees University expansion as a threat to its tax base, Deller said. About half of Providence’s land generates no property taxes, in large part because nonprofit institutions like Brown are tax-exempt. Faced with troubled schools and a shrinking budget, the city needs to protect all the revenue streams it can, Deller said.

“The whole property tax thing is just a nightmare for the state,” Brown said.

When the city planning department was first considering its long-term approach to the Jewelry District and surrounding areas in the early 1990s, officials expected that future development would come from taxable, for-profit ventures, Deller said.

But over the past 20 years, the economy in Rhode Island has changed. Taxable industry was once considered to be the prime engine of economic growth, but now, life sciences and biotechnology — often in the form of sponsored University research — are key drivers.

The tax question has come front and center with the sale of land opened up by Providence’s so-called “Iway” pro
ject, which will relocate the junction of I-95 and I-195 and free up 20 parcels of new property where the highways once stood.

Brown expressed interest in the property, but with Mayor David Cicilline ’83 now pushing legislation to levy a new tax on non-profit institutions and out-of-state students at private colleges and universities, it has scaled back its ambitions.

“We obviously — regardless of who ends up owning it — have an interest in how (the Iway land) is developed and want to see it developed in a way that is supportive of this knowledge economy,” Spies said. But the University is no longer making aggressive moves towards Iway land acquisition.

Administrators say it is the city, not the school, that has more to lose.

The problem is there are no developers at this point who are looking to buy up the land and start paying taxes, Wing said. “There’s not a tremendous alternative for the city at the moment.”

But city officials argue that, with no income tax, job growth offers little taxable revenue to the city, especially in comparison to what private development would offer.

“We need to figure out how we can grow and prosper as a city without losing our economic space,” Deller said.

Entrepreneurship and potential

The BrownMed/Downcity Express shuttle runs a loop connecting College Hill to the Jewelry District research facilities and hospitals downtown. Riding the shuttle is like playing a game of connect the dots; each satellite destination stands alone, isolated both from College Hill and from the neighborhood that surrounds it.

If city and University plans come to fruition, however, these facilities will slowly be engulfed by a growing and vibrant intellectual community.

“We must acknowledge that Brown has an effect on the success of the community and that the success of the community has an effect on Brown,” Spies said.

The school’s ability to attract and retain the best students and faculty is contingent on the perceived “competitiveness” of Providence, he added.

Moreover, the University hopes to encourage private companies to invest in the area, offering graduates a greater opportunity to live and work in Providence after graduation.

“We’d like to see a lot of industry go in there that will feed off of the research activity going on,” Briant said. “In the ideal world, we would have our researchers spinning out their businesses that would then locate right around where they are.”

In April, Brown, in collaboration with local business and government leaders, opened the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at One Davol Square. The center offers support for Rhode Islanders — including Brown faculty and students — looking to start their own businesses.

“It’s exciting and it’s promising,” said Brendan McNally, director of the center. “There’s truly the potential for this to be a real hub for entrepreneurship.”

The goal is to offer alternatives to researchers who now must look to nearby intellectual centers such as Boston or New York City. The University is following in the footsteps of cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburg and New Haven that have allowed non-profit institutions to serve as the key drivers of economic growth.

“Brown is not simply sitting on College Hill and doing what it has done for the past 240 years,” Wing said. “It’s really taking advantage of its strengths.”