University News

Investing in city, U. to expand downtown

Stakeholders hope to see the area revamped, but concern about campus unity remains

By and
Senior Staff Writer and University News Editor
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Brown’s presence downtown — anchored around spaces like the Alpert Medical School — will grow under the University’s strategic plan.

This article is part of the series Launching a Legacy?

Expansion in the Jewelry District will be a focus of the University’s growth over the next decade, based on the vision articulated in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan. While undergraduate teaching will remain based on College Hill, the proposed development of administrative offices, research buildings and graduate student housing in the Jewelry District demonstrates the University’s intention to play a leading role in revitalizing the neighborhood across the river.

The project has attracted widespread support from local leaders, but given the Jewelry District’s current underdeveloped state, the success of these ambitious goals will require significant collaboration with government officials, private entities and other academic institutions in the area.

The University’s commitment to a major project of urban renewal and transformation will shape the evolution of Brown’s physical campus and define the school’s relationship with its home city and state in the coming years.

 

Brown in the district

With the establishment of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and the 2011 relocation of the Alpert Medical School downtown, the city’s hope to transform the Jewelry District into a center of intellectual, technological and entrepreneurial activity converged with the University’s interest in increasing its presence in the area to accommodate Brown’s growth. The commission was created to revamp the land made available when the interstate highway was redirected by a construction process begun in 2004.

Paxson’s strategic plan calls for developing a “vibrant mixed-use environment” in the Jewelry District that includes spaces for medical education, research, administrative, residential and retail functions. This continues a project launched under former President Ruth Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, which envisioned a gradual buildup of Brown’s presence in the district. That vision focused initially on medical and life science research facilities but eventually branched out to additional academic and administrative functions.

The University first ventured into the area in 2004 with the acquisition of 70 Ship St., which now houses Med School laboratories and supports life science research. The University purchased the Med School’s current home at 222 Richmond St. for office space in 2004 before overhauling the building in 2009.

“One of the things it came back to was the limitations of the existing campus,” said Dick Spies, former executive vice president for planning as well as one of Simmons’ senior advisers.

Limited space in the Biomedical Center left administrators without “a lot of obvious choices,” Spies said. “We do lose something (by expanding off of College Hill), but it is more than offset by what we gain.”

The University has invested more than $200 million in the district in the past decade, initially leasing real estate to raise money but gradually repurposing those spaces for Brown to use, said Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy and co-chair of the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community. Carey said he sees Brown as becoming “a positive and contributing neighbor” through its involvement in this part of the city.

The University plans to move more academic and administrative functions that “can do well outside College Hill” to the district, Carey said. The Office of Continuing Education is currently housed at 198-200 Dyer St., and the Admission Office moved to the space earlier this year. The University owns and leases buildings in Davol Square to house Computing and Information Services and administrative functions for the Med School.

But functions like undergraduate teaching might not fit well in the area, Carey said.

When the School of Engineering needed additional laboratory and research space to support a growing faculty and student body, the Jewelry District was tapped as a potential location for expansion.

But a University study conducted with design and planning firm Sasaki Associates last year found that given the high degree of collaboration across departments at the undergraduate level, moving any undergraduate teaching downtown would disrupt Brown’s educational and academic work, Carey said.

“What they found was that students in engineering are just as much a part of this campus and the campus community as any other major,” said Larry Larson, dean of the school of engineering. Moving the School of Engineering “out of that community” would “do damage to this great, interactive culture we have at Brown,” he said.

Some local stakeholders expressed disappointment in the choice not to move the school downtown.

But “no one questioned the decision,” Carey said.

 

Making the connection

As Brown increases its presence in the district, administrators intend to connect the area with College Hill to keep development from “fracturing the University,” said Iris Bahar, professor of engineering and co-chair of the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community.

“We don’t want to develop two campuses that are separate and distinct,” Carey said.

The notion that “the Jewelry District will be the area for graduate students, and College Hill will be for undergraduates” is incorrect, Paxson told The Herald. “The idea is to maintain College Hill as the academic core of the University … for undergraduates as well as graduate students and the faculty.”

The Point Street Bridge serves as a major route between College Hill and the Jewelry District, and plans are being formulated for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the river on old I-195 foundations, Carey said.

Paxson said the University will need more frequent shuttle services, especially at night.

Rerouting of RIPTA bus services may be a logical step forward, Bahar said. No formal negotiations on this project have begun.

Ideally, RIPTA would construct a streetcar offering rail-based service connecting College Hill to downtown — including the Jewelry District — and Upper South Providence, said Amy Pettine, RIPTA special projects manager. The streetcar would improve the mobility of college students and other public transit users, but the “primary objective is economic development,” Pettine said, adding that permanent rail systems attract business, people and investment to cities.

But “the streetcar is a longer-term project” that will not move forward until it can be funded, Pettine said, citing the federal government’s rejection of a grant application from the city to help pay for the railway.

Though Providence Mayor Angel Taveras expressed support for the proposal in the economic development plan he released in March, “a lot of things are competing for (his) attention,” Pettine added.

The University has endorsed “creating a more user-friendly city,” and linking College Hill and the Jewelry District would require collaboration between RIPTA and Brown’s shuttle service, Pettine said. While the shuttle’s schedule is flexible, its capacity could be overwhelmed if the proposed expansion brings more people to the Jewelry District, she said.

 

The satellite

Those who find themselves spending more time in the Jewelry District struggle to remain connected to College Hill while building another community.

“There is a river and a hill” separating the neighborhood from College Hill, said Karen Sibley MAT’81 P’07 P’12, dean of continuing education.

The Office of Continuing Education moved off College Hill February 2012, after the University determined that there was insufficient space to accommodate growth in its programs.

Sibley identified differences in the environment, the inability to “run into colleagues” during lunchtime and her awareness of being removed to a degree from the main campus.

“I have my life down the Hill, and I have my life on the Hill,” said David Gonzalez ’14, who works in a Jewelry District-based laboratory.

The district is unlikely to become a true “satellite campus” until people have a reason other than work to spend time there, Gonzalez said, adding that he would never go to the Jewelry District if his laboratory were not there.

But the plan’s proposals to create a community downtown could benefit medical students, who spend more time in the Jewelry District because of their studies.

“It’s great to be building a medical science community,” said Honora Burnett MD’15, president of the Medical Student Senate, adding that additional research facilities in the Jewelry District would be convenient for medical students.

Allison Kay MD’15 also expressed enthusiasm for the idea of a “medical campus,” citing the proposed expansions’ potential to help “build Brown’s research name.”

Further developing the neighborhood could improve its appeal to students, Gonzalez said.

“There’s no draw to the area,” and it is definitely possible to “make students feel like it is a little more part of their home,” he said.

Though it would be positive to make the area “a little more gentrified, a little more revitalized,” it is important to do so without losing the Jewelry District’s “industrial charm,” Gonzalez said. Given the area’s key role in Providence’s history, he said he hopes the University respects the Jewelry District’s legacy even as it expands its presence.

“I don’t want it to be obvious that you’re on Brown’s campus,” he said.

Regardless of how the expansion ultimately develops, Gonzalez said he thinks “the average Brown student is not going to be affected at all.”

Land regulations determined by the I-195 Commission and city officials will likely “set the tone” for the Jewelry District’s transition to a mixed-use area and must foster private-sector investment, said Daniel Baudouin, executive director of the Providence Foundation

The I-195 Commission decides to whom it sells the land, and though the local market will likely not support a significant retail presence, Brown’s expansion will probably create potential for commercial growth, he said.

 

Engagement and regrowth

From the start, “the notion of greater engagement with the community around us” fueled the University’s interest in the Jewelry District, Spies said. Downtown development would provide more space for the University and allow it to better integrate with the city and the state.

“There’s always room for growth,” said Henry Sachs, chief medical officer of Bradley Hospital, which collaborates with Brown on medical research.

University facilities could complement the hospital’s work, he said. “They have some bench research tools that we don’t have on the clinical side of things.”

The University is currently identifying and promoting partnerships that could increase Brown’s presence in the area at minimal cost. Officials have been in talks with Richard Galvin ’79 at Commonwealth Venture Properties about constructing a graduate student housing complex at a site currently occupied by a surface parking lot, Carey said.

The building, which would house 250 to 300 postgraduate students, would have retail space and a 600-spot parking lot beneath the building, The Herald previously reported. Brown is not making any financial contributions to the development but will be responsible for marketing the apartment-style housing units to graduate students in return for the developer’s investment, Carey said.

Paxson announced earlier this year that the University is considering working with CV Properties and local public universities to renovate the Dynamo House, a former power plant in the Jewelry District that has been unused for years.

Dynamo House could house a University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College joint nursing education center through a partnership with the University, said William Gearhart, vice president for administration and finance at RIC.

He called the partnership “mutually beneficial” and said it would serve as an “economic stimulus” to the district and the city.

With half the building housing nursing programs, the other half would have University administrative and faculty functions, though Carey said Brown does not immediately need such space. Dynamo House offers approximately 250,000 square feet of space, about three times larger than Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center.

Carey said a decision will need to be made this year on moving forward with these projects. Given the estimated $206 million price tag for the renovation of Dynamo House, challenges remain, but the University remains excited about the process, he said.

“It would free up some space on College Hill that we need to develop next year and would also help us transform the Jewelry District into a thriving economic hub,” Paxson said.

 

The economic ripple

Though some local stakeholders continue to voice concern over the University’s property tax exemption — which, as Brown expands into the Jewelry District, could result in the city losing direct tax revenues — positive economic externalities from Brown’s involvement in the neighborhood could outweigh those issues.

The expansion of administrative offices and graduate housing units alongside present research facilities can provide a valuable foundation for revitalizing the Jewelry District and overcoming opposition to the University’s physical growth by those critical of Brown’s tax exemption, said Arthur Salisbury, president of Jewelry District Association.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 said disagreement over the University’s tax-exempt status will not significantly affect its expansion into the Jewelry District. City leaders and school administrators signed an agreement in May 2012 detailing a plan for the University to pay $31.5 million to the city over 11 years in lieu of property taxes.

The economic relationship between the city and the University is “a careful balance,” said Laurie White, president of the Providence Chamber of Commerce, adding that she thinks Brown “will be able to see eye to eye” with the city as the neighborhood develops further.

 

‘Waiting for development’

Bahar characterized the Jewelry District as “a piece of land waiting for development.”

“There is a ton of undeveloped opportunity in the Jewelry District,” including about 20 acres of land owned by the I-195 Commission, said Colin Kane, chairman of the commission.

Given space limitations on College Hill, Chafee said the University is “making good decisions” to expand its presence downtown. The city welcomes such growth, he said.

But the land is “not earmarked for the University,” and the commission is “not compelled to sell to the lowest common denominator,” Kane said.

Given the Med School’s relocation and the potential growth of activity around Dynamo House, Carey said the neighborhood is cultivating a campus community feel, with Richmond Street serving as a “spine of development.”

But in developing the neighborhood, administrators must balance the planning of commercial, academic and residential spaces, Bahar said. As the population reaches a “critical mass,” the area will attract entities such as retail businesses and artistic ventures, she added.

The new developments are taking root in a “very strategic location in the heart of the city, which is very promising to the future,” said J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president for business services at URI.

Stakeholders in the Jewelry District’s expansion will be focused on how their partnership projects and investments unfold in coming years.

“What we’re looking for is to see that area develop … to provide a variety of economic and other benefits to the citizenry,” Gearhart said.

As Brown expands its presence in the city, the shape and character of its academic programs may change as well — particularly the University’s graduate programs. The final story in this series will examine how Brown’s academic emphases could change under Paxson’s strategic plan, paying key attention to tensions between graduate and undergraduate programs, prioritization of the liberal arts and professional studies and the conception of Brown’s identity as a “university-college.”

 

Timeline: Development in the Jewelry District

Sept. 30, 2003: University acquires 70 Ship Street

Oct. 11, 2003: Corporation approves Strategic Framework for Physical Planning as a guide for future physical planning and development

Jan. 5, 2007: University acquires seven Jewelry District properties, including 222 Richmond St., future home of Alpert Medical School

Apr. 26, 2010: University begins renovating 222 Richmond St. for the Med School

Aug. 15, 2011: Med School’s new building opens

Jan. 30, 2012: Ship Street Square, a plaza across the street from the Med School, opens to the public

March 2012: As a result of the Providence Core Connector study, RIPTA’s Board of Directors selects a streetcar as the preferred alternative for a new transit line connecting College Hill and the Jewelry District

May 1, 2012: Office of Continuing Education moves to 200 Dyer St.

May 17, 2013: Admission Office moves to 200 Dyer St.

Sept. 5, 2013: Federal government rejects Providence’s request for $39 million toward the streetcar line

 

2 Comments

  1. It is very apparent that if Brown expands into the knowledge district it would be a significant development both for Brown and Providence. While Brown should not be the only solution for developing this section of the city, the university will certainly be a key change agent. Brown needs the space to expand and enhance its graduate and professional schools and to move its administrative functions. This could all lead to more commercial development, more start up activity and more residential construction in this part of Providence. It is clearly the city’s best hope for attracting more high paying and stable jobs, as well as research dollars. Coordination with other Rhode Island colleges is also a positive step, and if the Dynamo House project gets completed, it will be another positive development for the city, state and the education community.

  2. The city and state should not bend over for Brown or any private institution who wants to expand in downtown. This land is valuable real estate. If they want to locate here they need to be the highest bidder. Otherwise they can expand somewhere else. LIke Capital Center. Allens Ave. Eddy St. The Promenade District. Etc.

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