Op-eds, Opinions

Illick-Frank ’18, Sharpe ’18: Don’t write off the UEL just yet

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Updated on Feb. 9, 2018 at 12:08 a.m.

If distinction is the rubble of five historic buildings, then by all means Brown is building on distinction. The University plans to break ground on a new performing arts center in a location currently occupied by the Urban Environmental Lab — the epicenter of undergraduate environmentalism at Brown — in addition to a community garden and four other historic buildings. One of the buildings will be relocated, but the rest, including the UEL, will be destroyed. Though cognizant of Brown’s desire to provide the performing arts community with a space that suits its needs, we respectfully yet adamantly oppose the current plan. Not only is this location strategically inappropriate for the theater, but the departmental damage and historic loss inflicted by its erection would be devastating to the Providence community.

Since its inception, the UEL has prioritized the community and its relationship to the space; students helped with the design of the building as well as the physical renovations. At its completion in 1982, the retrofitted building was on the forefront of sustainable design for its pioneering self-sufficiency and use of passive solar energy.

When news of the UEL’s planned demolition reached students, the change seemed inevitable. When we, as environmental studies concentrators, began to mobilize to avert its destruction or integrate sustainable design elements into the performing arts center, we were told to direct our attention the renovation of Arnold Lab, the glorified hallway where the environmental studies program was to relocate. The time to intervene, we were told, was three years ago.

Not until recently did Brown’s duplicity become clear. Just days before winter break, we caught wind of a Providence City Plan Commission hearing Dec. 19 that was slated to review Brown’s most recent developmental initiatives — including the performing arts center. After receiving testimony from the public, the Commission was to approve or reject the plan — though they ultimately voted to postpone their decision until March 20. Contrary to our impression, Brown had not received official permission to execute the project, despite already hiring an architect, according to President Paxson’s P’19 Corporation recap from spring 2017.

Because the Commission meeting fell in late December, most Brown students were either home or studying for finals. Many concerned students were unable to attend — though the two of us managed to go. In addition, the meeting was attended by dozens of community members, all of whom opposed construction of a performing arts center at the Angell Street location. They argued that the development would result in a lack of parking, needless erasure of history and a brutal attack on the character of College Hill.

Representatives from Brown assured those present that their concerns had been adequately addressed. However, they explained their reasoning with conflicting and misleading claims. When asked about the problem of parking in and around the new theater, the representatives from Brown responded by explaining that the University’s current theaters have a similar capacity to the proposed performing arts center and that  these existing theaters haven’t struggled with parking in the past.

Despite what they said at the meeting, Brown does not have a theater with similar capacity to the proposed performing arts center. The new center will seat 500 individuals, while Brown’s largest performing arts space holds just 240. Brown may well benefit from a larger performing arts center, but considering Brown’s plans to build a wellness center in the place of the largest parking lot in the vicinity, Brown’s lack of transparency and misdirection around the issue of parking betray an indifference to the quality of life of College Hill residents.

As students, it strikes us as ill-thought out and absurd that a new performance venue is to be built within a stone’s throw of four other theaters on campus: The Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Leeds Theatre, Stuart Theatre and Alumnae Hall are all within a tenth of a mile from the proposed construction location. To be clear, we’re not opposed to the expansion of performing arts at Brown and would support opportunities to realize this project elsewhere. However, there is more at stake than the redundancy of the construction or the services provided by the UEL. The entire character of College Hill is in jeopardy.

This disrespect for the community goes even further. Regardless of the need for a theater or the impracticality of building atop a bus tunnel and within feet of four other theaters, the eradication of historic buildings undermines an important contract that Brown has with the City of Providence. As a university, Brown is bound by Providence zoning ordinances to preserve “neighborhood character, historic resources and consistency with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and adopted land use policies.” The loss of the UEL and its surroundings marks not just a disregard for that ordinance, but a continuation of a trend that has cost College Hill far too many historic buildings.

The UEL has played a substantial role in the history of College Hill. Built in 1885 as a carriage house, the building called Johnstone and later the Lucian Sharpe Carriage House underwent many changes before becoming what it is today. Originally the space served as a stable for the hotel across the street before the University bought it for storage and transformed it into the hub it is today. The UEL and the four surrounding buildings are essential to the neighborhood character of College Hill, as evidenced by their position on the Providence Preservation Society’s list of most endangered properties.

Since its conception, Brown has successfully repurposed numerous extant buildings; however, it has demolished at least a hundred more to make way for modern infrastructural expansions. As one resident made clear at the hearing, Brown may not remove all the historic buildings at once, but when a few are left in isolation they lose context and become vulnerable to future demolition. We’ve seen this with the original urban studies building, destroyed to facilitate expansion of the School of Engineering building in 2015. The University seems to take for granted just how important these historic spaces are to past, current and prospective students, but, most of all, to the residents of College Hill. Luckily, it’s not too late to save the UEL and the four historic buildings in its vicinity. But time is running out to ensure that an important piece of Providence history is not lost forever, and, with it, a vital connection to our neighbors on College Hill.

If you want to learn more about our efforts to save the UEL, Emma Illick-Frank ’18 and Austen Sharpe ’18 can be reached at emma_illick-frank@brown.edu and austen_sharpe@brown.edu respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.