Co-ops face smaller Brown population

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sitting next to an overflowing recycling bin and a wobbly wooden table on the porch of the Watermyn Co-op, Brendan Reddy-Best let out a laugh when asked what the neighbors think of the place. “Look at it,” he said, gesturing towards a tree stump covered in broken beer bottles that he’d been using as pellet gun targets earlier in the week. “People don’t like us.”

Several local residents interviewed by The Herald complained about the co-op, located at the corner of Waterman and Governor streets, citing loud noise and broken glass on the sidewalks in front of the house as their main grievances.

“They’re super loud and there are always beer cans on the lawn,” said one neighbor who asked not to be named out of concern he would strain relations with his neighbor. “Whenever I see people walking past they seem to look at it and scowl.”

Complaints about noise and the condition of the Watermyn property are nothing new, said Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential life. But the University has actually received far fewer complaints over the last two years compared to five years ago.

Steady complaints from neighbors prompted the co-op to create a position within the house last year to speak with neighbors and respond to their complaints, Reddy-Best said. A similar position is not necessary at Finlandia, Watermyn’s sister co-op on the corner of Waterman and Brook streets, whose only neighbor is Subway and tends to be more low-key, residents there said.

“The complaints I heard were mostly about appearance and about how Watermyn is bringing down the property values of the businesses located around us,” Rachel Aland ’08, who served as Watermyn’s neighborhood liasion last year, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “There were some noise complaints throughout the year, but I didn’t hear too much about noise, it was mostly just appearance stuff.”

Reddy-Best said that residents get along well with their neighbors when they speak face-to-face. One house across the street used to consistently complain about the co-op but stopped after the residents, who often hang out on their porch, saw someone attempting to break into their neighbor’s house and called the police for them.

Bova said that Brown would be more concerned if the University was consistently receiving protests from various neighbors or if the Providence Police was citing the house for noise violations, just as it would for other off-campus houses.

The difference between the Watermyn and Finlandia co-ops and most off-campus residences is that they are student owned and operated – there are no University officials or landlords in charge. The co-ops are owned by the Brown Association for Cooperative Housing, a non-profit corporation created as part of a Group Independent Study Project in 1970. BACH purchased the Watermyn Co-op in 1971 with a University-backed mortgage, according to a history on BACH’s Web site.

Watermyn looks every bit of its 35-plus years as a student co-op. A former Bryant College fraternity house, it stands out amidst the manicured lawns and dental offices that line Waterman Street. Its lawn is overgrown and covered in dirt, its paint is fading and various found objects and party remnants line the property. The eight bikes locked to railings, trees and other non-removable objects indicate the presence of full-time residents.

“We have a good relationship with the University,” Reddy-Best said. “They put us on the list of acceptable domestic residences.”

BACH also used to lease two houses from the University at 71 and 79 Charlesfield St., which housed around 20 students each. But relations between BACH and the University deteriorated in the early-1990s after Brown attempted to renegotiate the leases for a higher price, forcing the cooperatives to abandon the houses, according to BACH’s Web site. In 1994, BACH purchased the Finladia property at 116 Waterman St. Both houses now operate more or less independently from the University, although the Office of Residential Life grants special housing exemptions to students wanting to live in the co-ops, allowing for sophomores and those without off-campus permission to live there.

“Students want that option and we try very hard to give them access to the option that makes them most safe and comfortable,” Bova said.

Although only 12 to 14 slots are currently allocated to the co-ops together, un-met demand had not been a problem recently, added Bova. “There is not a desire to release 30 people to the co-ops.”

Fifteen people currently live in Watermyn: Two of the residents are Brown students and the rest are young professionals or students at other area colleges. The co-ops began allowing non-Brown students to join a few years ago and “pretty quickly Watermyn became almost all non-Brown students,” Johanna Jetton ’10, a resident of Finlandia, said.

“I moved in because I had a bunch of friends living here,” said Reddy-Best, a Haverford grad who teaches at School One, a local independent high school from which he graduated in 2001. “It’s a lot of people intent on living together well.”

The presence of non-Brunonians was part of the appeal of Watermyn to Max Kennedy ’11. “I wanted to be in a community of people that weren’t all Brown students,” Kennedy said. “It’s nice to go to school and then go home. To be in my own space.”

Although both co-ops organize nightly meals and have house positions, they have different atmospheres. Finlandia is almost entirely Brown students, and is more “studious,” Reddy-Bess said. Jetton described the difference, saying “The co-ops kind of get more crazy the further away you get from campus.”

People that move into Watermyn generally know what they’re getting into in terms of noise and partying, Reddy-Best said.

“We very rarely get a surprised or unhappy person,” he added.

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