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Editorials

Editorial: Next year in Providence

By
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

There will be no quick and easy resolution of the struggle between municipal officials, University administrators and state legislators over proposed development in the Jewelry District of downtown Providence. Along with Johnson and Wales University, Brown is considering whether to acquire properties that will be vacated by 2012 under a project to relocate the junction of I-95 and I-195. Legislation introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly would arrange a direct sale of several lots to the two universities at market value.

Many state and city officials, Mayor David Cicilline ’83 foremost among them, want more out of the universities. Some of their demands are reasonable, some less so. Quite sensibly, they want to hold the universities to an expeditious timeframe for the development, to ensure that the new property helps stimulate the city’s faltering economy.

But they also back a proposal to grant cities the ability to impose a fee of up to 25 percent of property taxes on nonprofits with over $20 million in property. The fee may render Brown’s expansion in the new lots uneconomical, leaving the areas’ development to for-profit firms that could prove unwilling to make major investments in the state’s stagnant and tax-heavy business environment.

The General Assembly will meet in a special session today and tomorrow, but with both sides holding firm and many pressing issues demanding lawmakers’ attention, the dueling development bills are almost certain to be shelved until January, when the Assembly reconvenes. If the city and the universities don’t find a middle ground, a promising opportunity could be lost, or at best delayed.

Cicilline has campaigned for the property fee in tandem with a proposed “student impact fee” that would charge private Rhode Island universities $150 each semester per out-of-state student, a dismally misguided idea that would impede these institutions from bringing in more consumers and future residents. The mayor claims that both measures are essential to ensuring that the universities are paying their “fair share,” as if they were parasites draining their host’s resources without giving anything back. In fact, Brown alone is the state’s seventh-largest employer, and its students’ spending pumps $54 million into the local economy every year, the University says. In 2003 the city’s private institutions of higher education committed to an accord with Cicilline’s administration to donate $48 million to the city over 20 years. In short, they pull their weight, and the mayor’s aggressive insistence otherwise jeopardizes their future contributions to Providence.

In the battle over the Jewelry District, the universities have the assistance of many legislators who recognize their value to the city and the state. They must justify this trust by demonstrating that they intend to develop the land parcels as soon as they acquire them, rather than sitting on them until expansion seems convenient. Pushing for unduly preferential treatment now only ensures a worse backlash down the line. Johnson and Wales already has specific plans for two dormitories and a hospitality college on the small lot it has requested. But Brown seems interested in its larger parcels mainly to secure space for speculative expansions of the Alpert Medical School. To maintain good faith with the city and the state, the University should use the months before the next Assembly session to prepare a detailed schedule for the area it hopes to acquire. This will solidify Brown’s reputation as a mainstay of the city and undercut Cicilline’s misconceived stealth taxes.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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