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University News

With renovations, U. seeks better city ties

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2012

Five previously neglected houses on Brown, Benevolent and Brook streets have been renovated and sold to faculty through the Brown to Brown Home Ownership Program over the past five years. Houses in the program, which are in states of disrepair or disuse, are sold to eligible faculty and staff for 80 percent of the appraised market value after being renovated.

The program aims to enhance relations with community members in the area by beautifying homes that were formerly neighborhood eyesores. While tax-exempt under University ownership, the properties become taxable once sold to private individuals, generating revenue for Providence. 

The five houses sold through the program so far have generated an annual average of $8,959.50 in taxes, said John Luipold, director of real estate at the University. Revenue generated from the sale of homes is enough to pay for home renovations and make the program self-sustaining.

“The program is part of Brown’s continuing effort to be a good neighbor, and to identify opportunities to contribute constructively to the East Side and to Providence,” wrote Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, in an email to The Herald. “By restoring and repurposing properties that are best suited for residential uses, we are able to provide neighborhood assets while adding to the city’s tax base.”

A team of administrators from the Planning, Design and Construction Office, Auxiliary Housing Office and the Office of Residential Life are currently working on a second wave of houses identified for renovation.

Many of these properties are on Benevolent Street, including 95 Benevolent St., previously an auxiliary housing option that has been inhabited by the crew team in recent years. Ian Connor ’14, a resident of the crew house, wrote in an email to The Herald that “it’s a pretty inconvenient situation for our team.” 

The tenants were notified in October that the lease was not available for renewal next year, wrote Taggart Denton ’14, another resident, in an email to The Herald. Denton added that by the time they were notified, it was too late for them to find off-campus housing.

Richard Bova, senior associate dean for residential and dining services, wrote in an email to The Herald that students in auxiliary housing sign leases ranging from nine to 12 months, which can be terminated if the University decides to repurpose the property.

Before renovation, the houses taken into the program are blights on the neighborhood, Luipold said – one home, for example, had a tree growing through the chimney. The renovations aim to preserve the properties’ historic architecture while making them habitable. He said decorators intend to “bring it back to the original flavor with just some modern updating.” At 95 Brown St., a ceramic tile floor in a polished metal kitchen leads out onto parquet flooring in the foyer with a wooden banister up the front staircase.

Richard Spies, interim senior vice president for university advancement, said the initiative, first discussed about a decade ago, coincided with an influx of new faculty members and was intended to better facilitate their acclimation to Brown.

Upon returning to the University after teaching at New York University for several years, Professor of Comparative Literature Karen Newman said she wanted to find a home through the Brown to Brown program because most of the other homes in the area were too large for her and her husband.

The house she found through the program, which is on Brown Street, directly adjacent to Pembroke campus, works well because it is “more manageable and appropriate for us as a couple,” she said.

The home had not yet been renovated when Newman decided to purchase it, so she had a chance to be involved in the planning process, she said. She paid extra for amenities such as geothermal heat and silver LEED certification to construct “as sustainable a house as possible.” 

“Prices on the East Side are quite steep, and it helps if you only pay 80 percent” of their fair-market cost, she said. 

The University retains long-term rights to buy back the property in several scenarios. If the owner leaves the employment of the University – other than through retirement – or wishes to sell the house, the University is entitled to repurchase the property for 80 percent of its current market value. The University can also reclaim the property for other purposes after five years of ownership if it provides three-year notice, according to the program website.

Since the University would most likely exercise its right to repurchase the property if the tenant decides to sell it, Newman said she appreciates the implicit convenience of being able to avoid going through the selling process herself. 

Spies said the right to repurchase the homes is a strategic move in light of the University’s constantly evolving footprint. While none of the homes in the program have been identified for a different future use yet, Spies pointed to examples of the University’s changes to homes over the years. Buildings for the philosophy and applied math departments used to be houses. The Modern Culture and Media building was a haberdashery 20 years ago, Spies said.

Of the homes in the program now, he added, “Who knows what will be there 50 years from now?” The point, he said, is to “preserve options for future generations.”

The program was originally inspired by similar ones at universities including Princeton, he said. 

The University initially tried to sell homes in their original conditions, but that did not draw much interest because of the “massive renovations” necessary to make the homes livable, Luipold said. It was then decided to renovate the homes to make them more attractive to potential buyers, at which point the program was met with enthusiasm, Spies added.

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