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Ward 1 residents criticize revised Brook Street dorm plans

Attendees at virtual community meeting concerned about loss of businesses, tax revenue

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ward 1 residents expressed their concerns in reaction to the University’s revised plan for the two-building residence hall on Brook Street at a virtual community meeting April 8.

The original layout for the dormitory would have crossed through the Providence Historic District and housed approximately 375 students. The revised plan has 350 beds and reduces the cumulative square footage of the buildings by 16,000 square feet and removes the physical structure from the Providence Historic District. 

With roughly 70 people in attendance, residents expressed their apprehensions about the demolition of local businesses and the subsequent loss of taxable revenue. Attendees also had concerns about the demolition of two homes at 245 and 247 Brook St.

Ward 1 Councilman John Goncalves ’13 MA’15 hosted the panel, featuring several University representatives involved in the project to answer residents’ questions about the revisions to the Brook Street residence hall plans. 

According to the University announcement, these changes had been made in accordance with community input regarding the size and look of the buildings, as well as the transitional edge between the residential neighborhood and University housing. 

Craig Barton ’78, University architect and professor of the practice in architecture, emphasized that one of the core purposes of the project is to increase on-campus housing for upperclassmen to “ease strain on the rental market” caused by students living off campus.

Though some attendees worried the University would simply increase enrollment targets with increased residential capacity, Al Dahlberg, assistant vice president of government and community relations for the University, said there are “no long term plans” to do so.

The changes also include the acquisition and maintenance of a historic property and home at 126 Power St., which will house students and enable the expansion of the green, grass-filled spaces, explained Noah Biklen ’97, an architect from Deborah Berke Partners who is working on the project. 

While some residents appreciated the aesthetic and design modifications, attendees were largely unimpressed with the addition of green spaces. One resident said she appreciated the quality of the work by the architects and landscapers she had seen but thought the added green spaces wouldn’t add to the community. 

“This is not something we see as something we would ever use,” she said. “I can’t see any of us going off in the morning with our cups of coffee and sitting in those spaces.” Many other attendees agreed with the sentiment.

She also expressed frustration that the new dormitory will be at 250 Brook St., a lot currently occupied by businesses like Bagel Gourmet and East Side Mini-Mart. Students have expressed mixed reactions to the relocation of these shops, The Herald previously reported. 

“For many of us, the loss of retail is a significant issue. It has to do with quality of life,” the resident said.

The lot occupants, including the Providence Police Department, are expected to vacate during the summer so construction can begin in fall 2021. The original plan had included a rental retail space on the first floor of the residence hall, but the University removed it in reaction to community feedback, expressing concern that it would increase foot traffic in a residential area. Attendees pushed back against this change.

Another resident said that businesses such as those slated for demolition “are amenities that people want,” and that he was “unappetized” by the added green spaces. 

Residents also mentioned that since the University largely does not pay taxes on its properties, demolition of these buildings could decrease tax revenue, thereby increasing burden on the city. The University provides voluntary payments to the city through Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which totaled $6.2 million in Fiscal Year 2020. The Herald previously reported that per an estimate from 2012, the University would owe $38 million in annual property taxes if it were not exempt.

Residents were frustrated that the University was going to further reduce city tax revenue through its expansion. “All I see with Brown is they’re just trying to incorporate themselves in the community without really trying to make it better,” said one attendee.

Regarding the demolition of two historic properties, Goncalves said that Brown has demolished 37 historic homes, which “undermines the historic fabric” of the College Hill and Fox Point neighborhoods.

The Providence Preservation Society had raised concerns with the original plan for the residence hall, saying in a March 29 statement that “This dormitory project is cheek by jowl with one of the most beautiful and historic residential neighborhoods in America; its design needs to be respectful of this.”

During the meeting, PPS Executive Director Brent Runyon said that he was “pleased to see how Brown responded” to their concerns about the design of the building.

Katie Silberman, University director of community relations, emphasized that Brown invested time and effort into finding a way to relocate or preserve the two Brook Street houses that are set to be demolished, but that their research concluded that preservation or relocation of the buildings would be impossible. Runyon commended the University in this effort, attesting that Brown “went above and beyond” trying to find a way to preserve or move the homes.

Silberman also explained that the revision is “an ongoing process” and that the University will continue gathering input from the Providence community regarding its revised plan, including in a public meeting with the Fox Point Neighborhood Association April 12.

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  1. Brent Runyon says:

    “Brent Runyon also said that the University knows how to do preservation well, so he challenged them to preserve the three houses they currently plan to demolish.” – Brent Runyon

  2. I would question Brown University’s study and their conclusion that the two buildings cannot be saved. Furthermore, the university has shuttle buses to transport students. Why isn’t building on former route 195 land an option? It is quite a wasteland south of Wickenden Street. and along South Water and South Main.
    There’s nothing like a preservation organization giving consent to a behemoth bent on demolishing historic buildings; it is tantamount to unions consenting to take away benefits to its members.

  3. Harm reduction says:

    This plan reduces the harm to the historic fabric of the city more than basically any other placement of a new residence hall. The majority of the project occupies what is currently a parking lot and small, cheap, postmodern building. There is basically no other location on College Hill that offers this amount of buildable space with so little in the way of demolition.

    Furthermore, two of the three buildings the plan seeks to demolish are comparatively new (1915) and built in a the shingle style (visually unappealing and not characteristic of the neighborhood).

  4. Neighborly says:

    The neighbors objected to Brown removing retail establishments… and objected to the retail space Brown proposed to include in the project. In other words no matter what Brown tries to do, it is wrong.

    • Bull Meacham '13 says:

      Exactly. First the neighbors complained that too many students were living off campus – so Brown decides to build a dorm. Then the neighbors say “its too big”, so Brown makes it smaller. Then the neighbors say – Brown is just going to increase enrollment….. and then the historic district objects to the construction in the historic zone so Brown pulls it back to create green space, and then someone says they will not use the green space…. then someone says “build in the jewelry district”…. then the the people in the Jewelry district will say…

  5. There is currently a parking lot there. Just build the thing

  6. Brown should make every effort to build as much student housing as possible to minimize the strain on the PVD rental market. A few apartment buildings are a dramatic change to the neighborhood, but the gradual upward squeeze in rent from the ongoing housing shortage is subtle and even more pernicious.

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