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Brown examines options for vacant houses

A rather spooky house sits next to Minden Hall on Waterman Street. With peeling paint, rotting stairs and broken windows, the house is not a vestige of grand Victorian wealth. Instead, it looks like a slum - one that a negligent landlord has let sit unoccupied for too long.

But that landlord isn't negligent - the landlord is Brown, which owns other vacant homes on Charlesfield, Brook and Waterman streets, according to Michael McCormick, director of planning for the Department of Facilities Management.

These houses were used for student rentals and faculty housing at one point but are no longer in good enough condition for that use, said Brendan McNally, special assistant to the executive vice president for planning. McNally said the properties are currently vacant because of a significant number of problems, including structural concerns with heating and plumbing and non-compliance with fire codes.

But the houses might not be vacant forever, according to McCormick. The University is examining the viability of converting Brown's three largest vacant houses into housing for graduate students or visiting scholars. And Brown is contemplating selling the other properties to faculty members through a proposed program tentatively called Brown to Brown.

"(This would be a) program where we effectively sell the property to faculty members at a discounted rate, and then they sell the property back to us when they're done - the houses would be owner-occupied, tax-paying properties," McCormick said.

Although the programs to preserve the historic homes are still in the planning stages, Brown "has no imminent plans to tear down any of the vacant properties," McCormick said. "These houses are all within the national historic district - we try not to tear down (such properties) unless we have a really good reason to do so," he said.

Some neighbors have expressed concern about the current condition of the vacant houses.

"If they're not used or maintained, they pull down the overall quality of the area," said William Touret, an Olive Street resident and board member of the College Hill Neighborhood Association.

Touret expressed concern about Brown's continued ownership of the properties. The University's properties are tax-exempt, and though Brown agreed in summer of 2003 to pay the city of Providence more than $1 million each year in lieu of taxes, Touret was still critical of Brown's "warehousing" of the houses.

Touret said returning the properties to the community would allow the city to tax them, giving Providence desperately needed funds. And he said that selling these properties on the private real estate market might reduce tensions between Brown and its College Hill neighbors over Brown's physical expansion. Residents of the neighborhood, including Touret, are currently involved in a suit attempting to halt construction of the Life Sciences building.

But while Touret expressed concern that houses sold exclusively to Brown faculty through the Brown to Brown program would retain their tax-exempt status, McNally said Brown faculty members would have to pay property taxes just like their College Hill neighbors.

According to Abigail Rider, director of real estate and administrative services, Brown will make a decision this fall about the feasibility of converting the three largest vacant properties into rental housing for graduate students and faculty. Rider is currently working with an architect to project the cost of renovating the houses.

McNally said the Brown to Brown program is in the very early planning stages and was unsure when a decision will be made about whether to sell the vacant properties to Brown faculty members.

As printed, this article misstated the name of Brown's Director of Real Estate and Administrative Services. She is Abigail Rider, not Brenda.




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