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U. now planning to move UEL

Some neighbors unhappy with potential site

The Urban Environmental Lab, a converted carriage house that is home to the Center for Environmental Studies, will likely be relocated to a nearby lot on Brown or Olive Street to make room for the Mind Brain Behavior Building, the future home of the merging departments of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and Psychology, according to University officials.

But community members that supported saving the UEL and the College Hill Neighborhood Association, which encouraged the University to park its bulldozer in favor of a flatbed truck, may now prove an obstacle blocking the UEL's journey from its current Angell Street home.

The University has had its eye on the UEL since 2003, when plans to "consolidate the core" of campus were presented as part of the Strategic Framework for Physical Planning, a master plan for expansion adopted by the Corporation. With ground set to break on the proposed Mind Brain Behavior Building next summer, the UEL seemed all but destined for demolition. In May, the Providence Preservation Society named the building and two other Angell Street buildings the city's most endangered properties.

After months of meetings between administrators and community members and students fighting to save the beloved building, a park at 99 Brown St. and a lot on Olive Street next to the recently moved Peter Green House emerged as two of the leading candidates for the UEL's relocation, which will likely begin next spring.

"The interesting opportunity with the UEL is that you're actually preserving three buildings in one," said Kurt Teichert, CES's environmental stewardship initiatives manager. Originally built in 1884 as a carriage house, the UEL was renovated in 1981 for use by CES. Just two years later it was retrofitted to become Brown's most energy-efficient building, a distinction it still holds today.

In order to be moved, the building will have to be disassembled and transported to its new home in three parts, then tinkered with before it is put back together, according to Assistant Vice President for Planning, Design and Construction Michael McCormick.

But in a twist that community members call "ironic" in a petition to save the park, the UEL would have to displace a treasured patch of grass and trees dubbed "Orchard Park" by nearby residents in order to occupy the 99 Brown St. lot, which Teichert said is the leading candidate site for relocation. Robert Reichley, a former executive vice president for public affairs and external relations, lives across the street from the park and has circulated the petition to block its destruction.

"The age of the Lab, certainly not its beauty, puts it on the historic list," reads the petition, which was officially backed this month by the CHNA. "Destroying (the park's) many trees and other plantings is a crime against nature."

Reichley, a former president of the Providence Preservation Society, said the park is even more beloved by the community than the historic laboratory and that the destruction of the park is a price not worth paying to save the UEL. "I have heard nobody say this is a good idea to destroy the orchard and put a building on it," he said.

One one hand, Reichley said he appreciates the building and its historical value, but on the other hand, community members do not want to lose their park.

The issue is made even more complicated for Reichley by his close history with the University as its spokesman.

"I had many such issues that were hard to deal with, and I tried very hard to see the case the way the neighbors see it," Reichley said. "I never thought I would be on the other side of an issue."

The CHNA has found itself in a similar bind, having voted both to save the building and not to destroy the park.

"We love the UEL building. We'd hate to see it destroyed," said Barry Fain, a CHNA board member. "But the site that they're choosing, to knock down 10 trees, to ignore their neighbors and to kill a delightful oasis of quietness that serves as a wonderful buffer between the institutional zone and the residential zone - that is a mistake."

Both Fain and Reichley said they don't see the issue as an "either/or," and would prefer to see the UEL relocated to a different site. "Brown cannot do all of its expansion on College Hill," Fain said.

But though McCormick said no concrete plans have been made, the list of alternative sites is short.

"The farther you move the building, the more harm you do to the surrounding area," he said. The Brown Street and Olive Street sites "are certainly the closest," he said.

McCormick added that the UEL must remain within Brown's geographic "institutional zone" in order to be used for classes.

Teichert and Interim Director of CES Phil Brown said the University will take community opinion into account but will probably move forward if community concern is the only obstacle in the way of the move.

"The greenest building is the one you don't build," said Teichert, an environmental advocate for the University. "But the UEL comes close."

Teichert said if the community were to succeed in blocking the relocation of the lab - which by the nature of the department it houses would likely show sensitivity to the surrounding environment - then it is likely that some "bigger, badder building" would move in a few years down the road.

Brown said the building will complement the surrounding architecture and help to provide an aesthetic transition from the residential zone to the institutional.

If the UEL does move, it will likely continue to house CES, Brown said. The Center will move into temporary space in the Metcalf Research Laboratory for the winter and spring, then move back into the UEL by the following semester. Brown said the move might actually make the building a bit smaller due to the dimensions of the land, but that CES will have to adjust.

"The Center has always been very tight," he said. "Even if you have a small house, you can make a big home in it."

Regardless of which option is chosen, McCormick said he recognizes that not everyone can be made perfectly happy and that compromise will be necessary, concessions made by every party involved.

"There's no quick and easy fix," he said. "If we could lift it up with a helicopter and drop it off in an ideal site, we would."



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