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New public plaza to liven U.'s presence downtown

By now it's obvious — the University is proudly "Building Brown." But what is less obvious is the University's rapid development on the other side of the river, away from the daily lives of students.

The new Medical Education Building at 222 Richmond St. will be completed in July. A month later, the University plans to wrap  up its conversion of a nearby parking lot to a public plaza, featuring terraced wood flooring and red maple trees. Built with expectations of outdoor concerts, dance and yoga classes, movie screenings and farmers' markets, it will be a "livable urban space," said Edward Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences. Food vendors and lunch trucks will gravitate to the space, he added.

Designs reflect the dreams of both University administrators and city planners, who consider the Jewelry District a source of hope in an economically stagnant city. Fueled by the relocation of Interstate 195, the Jewelry District — also called the "knowledge district" — is projected to be a hot spot for educational and medical institutions. Brown's Alpert Medical School will be a "keystone" in the area, Wing said. Administrators hope Providence will rival neighboring University- and hospital-fueled research activity in Cambridge and New York City.


Ship Street square

The new, one-third-acre square will serve more as a public gathering place than as a recreational area, said Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president. Plazas like the one planned "are the kind of spaces that work great on college campuses," he said, suggesting it could serve a purpose akin to that of the Main Green, "where a lot of things can happen formally or informally."

He said he hopes the square creates "a sense of community, a sense of engagement of the neighborhood." Construction will likely begin in May, said Michael McCormick, assistant vice president for planning, design and construction.

"Ship Street square is going to be here very quickly," McCormick said. "We want to do this now so people start thinking of the Jewelry District as a cool place to be."

The square will sit across the street from the Medical Education Building, near several other University-owned buildings in the district, including a molecular medicine research laboratory, a future police substation and the future home of the Office of Continuing Education. The area will be linked to the East Side by a pedestrian bridge and possibly a new transit line, both in the planning stages.


‘A big, big leap forward'

Construction on the Medical Education Building is going "very well," with a majority of the exterior work done and the focus now shifted to the interior, said Stephen Maiorisi, vice president for Facilities Management.

The 134,000 square-foot building is slated to be finished July 12, with an opening ceremony Aug. 15, the first day of classes for the Med School, Wing said.

The building includes a sunlit atrium, two 150-seat lecture halls, an "almost all digital" library, administrative offices, three "case study rooms" for demonstrations, 16 seminar rooms and an anatomy suite, Wing said. A clinical skills suite has rooms which are "exactly like doctors' offices, so (students) can practice their skills."

Medical students will be sorted into three academies, giving students "time to build relationships for all four years," said Peter Holden, director of biomedical facilities planning and operations.

The top floor will have space for a fitness center, Holden said, and will have a rooftop terrace, which will be illuminated at night. The ground floor will have a cafe — "one of the only eatery spaces on this side of the Jewelry District" — which will be open seven days per week.

The building represents a tripling of the Med School's usable classroom space, Wing said. It is the first specifically dedicated to the Med School, he added. It also places the school close to the hospitals, to which third- and fourth-year medical students commute "all the time."

"It's such a big, big leap forward for the Medical School," he said.

The Med School — the only one in Rhode Island — will be expanding its enrollment as a result of this increase in dedicated space. There are currently 96 students per class, but the class size will increase to 108 this fall and will stabilize at 120 next year, Wing said.

All Med School classes will be moved to the Medical Education Building, Maiorisi added, which will free up some classroom space on campus for undergraduates.


Developing the district

Outside the building's walls, the fabric of the district is changing rapidly.

The narrow sidewalk on Richmond Street between Ship and Elm streets will be widened to 13 feet from its present four to five feet to make the area more pedestrian-friendly, McCormick said. Presently, the sidewalk is "so small that they had to put the parking meters in the middle of the sidewalk," Spies said. The area is "just not people friendly."

The University will plant trees along the street and install better lighting and emergency blue light phones. The trees will reduce the perceived scale of the street and "help hide the parking garage," McCormick said.

The price tag for the public plaza and streetscape improvements is $2 million, and they will be completed in the fall, Wing said.

And the University has its eyes on further expansion in the district. It recently acquired the 41,000 square-foot building at 198 Dyer St. for about $6 million.

"At least for a period of time, it will house the Office of Continuing Education," Spies said. The Office of Residential Life will move to the Office of Continuing Education's current space in Graduate Center, and ResLife's current space on the first floor of Wayland House will be converted to dorm rooms, he said.

Given the size of the building, "we may very well look for another tenant for that space," Spies said.

The University acquired its first building in the Jewelry District at 70 Ship St., which is home to the Med School's Laboratories for Molecular Medicine, in 2004.

The Department of Public Safety and the Providence Police Department will share a new police substation at 43 Elm St., McCormick said, which will help DPS increase its presence in the Jewelry District.

The University bought seven buildings in the Jewelry District in 2007, one being the site of the new Medical Education Building, Spies said.

Brown will eventually occupy all of the buildings, but some are being leased out for a short-term use, Wing said.

The teardown of the old I-195 viaduct is "happening fast," Spies said. "A couple of the roadway bridges" are still standing, but "it looks very different than it did three months ago," he said.


Creating connections

Despite the University's development in the Jewelry District, one hurdle remains — getting there. As the bird flies, the district lies only a half mile from the Main Green. It is easily walkable from campus, but administrators have recognized the need for further transit infrastructure. Several initiatives by both the city and state will help close the gap.

"My dream about it is that you don't ever take your car," Spies said.

Perhaps the most high-profile link between the two banks of the river will be a new pedestrian bridge that will rise on the piers of the old I-195 bridge. Under the leadership of then-Mayor David Cicilline '83, the city announced a winner of a design competition for the bridge in December 2010.

Now, Mayor Angel Taveras is reevaluating the decision between the competition's two close finalists. "The new mayor wants to reexamine that and make sure it's the right decision," McCormick said.

"You can't make a wrong decision," Spies said of the bridge desi
gn. The best thing to do is to make a decision soon and "get on with the fundraising."

Details of the bridge's funding have not yet been worked out, McCormick said.

At the western foot of the pedestrian bridge, a 4.5-acre park will be developed by the city as part of the I-195 relocation project. "It adds hugely to the attractiveness of that whole area," Wing said.

Public transportation improvements are also being studied. The Providence Core Connector Study is currently considering options for transit, such as a streetcar line, to serve the district.

A preliminary route has been selected, traveling from Thayer Street through Kennedy Plaza and the Jewelry District to Rhode Island Hospital. Some issues, such as how to connect the route to the train station, are still being explored, McCormick said.

Officials from the study will make a public presentation April 25 and a locally preferred alternative will be selected this summer, according to the group's website.

Meanwhile, Brown's expansion in the Jewelry District is marching on.

"It's a vision becoming reality, which doesn't happen overnight and doesn't happen with just one building," Spies said.

"By next fall, we'll have a whole new environment down there," McCormick said. "This transformation of the Jewelry District we've been talking about for many years will be visible."


Check out for photos from The Herald's hard hat tour of the Medical Education Building.




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