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U. considers purchase of historic Jewelry District site

The former power plant, listed as endangered, has changed hands frequently in recent years

The vacant historical building known as the Dynamo House, located in the Jewelry District, has become the subject of renewed speculation as government and local university officials push to redevelop the neighborhood into a hub of science, technology and research.

The University has “shown interest in (purchasing the Dynamo House), but nothing definite,” said Edward Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences.

Built as a power plant in 1912, the Dynamo House has seen potential tenants fall through since it was sold to the Heritage Harbor Museum in 1995 — a Dynamo LLC development project failed in 2007 and plans to use the space for a Rhode Island history museum dissolved in 2008. After years without a stable tenant, the building was placed on the Providence Preservation Society’s “Ten Most Endangered Properties List” last June. Dynamo LLC still owns the property, but the company is not using the space.

The building’s features — including “arched windows and thick brick walls,” the New York Times reported, as well as an unconventional layout — and large amount of open space make it “awkward for a regular office,” said Colin Kane, chairman of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. A new tenant would need to be creative to use the space functionally, he said.

To take on the building would be “essentially starting from scratch,” Kane said, since the building’s large masonry shell has been empty and open to the weather for four or five winters.

The “profound challenge” of a lack of parking, a common issue in the district, presents another barrier to the building’s use, Kane said.

The building would require a tenant that needs at least 150,000 to 200,000 square feet, Kane said. “That’s a lot of space, and we don’t have those users in Providence very often,” he said. “The world thinks Brown (will purchase the building), but I don’t know if Brown thinks that.”

The University is currently looking for a new space to house the Brown Institute for Brain Science, Wing said.

“In the right hands it could be the most extraordinary space in the city,” Kane said, but “right now it’s playing a detrimental role” in the district as it remains vacant and in a state of disrepair.

“It has tremendous visibility and huge potential for redevelopment,” wrote Robert Azar, director of current planning for Providence, in an email to The Herald. “Its size and location give it the potential to become the most significant development in the district, if not in all of downtown.”

Demand for the building has increased in recent years due to development driven by startup and research interests in the area, which have “just exploded,” Wing said.

“A lot of great things have happened (in the Jewelry District) in the past three or four years, despite the economic downturn,” Kane said.

The University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College have plans to build nursing schools in the district, and Johnson & Wales University completed a purchase of two parcels of land last November, on which administrators intend to have up to three new academic buildings built, said Lisa Pelosi, director of communications and media relations at JWU. JWU will also renovate a building on Clifford Street to house a new center for physician assistant studies. JWU is looking to build up medical facilities in close proximity to Alpert Medical School to create “more of a medical hub,” Pelosi said.



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