Brown pitches its campus as one set in “the heart of Rhode Island’s vibrant capital city,” boasting its ostensibly active membership in the Providence community. University initiatives across the city — such as commitments to local schools — are certainly commendable, but they also epitomize a kind of top-down altruism, where an institution hands out charity without fully understanding who it’s helping. This kind of patronizing giving becomes more troubling when examining Brown’s direct interactions with the local community, which make it clear that the University sees itself more as a superior than as a partner. If Brown truly wants to be an integrated member of the neighborhood, it must be willing to do the hard work and become a true urban ally of the city and College Hill.
One story in particular emerges as a demonstration of Brown’s tendency to dictate that Providence bend to the University’s needs. The story of the Brook Street Residence Hall is one that has been highly publicized by University sources, other local news sources and in this paper. The central theme of this story has been Brown’s consistent inability to appease the concerns of members of the Fox Point and College Hill neighborhoods. In 2021, these community sentiments were laid bare when Councilman John Goncalves ’13 MA’15, the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, College Hill Neighborhood Association, Mile of History Association and Providence Preservation Society collected around a thousand signatures on a petition asking Brown to consider the architectural congruity of the project with the neighborhood, to preserve historic homes on the site and to add retail space. Perhaps Goncalves and the community groups put it best in the petition when they correctly pointed out that “Brown proclaims itself a champion of historic preservation,” but failed to preserve two historic homes on the site. The underlying sentiment from the community stakeholders is that Brown is not committed to its principles, and therefore community members cannot trust the University to act in good faith.
Of all the suggestions offered by community members, the only concrete one taken up by Brown was the addition of retail space. One must question the University’s true intentions for this move — while the local community also raised concerns about the architectural and historical preservation impacts of the project, students made clear their disappointment with the site’s impact on local shops such as Bagel Gourmet and East Side Mini-Mart, treasured institutions for Brown students. It would make sense if Brown felt greater pressure from its student body than the community — but it is also possible that Brown’s decision was entirely decoupled from stakeholder concerns, instead being based in economic logic. Rent from popular businesses would provide additional revenue for the University. Still, there is no guarantee that a favored shop such as East Side Mini-Mart will be the occupant of this new retail space, and it remains to be seen if the tenant of the space will best serve the community. Offering to add retail space should not be seen as a genuine olive branch from Brown, but an empty gesture to a long-exasperated community.
And Brown failed to accommodate the community’s other requests, such as asking the University to incorporate architectural forms in accord with the area’s unique character. A look at the Brook Street Project Plan reveals that the University only considered local “institutional” architectural context, such as surrounding University buildings, when designing the new dorms. In other words, Brown is building the Brook Street dorms to look like Brown, not the surrounding community. No consideration is given within the plan to the residential architectural context in the neighborhood. In addition, a request in the aforementioned petition to decrease the height of the project so it would better mesh with the surrounding community was ignored.
This drama played out over a year ago. Since then, both buildings have begun to rise above the streetscape — it is far too late now to rethink the Brook Street project. Their superstructures drilled into place and their exteriors rapidly being completed, it seems these edifices are well on their way to being monuments not to Brown’s connection with the Fox Point community, but its continued antagonism.
This general refusal to meet the community where they are speaks more broadly to how Brown fails as an urban campus. Proper urbanism, the kind which ensures development is fair and responsive to local needs, should require complete community engagement at every step of the process. Brown has said it met with community members about the Brook Street dorm plan, but these meetings were clearly not enough to address all concerns. Active and continuous engagement is the only way to ensure that the concerns of those impacted by a project are heard at an early enough stage to be met. One can hardly wonder why there exists a great deal of friction between College Hill and its namesake college when the community gets no real seat at the table during the development of their neighborhood.
This does not have to be the case. The University and the community have some goals in common. One key point of agreement is that more dorms will relieve some of the housing pressure on the surrounding community. This is where Brown can really shine, so long as it is willing to do the hard work and find ways to achieve common goals that satisfy all stakeholders. On Brook Street, Brown pushed to add more dorms, but did so without the Fox Point community — ultimately spawning more distrust with locals than good feelings.
This saga should serve as a lesson for the University going forward: Truly engaging the neighborhood is the path to finding solutions which satisfy everyone. Rather than simply holding 13 public meetings Brown should bring someone from the community onto the design team at the very start of all new projects. This person should have actual power on the team so they can ensure new development is for the community, not just in it. While the benefits to Fox Point of such an arrangement are obvious, the University would benefit greatly from being a good neighbor. Brown should pride itself not only on what it gives to Providence, but how the institution actually works with Providence. By bringing more voices to the table, the University can actually demonstrate its commitment to doing so.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.