It is without question that the housing crisis in Providence has reached a breaking point. Local universities are seen as major contributors to this crisis, with Brown as a prime example. Brown squeezes Providence’s housing market in two ways. University students often come from families with higher incomes than the surrounding community and they seek off-campus housing as upperclassmen, reducing the available housing for the community and inflating prices. However, there is a greater structural issue at play. Brown, like most universities, is tax exempt, which means that the University does not have to pay taxes on some of its valuable real estate in Providence. This lost revenue for the city limits the possibility of municipal action needed to build or preserve affordable housing. Thus, as Brown extends its physical footprint to make way for new housing, it is actually exacerbating the fundamental issue which has helped to precipitate this crisis. There is a solution to these two housing problems which neither Brown nor Providence has seemingly considered: By building out the Wriston Quadrangle, Brown can accommodate far more housing on its existing footprint, protecting both Providence’s housing market and its tax base.
Wriston Quadrangle was completed in 1952, and its construction required the razing of 51 historic homes. In the design of the new section of campus, architects decided to surround the entire area with a four-foot moat and mount a towering wrought-iron fence around it to protect the lower floor windows. This decision has not only led to inconvenience for students who now have to take circuitous detours to reach each building on the quad, but it also sends a clear message to the community. While the moat and fence purportedly serve a practical purpose, visually they tell only one story: Brown wants to keep the community out. After securing the land, the University cleared it of its history, then erected defensive ramparts to separate the community from the campus within. Today, this is not the message Brown wishes to send — the University’s more recent construction efforts, like the Brook Street dorms, the Brown Bookstore, and the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, do a much better job of meaningfully engaging with their surroundings. Wriston Quadrangle, in its current state, does not seem to fit Brown’s modern vision for its campus.
This creates an opportunity to both modernize Wriston and help Providence solve its growing housing crisis. Brown should extensively remodel or reconstruct a number of street-facing dorms on Wriston to reconnect the campus with the street and significantly increase the quantity of housing on Brown’s current footprint. In particular, Harkness, Chapin and Sears Houses would make for good conversions since they all border busy neighborhood streets. Take Chapin House: This dorm affronts Thayer Street, and its current design serves as a significant barrier between the street and other parts of campus. A possible intervention for Chapin could involve filling the moat, expanding the dorm so that it is flush with Thayer Street and then adding arches through the building so that students can pass freely into Wriston. Even this limited intervention would serve to link the street and campus and would add a number of dorm rooms. This would not only increase the capacity of Brown’s on-campus housing, but would also create an opportunity to make it more attractive and add modern amenities to dorms during renovation. All street-facing dorms within Wriston could be expanded significantly, which would certainly help make notable progress towards Brown’s goal of guaranteeing on-campus housing for 80% of its student body.
By providing more housing for students without purchasing any new property, Brown would be able to meaningfully address the housing crisis in Providence. With additional rooms and renovated dorms, more students may opt to stay on campus, meaning the amount of housing stock available to Providence residents, especially in Fox Point and College Hill, would increase. Also importantly, unlike some other recent Brown projects, no property would have to be acquired from the city, meaning no existing housing or businesses would be displaced, and the tax base for the city would not shrink.
Additionally, remodeling Wriston could also greatly enhance pedestrian flow on campus, increasing the porosity which makes college campuses so enjoyable and special. The rest of Brown’s campus demonstrates that it is not only possible, but greatly beneficial to have continual interplay between academic and streetscape elements in the community. Doing so creates congruence with the community’s architectural context and makes the campus approachable, not only to students, but also to greater Providence.
Furthermore, the renovated Wriston dorms need not be out of step with the architectural history of campus or the surrounding neighborhood. Wriston itself is a prime example of this, as none of the buildings themselves are especially historical and were instead built to mimic the meaningful architectural context around them. There is no reason these new dorms cannot do so as well and still accommodate new amenities and increased campus access.
Ultimately, this is not the easiest way for Brown to grow on-campus housing, but it would be incredibly beneficial not only for the University but for Providence. By choosing this challenging option, Brown would demonstrate its true commitment to the success of the city that it is so closely tied to. This option would not result in a single displaced business or resident in Providence while meaningfully reducing housing pressure in the community. Further, it would show that Brown is not a university that hides behind high walls, but rather one that welcomes the community in and does not shut itself off from the streets that define it. For the sake of the city, and for Brown’s benefit, the University must choose the harder option and find spaces for new housing within our existing campus.
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.