The Gilbane Development Company is proposing a dramatic new building for the heart of Thayer Street that would provide housing for approximately 275 students while filling most of the two blocks that run from Thayer to Brook Streets and from Euclid to Meeting. The project would require the demolition of all the small multiple-family houses which occupy the area and currently house some 51 students. The land is owned by David Shwaery of Squires Salon. Three smaller parcels presently occupied by Johnny Rockets, Byblos and Nice Slice Pizza are not part of the proposed development and would remain.
Robert Gilbane, chairman and CEO of the company, is himself a longtime Rhode Island resident and alumnus of Brown. He was quick to emphasize that this is a private project. “The new building would be fully taxed by the City,” says Gilbane, “and Brown is not involved in its development.” An underground garage for 85 cars is also part of the proposed initiative, though its usage would be limited to residents of the new proposed dormitory space.
Based on a similar project that has been successful for his company at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Gilbane believes that his new housing model, which provides upscale student amenities generally not available in regular dorms, would be especially appropriate for the Thayer Street area. He points to things like all-suite housing, exceptionally fast Internet service and an interior courtyard as elements that would appeal to many of today’s students.
“It’s rare to find nine contiguous properties all owned by a single entity, which is what gives us an unique opportunity to do something on the site,” explains Gilbane. “I want the process to be as transparent as possible, and if residents don’t want the project, we are more than willing to move on. But in my view, this is a singular opportunity for both the city and the College Hill community to participate positively on the continuing growth of the university.”
“The window for developing this space is short, however,” Gilbane continues, “since the owners will likely have other suitors for their land. Our plan is to be ready for student occupancy by August 2014. To accomplish this, I have been advised by the City of Providence that we would need all of our approvals and permits in place by July of this year so we could begin demolition.”
Initial plans show a four-story building, with a rounded entrance on Thayer Street diagonally across from Avon Cinema. Gilbane pointed out that the design itself incorporates many of the textural elements familiar to the East Side: a mansard roof, multi-colored brick treatment and rounded facade elements. If approved, Gilbane feels the project would provide many enhancements for Thayer Street. In addition to replacing the aging multiple family houses occupied by students with a new residence building, Gilbane expects to move utilities underground, eliminate eight curb cuts and add seven parking spots to the area. The developer also hopes to add a new sidewalk, plantings, curbing and lighting as well.
Gilbane and his associates are carefully making the rounds of what he calls “neighborhood stakeholders” to present their vision of the project. The College Hill Neighborhood Association recently convened a meeting to allow the developers to share their plans with several neighborhood groups, including representatives from the Providence Preservation Society, Wheeler School, the College Hill and Fox Point Neighborhood Associations and the Thayer Street Merchants Association.
Many of the attendees took a cautious wait and see attitude, since this was their first exposure to the project. Others, however, did express some significant reservations. Will Touret, a longtime College Hill resident, was concerned that the project would effectively allow the university to provide housing for its students in an area that was specifically designated as outside of the school’s institutional zone. “The negotiations over the zones were long and difficult and should not be dismissed lightly,” he argues. “Plus, there is no guarantee right now that the project couldn’t revert to Brown at some point in the future.”
While acknowledging the project provided a much needed “tidying up” of the neighborhood, several other attendees noted that at four stories with underground parking, the building would significantly alter the scale and feel of the street. Another nearby neighbor, David Nishimura, expressed concern about bringing in so many new cars to the area and the effect it would have on already tight traffic congestion along the street.
Gilbane plans a series of public meetings so as to gauge the community response to his project. Aimed at older and perhaps more affluent and graduate school students, the project would likely have to charge more than traditional dorm rates, in the $1000-1500 per bed/per month range (including upscale amenities and services such as a gym, bicycle storage, residential life advisors, laundry services and 24-hour desk service). Meanwhile, Brown is continuing with its own plans for additional dorms, but within its institutional zone.
The next step in the process, says Gilbane, is for ongoing public meetings with stakeholders and nearby residents, as well as preliminary presentations before the City’s Board of Review shortly. Gilbane Development is a sister company to Gilbane Construction. The two entities were responsible for the successful RISD project at 50 Westminster, which converted space, including Hospital Trust Towers, into student housing downtown.
As the project is very much at the preliminary stages, it is unclear what variances will be needed for the project to move forward. Portions of the area are presently zoned both C2 and C3, with a 45-foot height limit. Gilbane feels he will be paying more than double the taxes the City currently receives from the existing properties.
Stay tuned for what promises to be a lively period of community discussions over the next few months.