Brown v. Buildings

As the university seeks to remove five historical properties on the East Side, community members gear up for a fight


You’ve probably already heard about the fight between Brown and the East Side’s preservation-minded denizens. The university is looking to erect a performing arts center; Providence Preservation Society, College Hill Neighborhood Association, and others don’t want buildings to be razed to make room for it. Brown’s center would be designed by the New York firm REX, led by the celebrated modernist Joshua Prince-Ramus. The facility would sit west of the Walk, between Angell and Waterman streets on College Hill, just north of the College Green. To make way for the huge structure, Brown says it must move or raze five historic buildings.

The school needs a concert hall of sufficient size and acoustical quality to serve its students. Few dispute this, but many worry that the plan’s lack of parking would prove a hardship for the community, that demolition would further undermine the neighborhood’s character, and that other sites have not been fully considered. Preservation advocates hope that Brown will choose to build on the site of its School of Professional Studies instead, or elsewhere along the downtown waterfront.

Brown’s university architect, Collette Creppelle, described the proposal before a December 19 public hearing of the City Plan Commission, which must approve changes to Brown’s institutional plan before the project can advance. Every one of the score of speakers voiced opposition to the changes, which included a student wellness center on a temporary parking lot created by tearing down seven old buildings on Brook and Cushing streets.

Brown’s institutional zone exempts it from regular zoning. City officials normally approve changes that Brown submits to its institutional plan. Brown razed four historic buildings to make way for its new engineering facility on Brook. B.J. Dupre, of the Armory Revival Company, told the hearing that the five houses newly at risk are even more vital to preserve because so many thousands of Rhode Islanders drive by them daily. The five include the beloved Urban Environmental Lab, at 135 Angell. Whether by demolition or relocation, according to former state preservation officer Ted Sanderson, their loss would place the few surviving old structures at greater risk from future Brown expansion.

Zoning in Providence protects neighborhood historic character because city leaders recognize its importance to the city’s economy and quality of life. Brown’s latest proposal raises concern among some in the community that the school’s institutional zone no longer promotes the purpose, forged in delicate compromise, for which it was enacted decades ago.

At the time of press, a date had not yet been made for Brown to introduce modifications to its plan. Preservation advocates hope that when the time comes, Brown will find an alternative that can fulfill its needs without further alienating
the community.

David Brussat wrote about architecture at the Providence Journal, edits the blog Architecture Here and There, and is the author of Lost Providence, published last year.