In January the City Plan Commission (CPC) unanimously approved the most recent amendment to Brown University’s Institutional Master Plan, which consisted of improvements to Brown’s baseball and softball fields, as well as the demolition of seven multi-family homes for an interim public use parking lot. Brown purchased these seven buildings from a single owner in 2014 and within approximately nine months was hit with citations from the City. These citations ran the gamut from repairing downspouts and repainting to more intensive repairs like foundations and roof work. In all, Brown says that it would cost around $200,000 to address these repairs, but to renovate the buildings “based on benchmarks used to renovate similar properties,” would be significantly more of an investment and ultimately prove to be a financial loss. Based on meetings with community groups and the Thayer Street Planning Study’s recommendation for more parking in the area, Brown determined that an interim 70-plus space parking lot would be in everyone’s best interest while they develop a permanent use for the land.
Generally speaking, the CPC seemed concerned about the prospect of trading housing for a parking lot. Steve Maiorisi, Vice President for Facilities Management at Brown, agreed and pointed to several instances where Brown had removed surface parking in recent years. Student housing or an academic facility would, according to Maiorisi, be “consistent with our strategic plan,” though he says that what exactly would replace the lot will still take time to develop.
Thayer Street District Management Authority (TSDMA), Thayer Street Merchants Association, College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA) and Wheeler School all offered letters of support for the plan. Several Thayer Street business and property owners and TSDMA board members were on hand to vocalize their support as they feel that more parking is essential for businesses on Thayer.
“We can look at it as a short term experiment,” says Donna Personeus of TSDMA. “After the interim period we can evaluate the outcomes and say ‘Does this work? Does Thayer need a parking lot?’”
CHNA President Josh Eisen agrees. “Thayer Street merchants hope this will give them a lifeline to help them survive and thrive over the next three to five years,” he says. The CHNA, like several of the other groups involved, aren’t typically in favor of replacing homes with parking lots, but feel that it “represents an attempt by Brown to enable the land to give some value to the community during the interim period.”
Opposing the plan were East Side residents and the Providence Preservation Society (PPS). Counterpoints were made – several suggested using the land for green space – and legitimate concerns were brought up – pushing students out into the surrounding neighborhoods and increasing rents, the fact that downtown has several temporary parking lots that have proven to be anything but and the unraveling of lines between the neighborhood and the College Hill National Landmark Historic District. Like the CPC, they don’t understand the trade off of housing for parking, especially when there’s no concrete plan on the table from Brown.
“We hold Brown to a higher standard,” said PPS Executive Director Brent Runyon. “While we do not approve of the demolition of these buildings for a parking lot, if we saw something that would be better we would be in favor of it,” he said, citing Brown’s removal of four houses on Brook Street for what PPS considers to be an “attractive” new engineering building.
Though Brown did receive the bulk of the criticism, Runyon points out that residents, PPS and the City share some of the blame in allowing the seven buildings to fall to their current state. Prior to their sale to Brown, the previous owner had been planning to level the buildings and put up a hotel, a plan that obviously never came to fruition. According to testimony at the CPC meeting, no citations were issued until after Brown had purchased the homes.
“There was no argument by residents or by PPS when that block was rezoned to commercial with an institutional overlay. In fact, the Thayer Street Planning Study calls for that to happen,” explains Runyon. “What it did not call for is the ability for any institution to build a parking lot, which is what caused such concern by the CPC and Department of Public Development.”
In the end the CPC approved the amendment with the caveat that Brown only receive a temporary two-year special use permit from the Zoning Board, which would coincide with the next scheduled review of the Institutional Master Plan. After that time they will need to reappear before the CPC with a definitive plan for the space.
“We will work to request that parking be incorporated into the design of the new development on that lot after the interim period, or else to arrive at another solution at that time,” says Eisen.
“The only concern would not be with Brown’s intent, but unforeseen factors, such as lack of funding for a new building on the site,” says Runyon. “Also, it is clear that Thayer Street merchants want more parking. I cannot say whether their concern is legitimate, but some people may be concerned that pressure from them would outweigh the City’s own land use planning.”