Cover Story

A Lot of Conflict Over a Little Lot

Brown, Thayer Street Businesses and residents weigh the pros and cons of an interim parking lot

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In late March, “Cooler & Warmer” was revealed as the new Rhode Island state slogan – vague, paradoxical and somehow precisely on point. The same slogan fits like a glove for the deepening chasm in the community regarding Brown University’s proposal to demolish seven dilapidated yet historic buildings on Brook and Cushing Streets in exchange for an interim parking lot near bustling Thayer Street.

For Brown, cooler and warmer speaks to how their strategies are impacting the community – the interim parking lot is both cooler and warmer to meeting the needs of East Siders and our visitors who come to enjoy our historic, scenic enclave in Li’l Rhody’s biggest city. The slogan aptly describes the varied extremes in the community’s attitude toward the proposal, too: there’s the cooly dismissive stance toward Brown, heated over the homogenization of the historic neighborhood’s landscape; and there are those who feel the parking lot is warmer to hitting the hot spot of what the Thayer Street Shopping District needs (which is, of course, more accessible parking in the area).

Recapping the Issue

East Side Monthly first wrote on this issue back in January, when buzz over the proposal was beginning to percolate. The history of the land’s acquisition, however, goes back about two years. In July 2014, Brown purchased an entire stretch of land, including the seven houses, from Ed Bishop. The real estate on Brook Street was acquired through Fairview, Inc., a “wholly owned subsidiary that owns properties near campus that are not currently in use for educational or institutional purposes,” according to Brown.

Although these buildings were bought to expand the campus, Brown never planned to preserve them. “At the time of purchase, the houses were not occupied and were not habitable due to lead, asbestos, fire code hazards and other violations of City code,” says Brian E. Clark, Director of News and Editorial Development at Brown. “The properties were acquired for future strategic redevelopment that would be more consistent with the goals of the Thayer Street Planning Study, commissioned by the City of Providence and completed in 2013.”
Also, to cite our article from January, Brown confirmed that the amount of damage to these structures would “ultimately prove to be a financial loss.” Since then, Brown offers what they say is a more accurate assessment, citing a $6 million price tag on the initial restorations, remediation of lead, asbestos and other hazards, bringing the houses to fire code and any other needs. “We would not recover this cost in the rental housing market or from student housing,” says Clark.

The hazardous state of the homes forced Brown to think fast, once code violations from the City of Providence started rolling in. The parking lot was proposed as a quick fix until a more permanent plan could come to fruition. “Academic buildings can take several years to plan, fund and build,” says Clark. “We selected an interim use for the land that responds to the needs of local merchants.” This decision meant to provide a solution to Brown’s problem that would also benefit the community, but it created more questions than answers for many East Side residents.

From Rehabs to Tear Downs on College Hill
“The statements in the original [East Side Monthly] story are still accurate,” says Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society, in opposition to the demolition of the seven buildings. “In addition, we encourage Brown to go back and strongly consider an alternative to demolishing all of the houses. As they proved with their renovation of the Bannister House, strategic investments in the neighborhoods that surround the campus are important for both the City of Providence and for the University.”
Based on comments circulating on Cheryl Simmons’ Listserve, Runyon expresses what is a concern about keeping College Hill historic. However, the seven buildings seem to need a little more love than Bannister House, which received an update to its facade as well as significant interior renovations, including new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems [that] will serve as the bones for improved bathrooms, flooring, walls and kitchen amenities.

With other historic renovations popping up in adjacent areas though, it’s a big question mark hanging over the seven structures. “When the houses on the adjacent parcel were demolished for the dormitory construction, many said they were so severely deteriorated that they had no more useful life.  However, more recently, we have seen that a row of very similar old houses on the south side of Euclid have been handsomely rehabbed by a private developer and the useful life of these handsome historic structures has been restored.  The same could be done with the houses along Brook Street,” says Clifford Renshaw, Principal of Clifford M. Renshaw Architects and 16-year East Side resident.

Making a Case For Green Space
If demolition of the buildings are a must, many community members feel that there are plenty of other positive uses for the land than a lot, such as a garden, park or playground. “I personally think that Brown has some mending to do within the community,” says Hollybeth Runco, resident of the East Side for over 13 years. “The parking lot idea seems to serve both the school and the businesses on Thayer, but it’s a blight to an area that needs more green space.”

Brown promises to “preserve the curbside trees and capture all storm water on site” with its new proposal, along with building a “safer, wider, ADA-accessible sidewalk along Brook Street.” Additionally, as Rob Stolzman, East Side resident since 1986 points out, “I am neutral on the parking lot itself since it is only temporary. However, I support Brown’s expansion on College Hill. Brown reflects the new economy and is one of Rhode Island’s economic assets. All I ask from Brown is superior architecture and landscape design.”

What More Parking Means
Last month we took a deep dive into the new pay-to-park meters popping up on the East Side and, most notably, lining Thayer Street. The interim parking lot could quell a lot of community concerns for those who want to visit the shops and restaurants on Thayer without worrying about feeding a meter. “The Thayer Street District Management Authority (TSDMA) fully supports Brown’s proposal to build an interim parking lot,” says Donna Personeus, Executive Director of the TSDMA. “We welcome the opportunity to have a long term parking option for our customers one block from Thayer Street.”

According to Brown, the Brook Street lot “will be run by a commercial parking lot operator, [charging] market rates. The fees generated from parking will go toward offsetting the costs of construction and maintenance of the parking lot.” The lot could potentially save visitors the inevitable and almost ritualistic circling of the blocks in order to find close parking to Thayer.

“There is definitely a need for more parking in proximity to the Thayer Street business community,” Renshaw says, “However, the parking lot that is proposed for this Brook Street site would be temporary in nature [...] it will do nothing towards providing a longer term solution to that problem.”

Additionally, many residents worry that more parking will mean more traffic, especially encouraging students to clog our narrow streets now that they’ll have more space to leave their cars. While it is emphasized that the proposed commercial parking lot will be open and available for the general public, the April 13 meeting agenda for the City of Providence Zoning Board of Review also mentions that “educational use would be permitted as of right.” Presumably, there is nothing stopping students on College Hill from using this lot, but this does not reflect Brown’s intentions.

Brown has discontinued student vehicle parking with very few exceptions. They also do their due diligence in reducing an influx of vehicular traffic in the neighborhood to the best of their ability. In fact, some could say their implemented programs go above and beyond, with a University Shuttle, bicycle sharing, Zipcar and RIPTA incentives.

How Temporary is Temporary?
“My concern is [that] temporary parking lots have a way of becoming permanent,” Thom Mitchell, 14-year-long East Side resident says, “And there are never enough parking lots. As soon as you build one, it fills up.” Thom isn’t the only East Sider concerned about just how temporary this lot will be. While Brown hasn’t yet revealed the next stages of their Master Plan in detail, the parking lot was always proposed as temporary in nature. Those in favor of a parking lot may eventually find themselves against its future.

“I agree with PPS, temporary is usually not temporary,” says Deborah Penn, East Sider for 30 years. “Who will be the impetus for ‘re-visiting’ this issue? Probably not Brown University. The parking garage at the end of Thayer is never full. Why are we tearing down housing and paving in a historic neighborhood if the existing parking facilities are not used to capacity? Perhaps Thayer Street should not, nor was ever intended to be, expanded to the extent it has been. This is a walking neighborhood. There is a downtown area for more major development.”

In the upcoming years, Brown would like to use the approximate 32,454 square feet of land for the permanent home of either residences for students or another academic building. This expansion of the campus and its modern architecture changing the landscape of a quaint and historic district is bound to ruffle even more feathers in the community. With the proposal forging along, the conversation regarding the interim parking lot will soon come to an end. However, the future of its permanent state is a deeper discussion that’s certainly far from over.