Brown Dorms on Brook Street
Last month Brown University President Christina Paxson issued a letter regarding the proposed new dormitories on Brook Street in response to PPS and College Hill and Fox Point neighbors. Unfortunately, neither Paxon’s letter nor the university’s revised plans address or mitigate the concerns raised by neighbors. The Boston Globe recently published a detailed article on these developments, and Councilman John Goncalves and Councilwoman Helen Anthony have released a joint statement as well. PPS continues to monitor this situation and will share new information as it becomes available.
From our friends at the Fox Point Neighborhood Association:
Brown University seeks to build two five-story dormitories on the east and west sides of Brook Street between Power and Charlesfield streets, near the heart of the local historic district. In so doing, the university plans to demolish three historically significant houses, evict well-liked businesses like Bagel Gourmet, and further deplete Providence’s ever-shrinking tax base.
A consortium of volunteer community advocates, stakeholders, and taxpayers has convened to make a consolidated, reasonable appeal in response to Brown’s plan. A letter recently sent to President Paxson asks Brown to reserve commercial space for local business use and city tax revenue, preserve three historically significant homes, and modify the designs to make them compatible with the quality, feel, and scale of our historic neighborhood. Read the full letter here.
In concert with this letter, we are asking all concerned citizens to consider signing the community petition opposing the dorm proposal. If you have any questions, please email Fox Point Neighborhood Association Executive Secretary Amy Mendillo.
Representatives from Brown University returned to PPS and our Planning & Architectural Review Committee (PAR) on April 7 for a presentation on their revised plan for two new dormitories on Brook Street. Notably, the updated proposal removes the project from the purview of the HDC. You can read PAR’s full response letter here. You can also read Brown’s own statement on the revised plan here.
Today Brown University released a revised plan for their new dormitories on Brook Street. This includes removing 116 and 118 Power Street from the project footprint, thus removing the project from Historic District Commission review. Brown will present the new plan to PPS this week, and we will make a public statement. Brown will also present to CHNA and Councilman John Goncalves’ Ward 1 public on 4/08, and to FPNA on 4/12; these virtual meetings are open to the public and we encourage you to attend.
The following PPS comments follow a March review by our Planning & Architectural Committee (PAR) of the plans presented to the HDC in February. Brown University will return to PPS/PAR with updated designs prior to their next HDC appearance.
As expressed last year, we find Brown University’s intention to provide more on-campus student housing and to decrease the stress on the College Hill neighborhood with regard to private student housing to be positive. The challenge is how to successfully insert new, large buildings for student housing into the built environment while respecting and not compromising the character of this National Register historic district. This is of particular concern at this location that occupies the edge between the residential and institutional.
Please note: we understand that only the southern portion of the western building that occupies the parcels at 116 and 118 Power Street are under the purview of the HDC. Our comments consider the entire building and reference the building on the east side of Brook Street.
Comments and suggestions:
- This dormitory project is cheek by jowl with one of the most beautiful and historic residential neighborhoods in America; its design needs to be respectful of this. Being sympathetic to its historic neighbors does not preclude this from being a
modern, non-derivative design.
- The project was presented as dialogue between buildings straddling Brook Street. A better approach would be to think about the western building in conversation with Vartan Gregorian Quad (VGQ) in terms of scale, set-back, fenestration, and connectivity, among other things. Yes, VGQ is an inward facing courtyard building and your intent is for the Brook Street dorms to be outward-facing, activating the streetscape on this linear site; we agree with this intention. The new dorms, particularly the western dorm, however, are the next generation of dormitories that extend eastward from the Graduate Center (1968) and VGQ (1991); consider this context cumulatively.
- To this end, we think it is very important for the eastern dorm to be differentiated from the western building in scale, design, materials, and articulation. Allow it to relate to the smaller scale and massing of the buildings on its block: the two- and two-and-a-half story residences fronting Power Street and the four-story (partially below grade) mid-20th century addition to Barbour Hall (1904)– another courtyard configuration. The two new dorms do not need to match; this would create an undesirable canyon effect and de facto southern gateway to the institutional zone on a public street.
- Despite the architects’ stated intentions, the massing appears monumental, and we suggest that the volume and height of the western building be concentrated at the center of the block and/or towards Charlesfield and the rest of campus with a more deferential setback of upper floors at the southern end. Greater variation in the facade design can help to minimize the massing.
- The roof: We do not understand the sloped rooflines. The neighborhood precedents are gabled (historic houses and VGQ) and flat (commercial and institutional, including Barbour Hall). A weak attempt to find a middle ground is likely to be unsuccessful. Again, more height variation in the roofline profile can help to camouflage the massing.
- The retail space on the corner of Power and Brook Streets: Is this the best location? Or should it be at the northern corner at Charlesfield and Brook? As designed it is not compatible with the residential neighborhood it faces with roughly 21’ of first floor glazing, and is not reflective of traditional corner stores found nearby.
- Materials: We expect great attention to be given to the selection of materials, including the all important color, texture, and bond of the brick, should that be the final facade material.
- There is concern over the blank wall at pedestrian level on the lower end of Brook Street. We understand that you are contending with grade change from Charlesfield to Power, however, we believe a better solution can be found to enhance the pedestrian experience of the block, which should be the goal. Consideration should be given to bringing the more varied massing (as suggested above) to the street level with varied setbacks, which could further reduce the monolithic character.
- Landscape: While the new dorms are positioned to have a more active and urban presence than VGQ and the Graduate Center, we stress the importance of landscaping on the three block faces to softenand engage the interface and to provide shade for pedestrians.
- In the absence of required off-street parking, you should incorporate pull off areas for deliveries and ride-sharing as part of the design.
We recognize that the program for these dorms is intense and may not allow much variability, as we’ve suggested. If that should be the case, we urge Brown to reconsider the program in order to ensure the best buildings for these sites.
In February, the Historic District Commission voted unanimously to continue Brown’s application for its new dormitory until March 22. The HDC review is needed because a portion of the building, as proposed, will be within the College Hill local historic district. We have learned that Brown has requested a further continuance of the application until a later date. In the meantime, PPS board leadership expects to meet with Brown University leadership later this month.
On 2/22, the HDC voted unanimously to continue Brown’s application until March 22nd. This action was in response to:
- the lack of community engagement between the time of Brown’s June 2020 Institutional Master Plan amendment, which included the Brook Street dorms, and the conceptual application before HDC
- unified opposition and concern raised by neighbors, elected officials, and PPS
- questions of appropriateness over size, scale, and form of the project as presented
PPS’ Planning & Architectural Review Committee will review the project prior to the March HDC meeting.
A portion of the proposed new Brown dormitories on Brook Street is on the agenda for the Historic District Commission’s meeting on Monday, February 22 at 4:30 pm. This project spans several parcels flanking Brook Street between Charlesfield and Power Streets, but only the southern portion of one building is under the purview of the HDC (116 and 118 Power Street– currently surface parking).
Brown University is offering for sale the houses currently sited at 245-247 Brook Street, 66-68 Charlesfield Street, and 70-72 Charlesfield Street for $10 each. These homes were originally slated for demolition to make way for the planned dorms on Brook Street.
Interested buyers must apply and agree to remove the structure(s) before 10/31/2021. Additional funds to assist with removal are available available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-863-3717 for more information and an application (due 12/18/2020).
**This item was on the 6/16/20 CPC agenda and the commission voted to approve.**
RE: Brown University Institutional Master Plan (IMP) Amendment #3 and New Dormitories on Brook Street
PPS’ Planning and Architectural Review Committee (PAR) has reviewed Brown University’s plan for two new dormitories on Brook Street. PPS offers the following comments regarding the proposed demolition and new construction.
We acknowledge that the two new dormitories planned for Brook Street between Charlesfield and Power Streets— along with the Health and Wellness dormitory (2021)— are intended, in part, to reduce housing pressures in a densely populated historic district. We commend that direction and goal.
The challenge as we see it is whether Brown can successfully house more students “on campus” and introduce two large dormitory buildings into the College Hill National Historic Landmark District without compromising the neighborhood’s character. The university’s responsibility to mitigate its institutional impact on abutting historic districts is a perpetual concern of PPS.
The project site involves 11 parcels and the demolition of five buildings on Brook and Charlesfield Streets. Thus, we consider whether the loss of these structures and insertion of much larger buildings is warranted, and, if so, how that might best be achieved with the least impact to the surrounding historic district.
The university is a key stakeholder and property owner in Providence, and we are grateful when the institution’s stewardship of, and financial investment in, its historic resources strengthens the city’s unique character. However, PPS’ concern is over the cumulative effect of generational erosion of historic building stock through demolition for Brown’s new construction projects. By our count, Brown University demolished 37 structures between 1995-2015.
Brown’s claim that the dwellings selected for demolition are in poor condition is never an acceptable reason to raze them. Condition is a maintenance responsibility of the property owner. If these buildings must be removed, we strongly urge Brown to relocate or donate at least one to mitigate the loss of the others. Given that Brown’s Institutional Zone designation permits intense development within its boundaries, PPS calls on Brown to offer the building at 245-247 Brook Street (c. 1895) for relocation.
As for the ongoing design development of the two new Brook Street dorm buildings, PPS respectfully welcomes an opportunity to review these plans at the earliest convenience. PPS would not object if either dorm on Brook Street were increased in height to house additional students, furthering the aim of reducing pressure on the residential neighborhood. The inclusion of commercial and retail uses in the western dorm should ideally continue to serve the immediate community, and we encourage activation of the street façades of the buildings on Brook street as much as possible.