City Plan Commission supports university’s plan to demolish housing and build ‘temporary’ parking lot
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Representatives from Brown University recently appeared before the City Plan Commission to request an amendment to the university’s master plan that would allow the college to demolish seven multi-family houses and build a surface parking lot in their place. The contiguous properties front Brook Street and Cushing Street in College Hill.
The homes are in such a state of disrepair, due to the neglect of their previous owner, that they can’t be cost-effectively rehabilitated, according to Michael Cassidy, a former director of planning for the city of Pawtucket. He testified Jan. 19 on behalf of Brown.
Prior to the university’s purchase of the homes in 2014, they were owned by Edward Bishop, who acquired them individually between 1997 and 2000. For more than a decade, Bishop rented the houses to students without conducting routine maintenance or making improvements, Cassidy said.
Brown University was cited with a code violation shortly after taking ownership of the properties, because of the conditions of the houses’ exteriors.
Restoring the exteriors of the homes would cost the college $200,000, while interior and exterior restorations would cost $5 million, according to Stephen Maiorisi, the university’s vice president for facilities management. The school was aware of the buildings’ conditions prior to purchase, and invested in the properties with the intent to demolish the houses and construct something else in their place, he said.
The proposed parking lot would be an interim use, until the university determined a plan for its permanent use, according to Brown representatives. Maiorisi said the school would eventually build an academic building or student housing on the properties. He said it would take Brown a minimum of three years to determine how to use the property, and then another two years to build.
“We couldn’t commit to that though,” Maiorisi said.
The seven homes, built in the 1880s and 1890s, are within the College Hill national historic district, but not within a local historic district, and thus have no special protection against demolition, according to Virginia Adams of the Pawtucket-based Public Archeology Laboratory, who testified on behalf of Brown. Adams also noted that none of the properties are individually significant, and their historic value is based on their general effect on the streetscape.
Brown University submitted letters of support to the City Plan Commission from the neighboring Wheeler School, Thayer Street District Management Authority, the College Hill Neighborhood Association and the Thayer Street Merchants Association.
Public comment at the recent meeting was mixed. Multiple property managers and business owners from Thayer Street, including the owners of Berk’s Shoes and Clothing and the Avon Cinema, spoke in favor of building a parking. They said existing businesses on Thayer Street are stifled and national retailers refuse to locate there because of the lack of parking.
The also claimed that the city penalized Thayer Street businesses by metering parking there, while leaving similar shopping districts in Wayland Square and on Wickenden Street and Hope streets unmetered.
East Side residents who attended the meeting generally opposed the demolition of existing housing and construction of a parking lot. James Kennedy, author of the blog Transport Providence, said demolishing the houses will displace students further into East Side neighborhoods and result in higher rental prices due to the reduced supply of units on the market.
Kennedy also noted the negative impact surface parking lots have on the environment. More parking lots result in more vehicle congestion, and its associated with air and carbon pollution, he said.
“There are cities around the world that are taking the actions they need to take in order to deal with climate change, but Providence is not one of those cities,” Kennedy said.
He advocated for a parking tax or parking neutrality in the city. Both ideas would result in reducing parking availability and make room for more pedestrian, transit and bicycling accommodations.
Sally Barker, another area resident, said that while she favored maintaining the houses over building a parking lot, she was resigned to the demolition of the buildings due to their condition. She requested that the parking lot incorporate existing street trees — planted in 2007 — and the established trees on the interiors of the properties so as to maintain the environmental and visual benefits they provide.
She also requested that the parking lot absorb all of its stormwater on-site, to prevent additional polluted runoff from entering Narragansett Bay. The city has committed millions of tax dollars to limit stormwater discharge into the bay.
Brown University representatives noted later in the meeting that the school could incorporate street trees into its plan, and that all runoff would be contained on-site.
Brent Runyon, of the Providence Preservation Society, said the houses in question had fallen into a state of disrepair, and blamed the city for not citing Bishop, the former property owner, with a code violation due to his neglect earlier. He opposes he demolition of historic homes to build a parking lot.
“We never believe parking is temporary,” Runyon said. “We have too many temporary parking lots downtown.”
Runyon also said the City Plan Commission should legally ensure the proposed parking lot is a temporary usage. He said had Brown University presented a better usage for the property instead of a parking lot, the Preservation Society could have supported the demolition of the houses.
The City Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Zoning Board of Review approve the amendment to Brown’s master plan and issue a two-year special-use permit enabling the construction of a temporary parking lot.
During that time, Brown would be expected to develop a plan for a permanent use of the property.
Despite their decision, the commissioners expressed concern that once Brown University permanently develops the properties for its institutional use, the properties will no longer generate tax revenue for the city. The commissioners also expressed concern that Thayer Street merchants would be unhappy when the temporary parking lot is developed into its permanent use. They stressed that the temporary parking lot not be interpreted by the merchants as a long-term fix to their parking concerns.
The commission’s decision to recommend approval of Brown’s proposal was due, in part, to their fear of the unknown. Had the City Plan Commission voted against the proposal, the university said it would sell the properties to a private developer.
The commission also said it favored Brown’s efforts to consolidate its campus rather than sprawling into East Side neighborhoods.
Maiorisi, of Brown facilities, noted that the college generally doesn’t encourage creating surface parking lots and has taken “about five” surface parking lots out of use within the past 10 years. Most recently, it developed part of a parking lot on the corner of George and Hope streets into a new applied mathematics building.