GoLocalProv | Brown Architects Should Return to the Drawing Board

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Wednesday 03 November 2021

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The current controversy over Brown University’s proposed five-story dormitory complex on Brook Street in Fox Point is not the first and it won’t be the last time the university and its neighbors have clashed over plans of construction.

A successful educational institution must grow to fulfill its mission. But it can be difficult for those who live nearby to come to terms with these changes. The university must therefore be sensitive to the scale and design of its buildings. They must be adapted to the surrounding area. Compromise is required. Neighbors need to feel that they are being heard, which is certainly not the case with the Brook Street dormitory proposal.

Likewise, neighbors need to recognize that they may not get everything they want.

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The fact that the university is in the middle of a historic district contributes greatly to its appeal. And indeed, Brown’s presence greatly improves the historic district of College Hill and Providence in general.

The proposed dormitory is next to the Vartan Gregorian Quad which, although not an architectural masterpiece, has a design in sympathy with the neighborhood. The proposed structure, on the other hand, features sharp angles, frameless windows, and an overall harsh aura. It would be sorely out of place with its historic surroundings.

Brown’s Nelson Fitness Center on Hope Street is a great example of building something that improves rather than diminishes the neighborhood. On the other hand, the proposed dormitory structure on Brook Street would have little in common with its neighboring buildings. It would spoil the street scenery. Something seems to be missing in the process by which the University assesses the design of buildings.

I have had the privilege of serving as a former administrator of Brown and have had the added prospect of residing in the neighborhood. I was surprised to see that the current Brown Corporation, which has 53 members, has only four members with addresses in Rhode Island; Brown president Christina Paxson is one of them. It makes sense that Brown, a global institution, reflects this geographic diversity in its leadership. However, this also means that the vast majority of the members of the Corporation will not have to live with the ramifications of Brown’s construction decisions.

This is not the first time that I have expressed my concerns about Brown’s construction plans. I remember a company meeting that included a discussion about plans for a new building on Olney Street to house the employees of the physical plant. Olney Street and is an affront to the Moses Brown School across the street and to anyone who has to pass.

The competing interests of town and dress will continue. If Brown is to remain competitive in higher education, he will need to continue to expand and modernize his facilities. But those who live near campus have the right to voice their concerns. Both parties need to listen and realize that compromise can produce an outcome that may not be ideal but is mutually beneficial.

After all, the two sides are the strongest in their close association. For my money, few colleges in the world can compete with Brown’s location overlooking downtown Providence, nestled among carefully preserved homes, some of which are almost as old as the university they surround. The families who live around the Van Wickle Gates offer a character and sense of community that enhances the experience for students passing through Brown. And many of us have chosen to stay in Providence, or move here, because of the rich cultural opportunities that come with being close to a world-class educational institution.

I care about Brown and appreciate my long association with my alma mater. But I also care about where I live. Solutions acceptable to all can certainly be found.

Brown needs to make sure he takes a wide range of views from those with a vested interest in the consequences into account when making critical decisions about the expansion. The proposed Brook Street dormitory simply does not fit into the neighborhood. It is probably too late, but if not, Brown’s architects must return to the drawing board.

Fraser Lang was co-editor of The Block Island Times for over 10 years.

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