PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown has revised its plans for a performing arts center that will serve as an academic hub for music, dance, theater and multimedia arts studies on its College Hill campus.
The original plan for the facility situated the building on a plot between Angell and Waterman streets on the west side of The Walk, a series of linked green spaces that intersect campus. The site encompasses six structures — one that would have remained, one that would have been relocated and four that would have been demolished.
The revised plan reduces the above-ground footprint of the proposed building and shifts the building north to a smaller plot on The Walk between Angell and Olive streets, facing the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The shift in site will require the relocation of only a single structure (Sharpe House on Angell Street) and no proposed demolitions. And because there is no bus tunnel beneath the smaller site, more of the programming space can be moved underground.
“We’re pleased that this revised plan will preserve structures on the selected site and reduce the footprint of the proposed building, while at the same time meeting the University’s academic goals for a central campus hub for the performing arts,” said Russell Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy.
“We had initially considered situating the performing arts center on this plot between Angell and Olive streets, but thought it might be too small,” Carey said. “But after arriving at the program validation process, and based on feedback from the community, we were able to re-examine our assumptions and have found the smaller plot is feasible.”
The performing arts center (PAC) has been in the planning stages since the Corporation of Brown University last February approved the site for the facility, which was defined as being located within a defined area adjacent to other arts-centered academic facilities. The Corporation also gave the green light for Brown to move forward with architect selection.
In May 2017, the University selected NYC-based REX architects to design the new, state-of-the-art facility and began assessing intended uses of the building against the proposed size and configuration. In the fall, Brown launched a process to collect input from local Providence community members for an Institutional Master Plan amendment outlining details of the PAC. Concurrently, the University began in-depth work with students, faculty and staff to validate preliminary plans for the building’s interior spaces.
As a result of those processes, Brown has developed the revised plan for the PAC that allows for reducing the above-ground portion of the facility by locating a greater share of interior space below ground.
“Brown is dedicated to being a good community partner, and we take very seriously the concerns expressed by local community members,” Carey said. “We believe the revised plan for the PAC responds directly to those concerns in a way that remains true to our essential academic requirements for an undergraduate-focused building.”
The University expects to submit the revised plan to the City Plan Commission this month as part of the process for seeking approval for amending Brown’s Institutional Master Plan to reflect new building projects.
Commitment to historic preservation
The shift in site for the PAC reflects the careful consideration the University gives to issues of preservation, said Collette Creppell, University architect.
During the months-long community engagement process that collected public input throughout the fall, common concerns were focused on preserving historic buildings, maintaining the character of the neighborhood and planning for traffic and parking impacts. In considering the revised plan, the University continued to examine these impacts on neighborhoods.
“Brown is very sensitive to the need to preserve the history and beauty of the Providence neighborhoods that Brown calls home,” Creppell said. “Brown has a strong record of undertaking major projects with approaches that preserve existing buildings rather than demolish them and build new ones.”
Brown currently owns more than 130 historic houses and buildings that are 75 years old or older, dating back to 1770. The University revitalizes these buildings with creative adaptations for modern-day use. “This makes Brown the leader in Rhode Island in historic preservation,” Creppell said. “We have invested more than $500 million in the preservation of these buildings in the last 12 years alone.”
Locating the PAC on the shifted site will require the relocation of the 1873 Sharpe House, home to Department of History faculty and staff. Carey said that the University is confident the building can be moved and is developing a plan to relocate it adjacent to the Peter Green House on Brown Street.
With the addition of the PAC and the relocation of Sharpe House, a portion of Olive Street owned by the University, between Thayer and Brown streets, will likely be closed to regular vehicle traffic, he added.
“In assessing options to shift the site of the performing arts center, the University was aided by an excellent and engaged design team, including REX and Shawmut Construction,” Carey said. “Both firms worked collaboratively and quickly to determine that our academic goals could be met on the site between Angell and Olive streets with significantly more of the program located below grade.”
Unchanged is the fact that the building is expected to generate little, if any, additional street traffic or demand for parking. With data collected via a comprehensive traffic study by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, the site of the PAC was selected considering pedestrian and vehicle traffic patterns and parking availability. Although the building will host events open to the public in the same manner as so many other Brown academic events, many PAC performances will simply be redirected from where they already are occurring in existing venues (i.e., Salomon Center, Alumnae Hall, Sayles Hall) near the proposed site.
An academic building serving all students
Brown considers new facilities projects through the lens of serving the academic needs of students and faculty while also contributing to the cultural and economic vitality of the surrounding community, Carey said.
As Brown has outlined a strategy for the physical growth of its campus, its vision is for two tightly linked, complementary campuses on College Hill and in the Jewelry District. The Jewelry District is a natural home for facilities related to scientific research, medical education and graduate study. Growth on College Hill is focused on undergraduate-oriented academic activities, and particularly those like performing art studies that require the close collaboration among students and faculty for which Brown is known.
The shift in site for the PAC remains true to Brown’s most important requirement, Carey said. With adjacency to other arts-centered academic facilities in the heart of campus, the location will allow for access by undergraduate students and faculty whose other academic activities are centered on College Hill.
This is what excites Class of 2018 student and music concentrator Luc Bokor-Smith. He is enthusiastic about the prospect of rehearsing in a new performing arts center that not only will vastly update Brown’s music facilities in terms of acoustics and technology, but also provide a location in the heart of campus that will spark collaborations among disparate fields of study.
“I took a musical instrument-making class at Granoff last semester near a robotics class being taught through engineering,” Bokor-Smith said. “That proximity led to very cool conversations. Granoff is not just where music or theatre kids hang out — it’s collaborative and inherently interdisciplinary. The PAC should be in the middle of campus, in close proximity to Granoff. It will be the new hub for the Brown Arts Initiative.”
A requirement for locating the PAC was a site that will allow undergraduates to access the space during their routines and course schedules, which typically allow for just 10 minutes between classes. Professor of Music Joseph Butch Rovan, who directs the Brown Arts Initiative, pointed out that in a recent semester, the Brown Orchestra had students from 31 different academic concentrations, ranging from anthropology and applied math, to English and environmental studies, and music, public policy and visual arts.
“A chemistry concentrator, for example, should be able to work on a research experiment in the lab, head to the PAC for her music rehearsal, and then go to math class,” Rovan said. “The location is as critical to students in other disciplines as it is to those who concentrate in the arts.”
In evaluating potential sites, Brown studied several locations, but others did not meet the essential academic requirements. The shifted site remains true to Brown’s work in recent years to “consolidate the core” — clustering academic growth on College Hill near the heart of the campus, adapting historic buildings for reuse and avoiding expansion into perimeter neighborhoods.
Professor Dietrich Neumann, who directs Brown’s urban studies program, often uses Brown’s campus to discuss in art and architecture courses how buildings respond to the urban contexts that surround them.
“It makes sense to have higher density activity in the center of campus and scale and calm things down along the perimeter,” Neumann said. “Brown is very careful in recognizing the character of the neighborhood, and at its edge our campus merges almost imperceptibly into the surrounding community.”
Brown will present a revised Institutional Master Plan amendment detailing the shift in site at the Providence’s City Plan Commission’s March 20 meeting. A list of frequently asked questions about the PAC is available on the Brown Arts Initiative website.