Brown revises plans for new residence hall with input from Providence community

The revised plan will reduce building scale, create new green spaces and complement the character of the neighborhood, while strengthening the undergraduate residential experience and reducing student impact on local housing.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University has revised its plans for a new two-building residence hall near the southern end of its College Hill campus, shaped by feedback shared by members of the Providence community in recent meetings.

As originally envisioned on a site approved by Providence’s City Plan Commission in June 2020, the project included buildings of 80,000 and 50,000 square feet, respectively, on the west and east sides of Brook Street between Charlesfield and Power streets. In revising the plan, Brown addressed concerns about building scale, the transition from the neighborhood to the residence hall site, overlap with the Providence Historic District and a planned retail space. The revised plan will:

  • reduce the above-ground footprint and overall scale of the western building by 16,000 square feet, and include step-downs from five to three stories on both buildings, in response to local concerns about the Power Street streetscape;
  • increase the setback distance between Power Street and the western building’s southern side, moving the structure outside of the Providence Historic District’s boundary line to enable new green space;
  • add publicly accessible green spaces at the southern end of both buildings (at the two northern corners of the Brook and Power street intersection), creating transitions from the surrounding community to the residence hall site that complement the neighborhood’s character;
  • and eliminate a planned retail space in the western building, addressing concerns from neighbors about new commercial activity and the potential for associated pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

While the revised plan will reduce the number of student beds by approximately 50, the buildings will together house approximately 350 students. The plan maintains Brown’s commitment to increasing its on-campus housing inventory, which not only strengthens the experience for undergraduates, but also alleviates the impact that the demand for off-campus rental units has upon local Providence neighborhoods.

Russell Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy at Brown, said a core project goal is to mitigate challenges associated with students living away from the University’s physical campus. Those can include the effects of rising rents on residents, the range of quality among rental units, and graduate and medical students having to move farther from campus to find available housing.

“We recognize the significant positive impact that a larger inventory of Brown housing can have in alleviating local housing concerns among our neighbors in Providence,” Carey said. “This revised plan enables us to advance that goal, strengthen the undergraduate residential experience and do so with an approach that reduces the scale of the project, transforms two gravel parking lots into new green spaces, on both sides of Brook Street, and preserves and respects the character of the surrounding streets.”

Feedback from neighbors and community organizations was essential in informing the revised plan, he said.

“We are committed at Brown in each of our campus projects to meaningful engagement with our local community members,” Carey noted. “We appreciate the concerns expressed about our initial plan for this project, and the core elements of this revision respond to those concerns directly.”

University Architect Craig Barton said the conceptual design process for the project has unfolded with the dual goals of a space that presents a high-quality, flexible residential experience for third- and fourth-year undergraduates and effectively integrates into the fabric of the surrounding context through massing, scale, materials and texture. With each building five stories at its highest point, with step-downs to three stories, the project is smaller than what city zoning would permit, he noted. And building entry points and services are purposefully positioned at the north side to reduce the impact of student foot traffic on local neighbors.

The project’s siting, massing, setbacks, materials palette and rooflines are thoughtful responses to the context set by the local neighborhood and the adjacent Vartan Gregorian Quad, he added.

“From the brick selected for the exterior to a roofline that is both distinctive in aesthetic but takes its inspiration from the pitched roof landscape that characterizes many Providence locations, the design choices envisioned to date are focused on creating a space that complements the surrounding neighborhood,” Barton said. “And as the design process for the green spaces begins in the coming weeks, the University is committed to creating them as publicly accessible spaces that welcome members of both the Brown and Providence communities.”

The University is working with Deborah Berke Partners, which stood out in the architect selection process for its ability to design institutional buildings that effectively integrate with their surrounding neighborhoods. Noah Biklen, a Brown Class of 1997 graduate who served as a Residential Peer Leader during his time as an undergraduate, is leading the project design team for the firm and working on green space design in partnership with Stimson Associates landscape architects.

“The green spaces offer an opportunity to envision garden-like places that could be contemplative at times, offering shade or a tree canopy in a way that creates a nice respite,” Biklen said. “But the landscape could be flexible enough to accommodate informal gatherings that build community, ideally in a way that works through all four seasons.”

A small portion of the overall project site at its southern edge — where the two green spaces, but no portion of the residence hall buildings will be located — falls within the Providence Historic District boundaries. As the design process continues, the University will provide opportunities for community members to offer input on the green spaces.

Biklen added that community members had expressed concerns about the relationship of the buildings to the Power Street sidewalk, asking about building height, perimeter landscape plans and the possibility of an accessible garden space. In the revised plan, each of the buildings will step down from five to three stories at their southern ends (nearer to Power Street). In combination with the green spaces, the layering of building space and landscape will create a more natural transition to the sidewalks and streets, addressing both the scale of the neighborhood and recognizing the edge of the University’s campus.

“We’re working to create a project that truly feels accessible in terms of how the buildings meet the ground,” Biklen said. “That means entries that are visible, a relationship to the street, a layering of landscape and plantings adjacent to the sidewalk, a nice tree canopy — design aspects that create a sense of vitality and activity that are appropriate to the neighborhood and the University and that we think will make the pedestrian experience really enjoyable.”

To enable the second green space on the eastern side of Brook Street, the University will purchase 126 Power St., a 0.1-acre historic district property that currently includes a gravel parking lot and multi-family house. Brown will continue to operate and maintain the property as residential space for students, with the remainder of the parcel devoted to the green space.

Project leaders from Brown will share additional details on the revised plan in upcoming community meetings beginning on Monday, April 5. These will include a Ward 1 public meeting and meetings with the College Hill Neighborhood Association, Fox Point Neighborhood Association and Providence Preservation Society’s Planning and Architectural Review committee.

The University expects construction to begin in October 2021. The target timeline for project completion and building occupancy is Fall 2023.