Greater City Providence

It’s Official: Universities Target 195 Land


We all knew this was coming eventually, but Brown and Johnson and Wales have now officially made their play for their piece of the coming 195 land. The Projo has the details about House Majority Whip Peter F. Kilmartin’s (D-Pawtucket) legislation authorizing the state DOT to sell the two universities 6 of the 19 acres of the 195 land at “market prices.” The rub is that the deal would bypass the public bidding process typical of state land sales. J&W wants about 2 acres for a new hospitality school and dorms and Brown wants the rest for new several biotech centers to compliment the medical school, which will be relocated there to renovated space.

The argument being made is that if such a move is made now (before, actually, the state’s plan for the 195 plan has been released) that it’ll allow Brown, J&W, and the city to all team up, do some planning, and create a strong neighborhood product to sell to private industry. The key quote from Richard Spies, Brown’s vice president for planning, is:

“This allows other private investors to make plans knowing that at least two anchor tenants are in place,” he said. “It gives the state and the city the best overall chance of success by getting us as quickly as possible to critical mass.”

I strongly recommend reading the Projo article for all the details.

The key questions for all of you reading are:

  1. Do you support any university involvement on the 195 land at all?
  2. If so, do you support this plan? If not, how should the universities be involved?
  3. Is Richard Spies right, that having the universities as “anchor tenants” makes this an easier sell to industry?

My opinion is that if done right (something Providence doesn’t have a great track record doing), Spies could be correct. This means that before Brown and J&W are allow to buy this land that they should present the public with a plan for how they will turn this area into a vibrant, compelling, 24 hour a day mixed use neighborhood. Not just a promise, but renderings, architecture, buildings, retail, amenities, interaction with transit, the works… And why no public bidding process?

Basically, I want the plan to be in place before the action is taken rather than the old RI way of acting first with promises, hoping everyone will plan and do the right thing, then holding no one accountable when nothing happens as desired. My yell-able phrase for this now is, “Before a plan, no land!”…

Sound off in the comments section!

Bret Ancowitz


  • I like the idea of having a full plan in place (renderings, architecture, urban planning) in place before anything goes forward. I also think that having the “anchor” occupants will give a sense of security to other business that would want to locate and/or start up in that area.

    On a side note. Any word on the J&W leasing Capitol Cove, I heard that there was some sort of legalese that stated that the Capitol Cove project could not become dorms.

  • I can only support this idea if there is a concrete plan and if there will still be plenty of land available to be added to the city tax rolls. The city is in dire straights and with the ridiculous plan of Cicilline to add a tax to college students (which will be killed when the colleges take it to court), the last thing we need is to have all this land go to non-profits. That being said, if they can present a well laid out plan for this land that does not include taking over even a majority of it, I will be all in favor.

  • I made this point over on UP – the two claims are completely different. The factor for me is how they fit into knowledge economy neighborhood idea, which I think is a good one.

    Brown makes sense as it’s new research facilities aligned with the Med school and RICIE at Davol Sq. And it even makes sense even if done in typical RI fashion.

    JWU wants a hospitality school? And that’s knowledge economy how? That makes no sense no matter how good a job they do.

    JWU should wait and bid with the others.

  • Frymaster makes an excellent point with regards to each institution’s planned use of their land. While I think Brown certainly has its place in the plan for the area, I fail to see how JWU is relevant.

    All things considered though, I don’t really see a problem with giving the schools a certain percentage of the land, however I think it would be a good idea to limit the schools to the land they pick out, the same way that Brown’s growth on the east side is limited to a specified institutional zone. Many of the complaints from developers in Rhode Island have to do with excessive bureaucracy and planning regulation. Imposing a limit on space is often a great way to promote good/careful planning without micromanaging.

  • I just graduated from RISD’s architecture program. In my five years there, I witnessed a tremendous plethora of ideas put forth by RISD students with regards to that land. There were entire studio classes (semester-long) dedicated to master-planning the entire area, semester after semester; one even led by Freidrich St. Florian, architect of the mall and intellectual heavyweight around here.

    David Cicilline and Tom Deller (Director of City Planning) were present and the final reviews of several of these studios. RISD’s got the photographs to prove it!

    My point is this: the Mayor and Mr. Deller know damn well that the right way to do this thing is to start with a master plan. A good one. If I were the architect working this job, I would certainly look very closely at using Brown and JWU as “anchor tennants” for the project.

    But I wouldn’t start by giving them the land straight away. If they fit the larger design intention, great; if they don’t, they’re out. And that’s the way it should be.

    I think a greater university presence would do wonders for the area. But really, the idea should be to create a vibrant, walkable, 24-hour neighborhood. That means, offices, schools(?), housing, and some sort of night life. Any one program (use) will be too homogeneous, like the financial district, and will be “dead” at night.

    But, to reiterate: I think the first step shouldn’t be developing zoning regs; this area needs to have a real master plan done by some very good architects.

    (Note: RISD students have already produced something on the order of 30-50 well thought out proposals for the area.)

  • You know, to be honest, I think it’s a perfectly good idea to let the universities expand as they propose, jump-starting the bidding on those 19 acres. Sell to the two schools at market values, and then sell the remaining 13 acres (in theory, now more precious after the schools get theirs) at whatever rate you can get.

    If there were any scarcity of development sites in downtown Providence, I might say differently, but let’s face it, there’s a veritable sea of surface lots available for anyone who wants to build. Where are all the national and international corporations beating down the door wanting to erect towers in Providence? We’ve got plenty of open space for them, why aren’t they here yet dammit?

    Instead of focusing on hitting the homerun, let’s make the simple yet logical decision for once. Bret, I believe you were talking about this recently with your New Haven post. Yes Rhode Island is desperate, but for its own sake, this time Providence needs to do the little things right and let the big successes follow. Put that in action, and it means the best choice is to create a pocket of mixed-uses, a vibrant, walkable neighborhood in the new Jewelry District, and that will prove more beneficial than another boxy tower complex, both long-term and short.

    If RI is working successfully to create a knowledge economy, and if the phasing out of the corporate tax has its intended effect, then businesses will come to Providence regardless. And there will be room available for them when (if) they come. In the meantime, why treat this land in the JD differently from any other available land downtown?

  • Those parking lots you speak of aren’t necessarily city or state owned parcels of land. If whoever owns them doesn’t feel like selling them to a developer (because parking is tax free income, and the city has yet to build a single public garage to recapture that money and put the slumlords out of business), then they’ll remain there until the end of time.

  • The universities -need- that land. Private industry can locate themselves anywhere. I propose that Providence exploit that situation (where we have what they want) and only sell the land under two conditions:

    1. The land will be sold at -greater- price than market conditions, at a price that allows part two to work.

    2. Some money from the sale of the land is put into a privately-managed trust that the city cannot tap, with the interest/dividends being used to offset the loss of taxable real-estate.

    So, for instance, if there’s a spot of land -worth- $100K, and the tax rate at time of sale is $28/$1000 annually (which it is), and annual returns on the trust are 5%, we would need to charge enough extra for the land to generate $2800/year, or an additional $56,000.


    Brown would get charged $156,000 for every $100,000 of land, and the $56,000 would be on the city’s books as an asset (boosting our credit rating via our debt-to-asset ratio), and the property would be generating (on average) the same annual tax revenue as a business.

  • Some very good ideas regarding this. I also think that the Universities should get a chance to get this land as well – for all of the mentioned reasons. There is indeed plenty of other land available and it assures RI gets some of these parcels sold ASAP. There are still a couple of parcels in the Capital Center area available too, so it’s not like the universities are locking the state/city out of any future/other development opportunities/sales.

  • It’s only a premium on the -land- and it would be in lieu of the other initiatives that are being floated (which are more costly for the universities).

    I don’t think it’s fair to start taxing non-profits, so charging them more up-front and throwing the money into an ‘endowment’ for the city seems like a good idea.

    Also, if Brown and J&W don’t want to pay 156%… Just wait them out. The prices aren’t going down much farther, and the universities have nowhere else to grow. The city has the universities by the balls, they ought to squeeze just a -little bit- for the taxpayers.

  • Why six acres and if six acres, what will the density be?
    There is an abundance of surface parking lots in existing parts of downtown for new development. However, due the current zoning regulations there’s not that many places left for high-density high-rise buildings. One of the objectives for the 195 land was to create substantial new tax base for the city, as well as, nurture and expand the knowledge-based economy.
    The temptation for land banking by these institutions is great. If the state is to give preferential treatment to the universities, besides a master plan realistic program, construction, and finance schedules would limit speculating by these non-profits.
    The 195 land has a tremendous potential to encourage new economic growth. It should not be squandered on low-rise buildings, surface parking, or suburban like open space whether it’s tax exempt or not or if it is then downtown’s zoning should be revisited to replace any lost potential from under developing the new district.

  • I actually think one thing Brown -needs- is a big place close to campus where a lot of cars can be parked, and then they can link that garage to their shuttle buses. There is a big parking problem on-campus, and using some of the (worse) land for an actual parking garage might be a good idea.

    Of cource, I’d rather see the city itself build a municipal garage linked to RIPTA and the Brown buses, and charge for parking.

  • I’m just not sure there is a whole-heck-of-a-lot of other interest from parties with the money to purchase any of that land. If the Universities are ready, willing, and able and their plans fit the overall vision of the area, then I think it’s fine. I’m just a little hesitant why they want a no-bid process. I mean there can’t be crowds of fortune 500 companies with checkbooks ready to relocate their HQ’s on these parcel, so why the rush and worry?

  • I’m starting to grow on the idea of having the universities take some of that land, so long as a master plan is created for the land and projects don’t start until a plan for their portion of the land is accepted as fitting within that master plan.

    Frankly, the city should not give the universities the no-bid process they want. While there might not be Fortune 500 companies knocking at our door, you never know who might want some of that land. Might as well give it a chance.

  • I can see allowing for the schools to complete parcels. By this I mean, if they own land that abuts the current highway and would be part of a larger block when the highway is gone, that they should be allowed a crack at finishing their blocks, but with conditions. For example:

    View Brown-Ship Street in a larger map

    I believe Brown currently owns this parking lot on Ship Street (blue). When the the highway is gone, Clifford Street will be rebuilt (red). The orange area is land under 195 that Brown would likely want to finish the block they currently own. Fine, let them finish blocks they currently abut, but with conditions.

    What conditions? Well I’m no expert, but how about new master plans in place for the parcels. We can sit on the parcels while they create the master plans. They should not be allowed to turn around and sell the combined parcels at a profit. Say for 10 years, they can’t sell for more than inflation on the current assessed value. So they are not completing parcels for profit. And if they due sell within 10 years, taxes are due. In x number of years their should be a building in process or x penalty hits, taxes, fees, something. They shouldn’t be allowed no-bid cracks at land just to build tax-exempt parking lots.

    As for non-contiguous land, i.e. new land created that are not parts of blocks they currently own. I see no reason for a no-bid land grab. What everyone says is true, no one is beating down the city’s doors to get this land right now, I can imagine they would in effect be the only bid on a number of parcels anyway, no need to codify that in the Assembly.

  • What exactly is PVD’s say in all this? We don’t actually own any of that land, do we? It is all state land?

  • I’ve lived in Providence for over ten years and have watched Brown,RISD, and JWU buy up a ton of land and buildings. They pay very little in property taxes which drives up the rates for the rest of us.


  • PBN editorial opposes “hardwiring land deal” while an op-ed by Dan Baudouin (Providence Foundation) and Laurie White (CoC) supports the idea.

    Yet neither of them offers anything like the depth of discussion here. In this discussion, the plan itself is the object of discussion – how do you tweak it to get the best for everybody. Instead, the editorializers take a side on an already-decided outcome.

    Half-a-dozen or so “regular people” can make significant progress on the nit-picky issues. Once again crowd-sourcing, while a PITA and fraught with human issues, still generates better ideas faster. But nobody on “the inside” is ready to talk with the great unwashed.

    And so we are like the boats in Gatsby, borne ever into the past. Can’t we just have the future now?

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