Scott MacKay Commentary: Is Brown Headed For A Historic Preservation Battle With The East Side?

Feb 16, 2018

Brown University plans to demolish several historic houses on Providence’s College Hill to make way for a new arts center.

RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay hopes the university hasn’t set this proposal in concrete.

Brown is a Providence jewel. Rhode Island and its capital city are fortunate to have such an esteemed college in its midst. As the city’s manufacturing foundation eroded, Brown and other non-profit institutions stepped in to become the job and culture creators of the late 20th and early 21st Century.

Brown and its sister colleges, including the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Johnson & Wales and the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus make the city a magnet for new ideas,  scholars from around the globe and provide artistic, athletic and economic benefits that are the envy of many other old northeastern cities.

As Rhode Island’s rogue politician, Buddy Cianci, once quipped, without Brown, other colleges and its status as the capital of the state, Providence would be just  a “big Fall River.”

Under the leadership of president Christina Paxson, Brown has reached out  beyond College Hill. The university has been a fulcrum in the redevelopment of the seen-better-days Jewelry District. Brown’s financial contribution along with Paxson’s dedication finessed the salvation of the former Narragansett Electric building as a nursing school shared by URI and Rhode Island College. That’s just one of many recent Brown community initiatives.

Brown is located on Providence’s East Side, arguably the finest and most accessible urban residential neighborhood along the Acela corridor between the Back Bay and Georgetown. The leafy neighborhood’s embrace of historic preservation also lends  Providence its character.

Close your eyes and imagine Providence without the restored mile of history that is Benefit Street. Think of South Main Street chock full of chain stores and fast-food joints.  

The East Side didn’t randomly become a nationwide model for historic neighborhood preservation.

It took a campaign in the 1950s by a group of mostly women led by Antoinette Downing to make the neighborhood what it is. These women founded the Providence Preservation Society and saved the then-decrepit north end of Benefit Street from the wrecking ball.

These women stood steadfastly in the path of Progress – the secular religion of 1950s America—that meant new was in, old was out, big was good and small was bad.

If a neighborhood was rundown, the answer was to raze the old houses and build parking lots, college dorms, offices and boxy public housing projects.

There was money and political hay to be harvested by these growth policies. Mayors forged coalitions among those who did well from these projects –bankers, trade union officials, construction magnates, bond lawyers.

Other cities grasped this notion of the future to their detriment. Think of New Haven or Hartford, where individual historic buildings, but not neighborhoods, were preserved.

Providence’s preservation movement and  the Providence Preservation Society, was founded to fight the encroachment of Brown and RISD on the East Side neighborhood. Both institutions ripped down dozens of houses to expand their campuses.

Brown has demolished more than 100 houses since the 1950s to build parking lots, dorms and academic buildings. Now, the college seeks to tear down five historic buildings in the path of a planned performing arts center. Brown insists the arts building must be located on the College Hill campus because it will be devoted to undergraduate education. University spokesman Brian Clark says Brown is only amenable to expanding buildings not directly related to training undergrads in other parts of the city.

The issue is now before the City Plan Commission.  The Preservation Society has been in negotiations with Brown in hopes that the university will consider the wishes of residents opposed to the plan, says Brent Ruynon, executive director of the society.

RISD and other Providence colleges have sprinkled academic and residential buildings across the city, making Providence more vibrant. Brown’s medical school is located in the Jewelry District. The Ivy League school could do itself and the city a huge favor by considering its neighbors and putting this new arts complex in another part of Providence.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis at our “On Politics” blog at