Just before Thanksgiving, stickers appeared on three properties on Angell Street across from the Wheeler School warning residents that in less than a week, demolition would begin after testing for asbestos and lead paint – to neighbors and preservationists, this was akin to yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. They immediately jumped into action organizing a neighborhood vigil across from the site that was attended by 30 to 40 neighbors and quickly became a regular part of the local news coverage circuit.
While the houses, which have been used for offices, may add some charm to the area, they were never designated as historic properties and hence, not protected; a boutique hotel that has been planned and proposed for over a decade is the likely cause. However, the project has not been approved by the City Planning Commission (CPC) because of insufficient parking and its proximity to Wheeler.
The man behind the hotel is Ed Bishop, an entrepreneur who deeply believes in College Hill and Brown and has been active in community organizations for over 60 years. The 92-year-old Brown grad and successful real estate broker, appraiser, insurance broker, and owner of many multi-family rental properties on the East Side near Brown has long had a vision of building a boutique hotel on the Brown campus. “Brown is the only Ivy without a luxury hotel,” he told us in 2004 – back when he first proposed the idea.
He originally wanted to build a hotel on Brook Street between Meeting and Cushing streets. Neighborhood opposition overwhelmingly shot the plan down. He tried again in 2008, believing that he had Mayor Cicilline’s full support, which evaporated when neighbors complained. The houses were sold to Brown for a premium, demolished, and now it’s the site of the Brown Wellness Center and Residence Hall, which does not pay taxes.
Bishop also owned several of the properties along Euclid Avenue from Thayer to Brook street and on Brook and Meeting streets, and would have taken down nine houses but was fiercely opposed by neighbors, the Providence Preservation Society (PPS), and the College Hill Neighborhood Association. In 2012, he and other owners flipped the assemblage to Gilbane, who made some concessions but still tore down most of the houses and built the five-story 257 Thayer Street luxury student residences.
So what’s going to happen? First off, it is important to create some transparency in this huge transaction. No one seems to know exactly what will be built, or when. On the other side, the speed with which the neighbors organized their vigil to protest the process was impressive. Within a few days, the neighbors were joined by their City Councilman John Goncalves, PPS, and the three largest local neighborhood associations, which suggests the degree of concern about the demolition and the lack of openness in the process.
All this said, however, the developer does have the right by statute to tear down the buildings. More troublesome, in Rhode Island the developers are permitted to start the demolitions without an approval that meets the CPC and zoning requirements. It’s something Goncalves hopes to address.
Before this gets completely out of control – and not to mention, likely a field day for attorneys – we hope Mayor Brett Smiley and new Director of Planning and Development Joe Mulligan, recently hired from Boston, bring the parties together along with representatives from the concerned community groups. This hotel project must go back to the CPC, as well as zoning, for approval for a third try. As we go to press, it is unclear whether the buildings will still be standing or reduced to rubble when this story appears in print.
Today, all of the original homes on Brook Street from Cushing to Waterman are gone, as are many on the side streets right to Thayer Street. Since 2011, 30 houses in the immediate area have been demolished. Sadly, the reality is that the once historic nature of this area has been completely compromised.
We’re not necessarily against the hotel plan. Dartmouth’s Hanover Inn is a really cool place.
But more importantly, in our view, it’s better to have strong tax revenue from this last parcel, estimated at $1,500,000 a year, than a Brown (or Wheeler) building that will add very little to both the neighborhood and the community, and pay no taxes. As preservationists ourselves, we’re hoping (probably falsely) that they will be responsive to the neighborhood in terms of design.
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