University seeks approval to construct new wellness dorm

A fall 2017 amendment to the University Institutional Master Plan proposes the construction of a joint residence hall and wellness center at 450 Brook St.

A date has not yet been set for the University to begin construction on the new facilities, but a preliminary plan has been lain out; the site will be situated on a 96,000-square-foot plot of land located near the Jonathan Nelson ’77 Fitness Center and will house approximately 100 beds. According to the IMP amendment, the University is referring to this new space as a “wellness dorm,” and Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services will also move to the residential hall. This will provide a “more integrated approach to health and wellness,” the amendment says.

The impetus for this project largely comes from a desire to have more on-campus housing, as well as a need to expand health services and CAPS — both of which are at maximum capacity. The University’s recent fundraising success played a key role in realizing the plan, said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06.

“This project has been really appealing to donors due to its programmatic aspect that connects residential life with health and wellness, which are three areas people care about,” he said. “(Donors) know that there is tremendous interest among students, faculty and staff. So combining these areas has given the project the momentum that it might have not otherwise had,” Carey added. 

The amendment to the IMP was to be adjudicated by the Providence City Plan Commission at their Jan. 16 meeting, but, at the University’s request, was pushed to a March hearing instead, wrote Principal Planner Choyon Manjrekar of the City Plan Commission in an email to The Herald.

The University’s request for a delay in the approval process was connected to the controversy surrounding the plan for the new performing arts center, which originally included the potential demolition of four historic buildings, including the Urban Environmental Lab. While the latter part of the amendment sparked community outrage, the proposal for the new residence hall and wellness center has been uncontroversial, Carey said. The proposed site of the performing arts center has since been changed in an effort to address community concerns, The Herald previously reported.

“As part of the amendment process, we do community outreach with groups like the College Hill Neighborhood Association and the Providence Preservation Society, as well as the general Providence community,” Carey said, adding: “We have found that while there is significant concern about the performing arts center, there is very little concern about 450 Brook St.” However, after further discussion with the community, the University “expects (to) get approval from the Commission at the next hearing,” he added.

Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, voiced frustration with the City Plan Commission’s process of construction review. “Once (the University) gets their Institutional Master Plan approved, they can basically build whatever they like. The city doesn’t micromanage Brown’s building projects, and typically the bar is set pretty low for what institutions have to get approved by the city,” he said. “Brown almost always gets what it wants,” he said.

Prior to the University’s 2014 acquisition of 450 Brook St., the site contained seven wood-frame residential structures that were “unmaintained and in terrible shape,” Runyon said. But in 2016, the University elected to raze the houses to make room for a temporary commercial parking lot, a usage that was only permitted by the Providence Department of Planning and Development with the provision to repurpose the lot when sufficient funds became available.

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