Town-Brown: A Longstanding Relationship

Simmons and Taveras announced the latest agreement between the city and University May 1, 2012, right before she left Brown. Under the deal, the University agreed to pay the city $31.5 million over 11 years in lieu of property taxes.
Former President Ruth Simmons and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras announced the latest agreement between the city and University May 1, 2012, under which Brown agreed to pay the city $31.5 million over 11 years in lieu of property taxes.

Founded as an institution that would help Providence become as prominent as colonial counterparts such as Boston and New Haven — then the host cities of Harvard and Yale, respectively — Brown has always had a close relationship with the city it calls home. Brown and Providence have together endured both periods of peace and times of tension over the past 250 years.

The story of Brown began as a tale of two brothers. In the mid-18th century, John Brown and Moses Brown — two of Rhode Island’s most influential figures from a highly-esteemed Rhode Island family — evaluated the city they had helped champion and were pleased with what they saw. Providence was challenging Newport in prominence, sea-based commerce in the Ocean State was flourishing, the city was positioned to be an important port between New York and Boston and the spirit of Roger Williams’ founding vision for the state remained alive and well. But it still lacked a defining trait of America’s most prominent colonial cities — it needed a university.

Great expectations

Founders initially disagreed about where the college should be — Providence or Newport. They decided the school would be built “in whichever county raised the largest fund toward establishing a new campus,” wrote Charles Rappleye in his 2006 book, “Sons of Providence.” John and Moses Brown led Providence’s fundraising initiative, and though Newport’s “final tally exceeded the Providence sum by close to 400 pounds,” Moses Brown convinced several board members that building costs would be lower in Providence.

The University was initially established in Newport but moved to Providence in 1770, Rappleye wrote.

It was an effort largely supported by many residents of Providence, and “local people contributed to the building funds,” said Jane Lancaster PhD’98, University historian. But some were disappointed that the College Edifice — the University’s first building, later renamed University Hall — was built on Prospect Hill, Lancaster said, because it was perceived as being removed from the town.

The Baptist influence and spirit of inclusivity on which Brown was founded helped set the University apart from Harvard and Yale, said Ted Widmer, assistant to special projects to President Christina Paxson, who is writing a book about Brown’s history. Brown has always been self-reliant, though closely tied to Providence, which Widmer said has been an important force shaping the University’s development.

The two are “part and parcel of the same thing,” he said.

For the better part of 50 years, the vast majority of students came from Rhode Island or Massachusetts, Widmer said. “Brown was always available to smart Providence kids.”

Manifest destiny

The University and Providence coexisted with relative peace for 150 years. Campus was relatively self-contained, and students only rarely disrupted the city. But as the University began to expand substantially in the 1950s, new tensions entered its relationship with Providence.

The 1950 to 1952 construction of Wriston Quadrangle gave many locals the sense that “Brown didn’t respect its neighbors on College Hill.”

Fifty-one buildings — “including houses, shops and the Thayer Street School” — were destroyed for the quadrangle’s construction, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. The University had given Ames House on 121 Power Street to the city in exchange for the school, which was subsequently razed. Powel House, an 1865 Victorian mansion located at the intersection of George and Brown streets, could not be incorporated into the quad by its designers and was also torn down, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Though the quad’s construction “was not slum clearance” — the University was not trying to expel Providence locals, but it needed space to house its expanding student population — the process raised tensions, Lancaster said.

“Brown has been seen ever since then as a not very good building neighbor,” Lancaster said, adding that the disagreement “was one of the factors leading to the creation of the Providence Preservation Society.”

Following the construction of Wriston Quad, which was intended to provide housing for Greek organizations, Barnaby Keeney laid the cornerstone of Keeney Quadrangle, declaring that the buildings would provide a “dignified and happy home for the independents,” according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

But the construction of this quadrangle also proved controversial for Brown. The University denied a petition signed by more than 100 people urging Brown to save two pre-1830 homes standing on the land on which Keeney was to be built.

Brown offered to sell the homes for $1 each on the condition that the buyer would proceed to re-locate the home as part of the contract, a process that would have cost potential buyers approximately $30,000 to $40,000. Local community members who hoped to preserve the neighborhood of College Hill did not appreciate the University’s maneuver, and the homes were ultimately razed.

The best of times, the worst of times

“The late 1960s were a big turning point,” Lancaster said. The University established the Open Curriculum in 1969 and began shaping its identity as a national and international university of distinction.

The University was simultaneously becoming significantly wealthier and more popular during the second half of the 20th century. These years were characterized by tensions with Providence, as Brown enjoyed a golden age of thriving prominence while its city slid into an era of decline.

President Barnaby Keeney increased the University’s wealth significantly during his 11-year presidency from 1955 to 1966, Widmer said. “The significant amount of self-respect (the University was garnering) was equally important” as the money that Brown was accumulating during the second half of the 20th century, he added. The University, having long existed in the shadows of institutions such as Harvard and Yale, now began to carve out its own space among America’s elite institutions.

But College Hill may have been the only part of town enjoying such prosperity during the second half of the 20th century. “Providence got a lot poorer because of demographic changes,” Widmer said, citing suburbanization and loss of industry as primary contributing factors. According to the city’s online archives, Providence’s population was 248,674 in 1950, plummeting to 179,116 in 1970. This was the “largest proportionate out-migration (28 percent) of any major city in the United States,” according to the city archives.

Ironically, the highways that had been constructed to improve economic conditions by facilitating transportation encouraged people to leave the cities, allowing for the expansion of health care entities, universities, churches and other institutions that “reduced the city’s tax base,” according to the archives.

The city had boomed during the industrial revolution, bolstered by five large industries that made Providence a wealthy manufacturing center. Four of those industries survived through the first half of the 20th century, but by 1964, only one of the manufacturing giants remained. The local textile industry around which Providence had grown had collapsed, and “many smaller manufacturing firms also departed to occupy modern, spacious suburban plants.”

Mayors who were corrupt or incompetent and opportunistic only exacerbated the problems of the declining city. The disparity between Brown’s growing wealth and Providence’s declining economic conditions was especially pronounced given Rhode Island’s small size, Widmer said. “There was a natural tension when one was doing better and the other was doing worse.”

A tale of two tax agreements

The tension was amplified by the perception that Brown was only interested in helping itself because its founding charter exempted it from paying property taxes to the city and sharing its growing wealth.

The document, issued by King George III, stipulated that “for the greater encouragement of this seminary of learning … the College estate, the estates, persons, and families of the President and Professors … shall be freed and exempted from all taxes.”

While most university charters bear similar clauses, and all nonprofits in Providence do not pay property taxes, Brown’s size and visibility in the Providence community put it at the center of criticisms from locals. In 1965, the University voluntarily began to phase out the tax-exemption granted to faculty members, with the last professor who was grandfathered into the exemption leaving the University in the 1990s.

Providence’s fiscal crisis reached a climax in 2003 as the city faced impending bankruptcy. Government leaders saw a potential solution in the city’s tax-exempt hospitals, colleges and universities and requested these institutions assist the city in its time of need.

Now one of the wealthiest establishments in the state, the University received the brunt of the media focus and pressure to share its wealth with its hometown. After a series of negotiations, the University signed a Memorandum of Understanding that established a payment plan through which Brown would contribute nearly $50 million to the city over the subsequent 20 years, according to Brown’s website. The city’s other universities agreed to similar deals, though their payments, like their respective sizes, were a fraction of Brown’s.

But the deal was only a Band-Aid on the city’s fiscal wounds. The municipal budget was fundamentally flawed, seeking much of its revenue from property taxes in a city where 40 percent of the land was owned by nonprofits and consequently tax-exempt. The 2008 housing crash and following recession came at a time when Providence could ill afford such strains, and the city found itself on the verge of bankruptcy again in 2011 when newly elected Mayor Angel Taveras discovered a $110 million budget deficit.

Just as in 2003, government leaders turned to the city’s tax-exempt institutions, with Taveras threatening that the city could enter bankruptcy proceedings if the gap was not closed. The city ultimately secured promises of payments totalling nearly $48 million over the next 11 years, according to the city’s website. Specifically, the Memorandum of Agreement between the University and Providence, announced May 1, 2012, stipulated that Brown pay the city $31.5 million over 11 years, The Herald reported at the time. “This brings the University’s total annual contributions to about $7.9 million until 2016,” The Herald reported.

Taveras commented at the time that he was very pleased that the total amount the University pledged exceeded his expectations. President Ruth Simmons, who was slated to leave that June, said she hoped to leave the University in good standing with the city to smooth the transition and create a cooperative environment for Paxson, then the incoming president.

A new economy

As the city continues to pursue fiscal stability, lower unemployment and embrace a service-based economy, Brown will likely play an important role in Providence’s future. The city has high hopes for The LINK, 40 acres of land that were previously occupied by I-195 and are currently being prepared for potential development. Seeking to encourage entrepreneurship by fostering the creation of a “knowledge district” — the hub of a knowledge economy centered on technology and scientific innovation — there are hopes that biotechnology companies or similarly high-tech industries might be interested in the land, especially given Providence’s high density of academic institutions.

Though Providence locals may remain suspicious toward Brown’s expansion, the state’s wary attitude has not persisted, and the city has expressed receptiveness to the University’s expansion in the Jewelry District. Widmer said he hopes “that it is a statement of deeper integration.” Moving off of College Hill “is a very new direction,” he added, but it is a direction the University sees abounding with opportunity.

Paxson’s strategic plan — released this past fall — calls for the integration of “residential facilities for medical and graduate students, administrative offices and retail space into the Jewelry District,” The Herald previously reported, adding that the “Jewelry District will be used for more research-intensive programs, especially biomedical research.”

Projects aimed at developing Providence as a knowledge capital will involve Brown as a crucial resource and will further intertwine the city and the University for centuries to come.