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How a Former Power Plant Powered an Innovation District

02 Jan 2018 1:17 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Steve Dwyer

You know the drill when it comes to accessing all the disparate elements of a complex redevelopment footprint. 

Brown University officials in Rhode Island were recently sidetracked by discussions about the future of a massive, century-old power station that sat vacant on the Providence River along its campus.

Questions abound: Leave it alone or dismantle it to pave the way for a new university structure?  Often times with legacy structures like a former power facility, razing it becomes a case of doing more harm than good. 

Enter the spirit of historical preservation, and it happened as part of the university’s quest to establish a unified redevelopment plan—in this case built around academia and medical technology. 

In the Brown University case, the plan was to create student housing in this city’s historic jewelry district. The developer, Richard A. Galvin, the president and chief executive of CV Properties in Boston, convinced Brown officials that the power plant could be parlayed into a property that would enhance Brown’s other investments in the district, including its medical school. Lined with 30-foot arched windows, the brick building provided vast views of the river and the city beyond.

Brown recruited the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, which were jointly looking for a site to build a nursing school, and then helped negotiations with the state to secure a long-term lease agreement. Currently, a public nursing school and the Brown administrative staff are housed together in a refurbished power station at the edge of an emerging innovation and design district.

From a logistical standpoint, Brown administrative offices are now all in one place instead of scattered around its main campus. The nursing school, close to both the medical school and two hospitals, is also able to train students in state-of-the-art health care simulation labs. 

Sometimes, when you want to create an innovation district it’s actual innovation that drives the process. What do we mean by that? Well, this redevelopment play was all made possible due to results-driven networking among not only public/government and private sectors, but you can also throw in the academia component as well.  Brown University’s initiative serves as one more shining example of the importance of a unified vision of a private-public partnership.   

In fact, the trend toward vertical-driven innovation centers—academic in nature or otherwise—is an idea that has truly taken wing. Bruce J. Katz, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who was a co-author of a 2014 report on innovation districts, indicated at that time that any type of shift in the “geography of innovation” was still largely undefined. 

By 2017, Katz had forged a new opinion. He said he was “hard-pressed to come up with a city that’s not thinking about” establishing innovation chubs, and often times it’s being done around civic waterfronts. 

One can look to Chattanooga, TN, which in 2009 leveraged an ultra-high-speed broadband network installed by the city-owned utility to start a downtown innovation district. Expansion is likely to require strengthening the district’s partnerships with the University of Tennessee and the public school system, said Mayor Andy Berke, who noted that the United States Dept. of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory opened an office in the district last year. All total it encompassed more than 4,400 acres. 

This undertaking was a yeoman’s effort but was well worth it. Do you have an innovation center redevelopment concept that’s poised for execution? 

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