When Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning at Brown University, came to College Hill a decade ago for the position that President Ruth Simmons, then one semester into her tenure, created for him, he didn’t know the role the two would end up playing in the creation of Providence’s so-called Knowledge District.
It was January 2002 and the revitalization of the city’s once-thriving Jewelry District into an educational-medical hub designed to create skilled workers and jobs wouldn’t officially begin for another five years. But by that time, Brown already had established a presence there and has continued adding to it despite struggles with city officials and the public.
The recent opening of the university’s continuing-education building in what is now called the Knowledge District and a new financial agreement with the city would seem to cement the college’s prominence in an area where it now employs about 1,000.
But if the university has future plans for the district, it isn’t letting on publicly following its long and sometimes contentious talks with the city over a new payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.
“The question is, is there a plan? There is no specific plan,” Spies said. ‘That’s really something the new administration at Brown is going to [handle] at the city level, the state level, and in due course.”
Simmons announced her retirement, effective at the end of the academic year, last spring. Spies followed shortly after and will work with Brown through December but will only be on-site through June.
Christina Hull Paxson, a dean at Princeton University, will arrive July 1 into a renewed sense of municipal cooperation, after the university agreed in early May to pay the city an additional $31.5 million over the next 11 years.
Spies acknowledged the agreement removes a “block.”
“[Debate on payment] certainly made it harder to have high-level discussions about what could or couldn’t be done,” he said. “Things got done, but at the same time there were other things that couldn’t get done.”
But Paxson also arrives with a sharper focus on what the new financial arrangement and the recently released zoning changes for redevelopment of the Interstate 195 land – a major piece of the Knowledge District puzzle – will mean for the university and, increasingly, what the university means to the city.
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