THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Edges and Borders

New luxury student housing on Canal Street

by Ella Comberg

Illustration by Kela Johnson

published November 3, 2017


Rhode Island is building. New residential projects are popping up all over the state, but the bulk of development is concentrated in downtown Providence. Luxury apartments are beginning to encircle Providence Station. The old Union Trust Building on Westminster Street will undergo rehabilitation to create residential and commercial space, and a new private student housing project broke ground this month on Canal Street. By the summer of 2018, the Edge at College Hill, a 15-story apartment building, will dwarf the three-to-five-story brick buildings that sit at the base of College Hill.

As a result of this widespread development, Rhode Island is creating construction jobs more rapidly than any other state in the country, and more people are working now than ever before in the state’s history. But the equitable economic benefit that building projects present during construction often ends when residents start to move in; steep prices at market-rate housing developments are inaccessible to most of the state’s population. 

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The Edge at College Hill is part of an emerging trend of privately-owned, student-centered residential developments near (but not on) college campuses. The building, designed by the company DBVW Architects, is expected to offer 202 residential units of various sizes and 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail space when completed this summer. During construction, the project will add hundreds of jobs, ranging from day laborers to architects. But by the time school starts in the fall, The Edge will become far more exclusionary: the development expressly caters to students from Brown, RISD, and Johnson & Wales, and currently listed studios in the new building start at $1,650 per month. 

The Edge at College Hill is by no means the only development of its kind or name. Geographically disparate projects from different developers across the country, including the Edge Student Village at Temple University in Philadelphia, the Edge at the University of Oklahoma, and the Edge at the Pennsylvania State University, are all unified by a quasi-modern visual style and an appeal to urban life. All built within the past decade, these developments claim to offer students not only a residence, but a lifestyle. Each project is geographically grounded, not in the heart of campus, but at its “edge,” existing between traditional university life and post-collegiate freedom. 

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Despite its student-centered location and appeal, the nomenclature of the Edge at College Hill implies potential movement beyond the edges of Brown and RISD’s campuses. Governor Raimondo remarked on this possibility at the groundbreaking on October 17, stating, “When this project is done, we’ll have hundreds of new apartments and shops anchoring this part of the city, connecting the East Side to downtown.” 

Perhaps it is the development’s location, steps from both downtown’s Kennedy Plaza and College Hill’s Market Square, that makes Raimondo confident in its ability to unite these socially and physically distinct neighborhoods. Even more so than other recent residential projects in the area, like the proposed adaptive reuse of the Union Trust Building or the new Chestnut Commons development in the Jewelry District, the Edge is not firmly planted in one neighborhood. The development’s promotional rhetoric insinuates that the Canal Street location is appealing for its liminality; though technically on the East Side, it is close enough to downtown for residents to feel that they are a part of both spaces. As DBVW asserts, residents “will be able to choose from views of the Providence skyline, historic College Hill, and the Rhode Island State House.” 

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The Edge’s immediate neighbors to the east and south are small businesses—New Rivers, Arias Lounge, Fat Belly’s Pub—that occupy smaller, older brick buildings. To the west of the Edge’s lot, though, towers the 13-story Citizen’s Bank building. Brent Runyon, President of the Providence Preservation Society, worries that the Edge may “stick out like a sore thumb” on the otherwise small-scale, colonial East Side. “Generally, we would not be in favor of taller buildings on College Hill, especially in areas where they would be conspicuously tall,” Runyon told the Independent via email. He pointed to the brutalist style of the 15-story Sciences Library at Brown as a point of comparison to the Edge, saying of the SciLi, “I'm not sure anyone would argue that it is a good fit for the neighborhood.” 
Even if the Edge aesthetically mirrors downtown skyscrapers to a greater degree than its historic neighbors, DBVW Architects and Vision Properties are clear in their commitment to making the Edge a space for students—specifically, students who can afford the steep rent. Compared to market-rate rent averages in Providence, the Edge’s prices soar; where Rhode Island Housing’s annual rent survey reported the average price of a one-bedroom in Providence as $967 in 2016, the Edge lists one-bedroom apartments for $2,000. 

Above-average rents plague other recent projects near the Edge. Just across the river, the Commons at Providence Station will also offer one bedroom apartments for roughly $2,000 when completed this summer. Both Providence Commons and the Edge were awarded a tax incentive from the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which provides “redeemable tax credits covering up to 20 percent—and, in some cases, 30 percent—of projects costs” for ground-up developments and historic rehabilitations across the state. The Edge has been approved for the credit for both its main 15-story tower and its reuse of older buildings at 100, 106, and 108 North Main Street. 

Since the start of the Rebuild Rhode Island program about two years ago, the tax incentive has financed projects which have created 3,500 construction jobs, but none of those projects have been completed. Of the program’s 24 approved projects, only one residential development has plans to allocate low-income units. That project, Prospect Heights in Pawtucket, involved the rehabilitation of a New Deal-era housing project with help from both Rebuild Rhode Island and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program. A rare combination of federal and state housing funds made that project possible, but most other projects through Rebuild Rhode Island include no provision to economically diversify residency. As the Commerce Corporation’s President Darin Early explains, the tax incentive serves to support projects, not influence them; questions of location, aesthetic, sustainability, and affordability are largely left up to the developer. “We’re not going to steer developers,” Early told the Independent.  

To Early, the value of the tax incentive lies in its ability to create jobs and in its investment in protecting Rhode Island taxpayers. Projects aren’t awarded the credit until they receive a certificate of occupancy, and “if the project does better than expected, the state can get paid back its investment.” In terms of what projects get approved for the credit, Early says that the Commerce Corporation’s public board looks for “catalytic projects” that will “move the market, the industry, or property type… something that has an impact beyond simply building a building.” 

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Early is correct in saying that the Edge has a massive ability to influence the urban fabric of College Hill. However, the very elements of the Edge that Early lauds as “catalytic”—its commercial space and appeal to young people—are almost certain to engender gentrification. 

The Edge would not be the first student-centered luxury housing project on the East Side to do so. 257 Thayer Street, which opened in 2015 and lists one bedroom apartments starting at $1,495, similarly appeals to wealthy students interested in convenient, independent living near Brown. Though 257 Thayer leases very limited ground floor retail space, the development has brought wealthy clientele to the immediate Thayer Street area, influencing the retail market on Brown’s dense commercial strip. Small businesses like Nice Slice and What Cheer? have been replaced by chains, many of which serve the elite; By Chloe, a vegan restaurant with locations in affluent New York, Los Angeles, and Boston neighborhoods, will open on Thayer Street this year. 

Other changes prompted by development are perhaps more utilitarian. The Edge will replace a parking lot between Canal and North Main Street, offering a critical response to the car-centric nature of downtown Providence. With a design that both appeals to students and gestures towards environmental concerns, the Edge allots no spots for car parking, but will provide room for 95 bikes. The project is concurrent with plans by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to make Canal Street between Smith and Washington Streets, where the Edge will be located, safer for pedestrians and more accessible to bikers. The impact of such changes though, is limited when residency at the Edge is inaccessible—many car-less Providence residents who would benefit from improved bike lanes and sidewalks are unable to afford a $1,650 studio. 

The value of such transit-oriented efforts around the Edge and on the East Side is further stunted by Memorial Boulevard. With four high-speed lanes and sidewalks barely wide enough for two pedestrians, the Boulevard remains a daunting barrier for those crossing the river without a car. Even when cyclist and pedestrian movement around College Hill is encouraged, Raimondo’s vision of the Edge as facilitator for movement across the Providence River is inhibited by physical barriers. These physical barriers are only intensified by the insularity of the development. Surely the inclusion of restaurants, cafés, and a gym on the ground floor of the Edge will only further discourage movement and engagement off of College Hill. 

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Viewed independently, infrastructural investments like increased bike accessibility and street safety are positive changes for a city constantly working to counter challenges to walkability. Indeed, the uncovering of the Providence River by Mayor Buddy Cianci in the 1990s created the future home of the Edge, which BVDW now advertises as “the highly acclaimed Providence River Walk.” But when understood in their geographic context—adjacent to a luxury housing complex for students—improvements to transit seem more exclusionary. 

The same argument could be made regarding the Edge. Planned to replace a parking lot on a mixed commercial and residential strip, the new building will not directly displace any existing homes or small businesses. But, when understood in its greater urban context, allocation of state taxpayer money to an exclusionary development seems unwise, especially when lower-income neighborhoods in Providence remain almost untouched by Rebuild Rhode Island’s funding. While the program supports one affordable housing development and other accessible programs like the Urban Greens Food Co-op on the West End, most projects are in the vein of the Edge. 

Early and many others maintain that residential projects—even those that are inaccessible to the majority of the city’s population—will attract businesses that are good for the whole city’s economy. However, sustainable downtowns are formed by invested, long-term residents. The students who will make their home at the Edge will do so only for a few years, likely leaving Providence after graduation. The very nature of the Edge, and projects like it across the country, is to maintain a short-term residential population interested more in a temporary student community than in the existing commercial and social urban structure. 

Runyon offers a more positive long-term view of the development, arguing that even if the Edge is serving students now, it has the potential to serve other populations in the future. “We in the historic preservation field take the long view. We want good buildings to last; and to last, buildings must be adaptable to new uses. Will Edge College Hill last? Will it be able to accommodate new uses? Probably. Of course, we’ll always need housing, so the question there is really whether it can change the type of housing it offers, should the need arise.” Runyon thinks the Edge will be able to meet the challenge and become more accessible in the future. Even if the residential population is transient, the building, he argues, will persist.  

The possibility of reusing once-luxury apartments for new, more equitable purposes is complicated by the lasting nature of gentrification. The Edge itself evidences this trend; it can be seen as the most recent marker of a nearly century-long gentrification of the East Side. Where a Cape Verdean immigrant enclave in Fox Point once stood, Brown students and faculty now make their homes. Indeed, contemporary development on the western edge of College Hill mirrors earlier neighborhood change on its southern tip. When a midcentury push for historic preservation in Fox Point engendered the neighborhood’s gentrification, value was placed in the older architecture. Now, the Edge is notable and desirable for its newness, its stature, and its contrast with historic buildings. But questions of residency, equitability, and just who gets a seat—or, a studio apartment—on College Hill remain. 

ELLA COMBERG B’20 does not want to live at the Edge.