June 27, 2013

An Electrifying Project


3 colleges hope to lease old substation, helping to reinvigorate Jewelry District


PROVIDENCE — The University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Brown University are moving to bring together programs in the vacant South Street Power Station as part of a $206-million project that could propel commercial development in the Jewelry District and the vacant highway land that divides the area from downtown.

URI and RIC would combine to lease about half

— roughly 120,000 square feet of space — of the hulking building at 360 Eddy St. for use by their respective nursing programs. Brown would lease about the same amount of space for unspecified administrative use, according to a Brown statement.

The proposal would include not only redevelopment of the power station but construction of apartments for 296 students at the adjacent Davol Square and a 600-car parking garage across Point Street from Davol Square. The commercial complex already houses a mix of Brown offices, commercial ventures and state-backed business programs,

There would be 15,000 square feet of space on the ground floor of the new building for shops and restaurants and 20,000 square feet for other business rentals.

“Assuming the details of these leases are negotiated successfully, we anticipate that construction and renovation would begin in 2014 and the facility would be ready for occupancy in 2016,” Brown University President Christina H. Paxson wrote in an e-mail to the university community.

The multipronged project hinges on public subsidies, including $28 million in state historic tax credits and $26 million in federal tax credits, along with $16 million in city money for the parking garage. Those commitments would back $137 million in private equity and debt.

“The goal is to unlock those credits that had been reserved for a number of years,” said Richard Galvin, of Commonwealth Ventures, which will undertake the redevelopment.

Governor Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras issued statements in support for the project in the news release.

“Our institutions of higher learning are partnering — with state and city support — with a private developer to breathe new life into a building, a neighborhood, and our entire capital city,” Chafee said.

Richard Licht, director of the Department of Administration, said, “The governor’s view is that this is a conceptual beginning.”

The proposal surfaced this week as twin resolutions introduced late in the General Assembly session. Approval by the General Assembly and Governor Chafee would allow the state schools to negotiate leases with the developer.

The state Board of Education, the State Properties Committee and the legislature ultimately have to approve those leases, according to a URI official.

The idea for moving the URI and RIC nursing programs to a joint building in Providence has been in the works for several years now. Bringing the advanced nursing school to Providence has been a priority of URI President David Dooley.

An earlier proposal to bring them together with Brown University programs on a site farther south on Eddy Street fizzled.

The Dynamo House site was passed over at that time, said J. Vernon Wyman, URI’s assistant vice president for business services, as it failed to meet all the program criteria.

The General Assembly in 2012 approved $175,000 for URI to study feasible alternatives in Providence, Wyman said. Dynamo House was reconsidered because other aspects were added to the development.

“This project has a number of other features it didn’t have when it was first viewed,” Wyman said.

Those include the apartments and the parking.

“It makes it more of a campus environment,” Wyman said.

The state colleges are considering 20- or 25-year leases, he said, so that “we don’t have the burden of ownership.”

Work to revitalize the century-old building would be undertaken by Commonwealth Ventures, a real-estate firm headed by Brown University graduate Richard Galvin.

Commonwealth Ventures’ current investments include Gateway Center, a 114,000-square-foot Class A office building in Capital Center and Davol Square. Commonwealth jointly developed the GTECH office tower in Capital Center. It sold the building in 2012.

The development appears hinged on qualifying for state historic preservation tax credits, as well as city backing for the garage.

The City of Providence would finance the construction of a 600-space parking garage on the site of a current surface lot off Point Street, according to the resolutions. The land would be leased by Brown.

“This important Providence landmark has been vacant for many years, and finding a productive use for the building has been a high priority,” Taveras said. “This project significantly advances our efforts to transform Providence’s Jewelry District into a regional hub for health care, research, and higher education.”

The building has been vacant since 1999. Subsequent redevelopment plans fizzled.

The power station was considered as the home of a museum, and then a museum-hotel combination, neither of which came to pass. The building was dubbed Dynamo House, after the massive turbines that once spun inside. The building remained empty while its financial picture grew murky.

The project was taken over by Harbor Point Development, a Baltimore firm that controls Dynamo House Funding LLC, which bought Citibank’s mortgage on the building in September 2010.

C. William Struever, the president of Struever Bros., is the owner of record, through its affiliate, Dynamo House LLC. That same month, the leaders of the Heritage Harbor Museum group told The Journal they were negotiating to sell their easement rights to the property to a new developer eyeing Brown University as a tenant in the former power station.

Brown officials announced in April that they decided to expand the School of Engineering on the College Hill campus. University officials did not close the door on moving other Brown programs to the building.

Now, Brown will be part of a project Galvin expects will be a new city landmark. Commonwealth will be the lead developer in a joint venture with Dynamo House LLC.

The redeveloped building and the new apartment building would be on the city tax rolls, he said.

“We can do a lot of great things through this project,” Galvin said. pgrimald@providencejournal.com

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