In Boston’s Shadow, Rhode Island Fights for Life Science Jobs, Respect

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Rhode Island set up something similar for its life-sciences push.

38 Studios triggered an insulting scandal that added to injury; the Great Recession hit Rhode Island particularly hard, and, while unemployment is now down to 4 percent, it has been by no means a full-bore recovery.

If there’s to be a Renaissance 2.0, the river will again be the center. Just past downtown, the state moved a freeway and opened 26 acres on either side of the Providence River before it flows into Narragansett Bay—19 acres for development, 7 for green space. It’s now called the Innovation and Design District, or in shorthand, “the 195 land,” a reference to the relocated freeway. The designation also includes Providence’s old Jewelry District, a national historic landmark also undergoing revival.

The anchor building is South Street Landing, an old power plant that now houses a chunk of Brown’s administration and a nursing education center run jointly by URI and Rhode Island College. In the depths of its late-20th century ruin the plant was known as “the Birdcage” for all the pigeons roosting in its rafters. Now, it would be a crown jewel of post-industrial revival in most cities. In Providence, it’s just one of many spectacular sites.

Now home to the Rhode Island Nursing Education Center and some Brown University administration offices, the South Street Landing used to be a power plant along the Providence River.

Also up and running in the 195 land is a new science center for Johnson & Wales University. And coming in the next couple years are residential and retail spaces, student housing, a hotel, a Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) co-working space, Brown’s school of professional studies, a new headquarters for Johnson & Johnson’s health-tech group, and a $20 million pedestrian bridge connecting to the north side of the river and the main campuses of RISD and Brown.

Brown’s medical school moved to the neighborhood in 2011. The NEMIC mentoring center is a couple blocks away. CIC is another NEMIC backer, with expectations that new companies that emerge from NEMIC stay local by using CIC’s shared spaces. It’s a hint of the interconnectedness that Milos, the genetics CEO and former commuter, says Rhode Island desperately needs to foster. It’s also a glimpse into how density happens—and must happen, as state officials acknowledge.

“Bioscience workers and companies generally are looking not for tumbleweeds in the streets after 5pm, but baby carriages, people walking dogs, nightlife and vibrancy,” says Commerce Secretary Pryor, who lives in the Providence neighborhood.

What won’t be in the new neighborhood: a new ballpark for the top Red Sox minor-league team. Plans to build it on the 195 land were shot down in 2015. The team just announced it would move from Pawtucket, just north of Providence, to Worcester, MA.

Get Off the Hill

With its recent history of corruption, stagnation, and an embarrassing dalliance with a sports legend, the refusal to throw a fat pitch to a minor-league sports team was perhaps a sign that the state, and its capital city, are ready to play at the next level.

There are other signs, too. Brown University, of Ivy League (and ivory tower) renown, is finally getting into the entrepreneurship game. It has always kept the business community at arm’s length and admitted as much in a strategic plan earlier this summer: “In Rhode Island, universities and industry have often pursued separate goals without sufficient coordination. In interviews, community and business leaders expressed confusion about how they could partner with Brown.”

But a four-story entrepreneurship center, bankrolled by a local private-equity mogul, is under construction across from the campus bookstore, and the school has partnered with a local venture group, The Slater Fund, to create an $8 million pool of biomedical venture capital to invest in student and faculty spinouts.

“They’re stepping off the hill,” says Milos, a reference to Brown’s location in Providence’s College Hill neighborhood. The move is literal, too, with many offices now in South Street Station and new academic buildings on either side of the river.

Is there enough momentum to power through if, or when, the economy slows down again? Rhode Islanders can’t be blamed for being wary. Before the Great Recession, the riverside power plant was already under renovation and supposed to be called “Dynamo House.” The developer was Brown alumnus William Struever, whose old firm was responsible for much of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, another post-industrial revival. Struever was once a big deal in Rhode Island, too. At the 2007 groundbreaking, he predicted the renovated Dynamo House would be “the talk of the town in a very big way.” But with the recession, he ran into big trouble in Providence (and elsewhere) and sold the unfinished project amid lawsuits over unpaid bills. He now says his old firm has honored all commitments.

Another firm finished the job. Struever still loves the site. “The setting is amazing. There’s a great opportunity to connect everything.” The trick now is to make his old prediction come true, and more: Providence’s new innovation district must become not just the talk of the town, but the center of the action.

Top photo of Providence skyline by Erika Smith via Creative Commons 2.0 license. It was cropped slightly to fit our publishing format. Other photos by Alex Lash.

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