Old power station transformed as ribbon cut on $220M South Street Landing project

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders cut the ribbon Wednesday on the $220-million South Street Landing project, a partly state-funded redevelopment of a massive old power station into a nursing school and academic offices.

Gov. Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza were joined at the ceremonial event by the presidents of the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, which are jointly running the new Rhode Island Nursing Education Center at the facility, and Brown University, which has opened administrative offices there.

“This is such an awe-inspiring building,” Elorza told a crowd of more than 100 political, education and business leaders who gathered for the ribbon cutting. Many craned their necks to take in a full view as they stood in the structure’s large atrium, which will become a cafe open to the public. The building is already buzzing with nursing students taking classes and studying on its first, second and third floors.

Raimondo and others cast South Street Landing as a visible symbol of their aim to transform Rhode Island’s economy into one focused on innovation and technology, with the Jewelry District central to their plans.

“This was a power plant across the street from the vibrant Jewelry District,” the governor said. “The economy is changing, and we’re not standing still. We’re changing with it. The New York Times just called this area, quote, ‘a busy hive of invention and collaboration.’ And so we’re changing the narrative of our whole state.”

Located off Eddy Street, the South Street Power Station was in use from 1912 until it shut down in 1995. A $150-million plan to turn it into a hotel and museum was abandoned in 2008 when the Great Recession took hold, and the hulking structure had been visibly decaying for years before the redevelopment effort began.

Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s administration helped broker a deal to reimagine the power plant as a joint venture for URI, RIC and Brown. In 2014, the General Assembly authorized the state to enter a 15-year lease calling for taxpayers to contribute an estimated $85 million toward the project.

The facility, which is already in operation, is split roughly 50/50. Brown is using 136,000 square feet on the top floors for administrative offices that will house more than 400 employees from 11 departments. The URI-RIC nursing school is using about 129,000 square feet for about 700 undergraduate and graduate students in classrooms and labs.

URI President David Dooley said the project traced back to what he described as a “difficult” conversation in the fall of 2009 in then-Gov. Don Carcieri’s office with Frank Caprio Sr., then head of the state’s higher-education board, to discuss the need for his institution and RIC to collaborate on a new nursing school. The two institutions have not always seen eye to eye about the collaboration, which multiple officials described as among the most complex local public-private projects ever.

“This project does demonstrate that Rhode Island is capable of doing amazing things,” Dooley said. “It has the political and private-sector leadership to do things that a lot of other people, including an awful lot of people in Rhode Island, would never have thought possible. And that I think is something we can all take pride in.”

Dooley and RIC President Frank Sánchez also said the nursing school’s high-tech classrooms and other features will help position their programs to stand out nationwide. “What you will see here is the future of nursing innovation,” Sánchez said.

Brown President Christina Paxson said South Street Landing has multiple benefits for her school. It will free up space on Brown’s historic College Hill campus for undergraduate academics and other non-administrative uses. It also expands Brown’s commitment to the Jewelry District, joining the new medical school it opened nearby in 2011.

“South Street Landing is now once again standing as a corner of civic enterprise and purpose,” Paxson said. “Once again it projects this image of solidity to the public. But it also projects an image of innovation and the kind of work that’s going to move Providence and Rhode Island continually forward. … This city, this state, we’re on an upward trajectory – this is a symbol of that.”

The developer of South Street Landing was CV Properties LLC, a Boston-based firm led by Dick Galvin. Earlier this year, real-estate company Ventas Inc. paid nearly $130 million to buy the facility and a new 750-space parking garage being constructed next door from Blackstone Group LP. Ventas is the parent company of Wexford Science + Technology LLC, the developer building a high-profile innovation campus on the vacant 195 land in the same part of the city.

Among the complications for Gilbane, the company that oversaw South Street Landing’s construction, was National Grid’s ongoing use of adjacent space for aerial power lines. Early this year Brown disclosed that the developer had been forced to modify building plans because of concerns about construction too close to high-voltage lines.

The next phase of the project is a related 270-bed housing complex for graduate and medical students called River House, which is scheduled to be finished in the spring of 2019. A spokesman said Wednesday the River House facility is “underway and on schedule.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook