Case Study

An Old Building Is Bringing New Energy to Innovation

7 min read

Wexford Science + Technology has taken an old power plant formerly called the Dynamo House and developed a historic rehab that is turning into a dynamo of its own, one that is transforming a whole section of Providence, RI into a knowledge and medical hub.

The Wexford Innovation Center officially opened in July of last year, anchors what used to be known as Providence’s Jewelry District and more recently, the Providence Innovation and Design District, after a large span of the I-195 interstate was relocated from the area. A Historic Tax Credit project, the building retains its power plant shell, and a huge crane from its former life is preserved where the Dynamo House used to store its coal. The rest of the interior, though, is now given over to generating a new kind of intellectual and caregiving power as part of the South Street Landing, as the area will now be called.

Three universities share the space. Brown University maintains offices there, while the separate Rhode Island Nursing Education Center (RINEC) is operated by the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to help alleviate a shortage of nurses in the state (NEC features both classrooms and simulation rooms). Brown University and RINEC split the space evenly.

A significant part of the 268,000-square-foot development’s $176 million cost came from $62.2 million in state and federal tax credits. Bank of America provided $28 million in Federal Historic Tax Credits, while the state credits came to $34.2 million. MacRostie Historic Advisors of Washington, DC was Wexford’s consultant. Eighteen or so months of construction following the 2015 Bank of America closing put the building into active service in 2017.

When Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) cut the ribbon at the Innovation Center, she estimated the project would generate 2,000 jobs for the city.

According to Ted Russell, Wexford’s chief financial officer, “We got involved through another developer, CV Properties out of Boston, MA, run by a man named Dick Galvin, who had been working very closely with key stakeholders on this project to make it a reality.”

Second Try the Keeper
The original project, conceived by another party, was to convert the power station into an office, museum and hotel, which didn’t pan out. “CV Properties then got involved and worked with Brown University and the State of Rhode Island to clean up a lot of hurdles and make this historic re-development a reality.  Wexford Science and Technology became involved because we have experience creating innovation communities in partnership with universities, academic medical centers and research institutions,” says Russell.

“We worked with CV Properties and Bank of America, who provided the tax credit investment to rehab the Dynamo House, now called South Street Landing, into what it is today, an anchor in the Providence innovation community across the street from Brown’s School of Medicine.”

Adds Russell, “This is at the core of our business, the creation of these knowledge communities, which are innovation districts with universities as intellectual anchors. They combine research, clinical excellence, corporate engagement, entrepreneurial activity and community inclusion. You should not think of this property in isolation, but as part of the larger Providence Innovation and Design district.”

The district has seen an abundance of redevelopment in recent years, including a laboratory/office building, a parking garage, residential units, a hotel, green space and a pedestrian bridge.

“This project really sparked a lot of the redevelopment activity, even beyond what Wexford has been directly involved with,” Gregg Herlong, a director of Development with Wexford says. Wexford has just completed the 200,000-square-foot lab/office building, which includes Brown, Johnson & Johnson and Cambridge Innovation Center as tenants. It has also completed a 117,000-square-foot rehab at adjacent Davol Square, as well as being a development partner on the neighboring 174-unit River House Residential building.

The I-195 Redevelopment Commission dedicated a portion of the land that was opened up when I-195 was relocated towards green space, including a waterfront park that is very close to South Street Landing. “In the very near future, we’ll connect South Street Landing and River House, the residential project along the river, as we complete a pedestrian pathway along the river to connect over to the public park,” says Herlong. He called this “a really unique kind of atmosphere, really beautiful. The park and the green public areas are heavily utilized by the entire city of Providence.”

A Flagship Location
“The feedback has been unbelievable,” says Herlong about the initial reaction to the Innovation Center. “A lot of people view it as a flagship location within Providence, and this was truly a joint effort between partners, like Brown University, the State of Rhode Island, the City of Providence and the Jewelry District community.”

Claudia Robinson, senior vice president for tax credit investments at Bank of America, notes BofA has worked with Wexford on other projects and says, “Our focus has been exactly this kind of project, not just the preservation of architecture and history but also in doing a re-adaptive use and transforming buildings into modern facilities.”

The project’s environmental management and social impact also appealed to Bank of America, Robinson says.

“We’re incredibly ecstatic to be partners with Wexford, which has been amazing, transforming a lot of these buildings into very attractive projects.”

Boston-based Tsoi Kobus Design was the architect on the project. The firm notes South Street Landing has:

  • One of the largest and most advanced medical simulation facilities in the country;
  • Active Learning (TEAL) classrooms, as well as flat floor flexible classrooms that can be converted to Active Learning with mobile cart displays;
  • Design goals, including preservation of the existing historic facade, and an emphasis on interior finishes that complement the industrial context. Materials included a light-colored palette and modern choices of steel, brick, glass and wood; and
  • Sustainability as a core focus, with the project as a catalyst for enhancing connectivity and green space and improving the River Walk. Photovoltaic panels and river source cooling will reduce energy load.

Preserving the Exterior
“The vision was to preserve the architectural integrity of this beautiful landmark,” says Russell. “So, we kept the entire exterior, and elements on the inside, such as the crane and the integrity of much of the layout as you walk in. It has a feeling of openness. Magnificent windows open it back up to carry light into the building.”

The crane, an obstacle at first, became an opportunity.

“It’s so big it would have cost far more to remove it, to tear into the building to get it out,” Russell says. “So instead, we left it in place and painted it and it’s actually a great conversation piece.”

South Street Landing has won a number of awards, including the 2019 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award, given in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Despite making some structural changes, like adding an extra couple of floors, Russell says Wexford had no real problems in getting approvals from the National Park Service on the historic rehab.

“The Park Service was good to work with. Clearly, the design had to be rethought based on Park Service feedback, but overall they did a good job of supporting our redesign. The biggest challenge was working with local utilities, as the development plan, including the removal and burial of existing power lines. However, once a design was approved by NPS and the utility with the required setbacks, this really became more of a construction challenge, than a design challenge.”

He adds Wexford has done a number of other historic rehabs, including ones in Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; Winston Salem, NC; and another project currently in the works in Pittsburgh, PA.

It’s a track record Wexford was able to put to good use in Providence, adding a couple of new gems to the old Jewelry District.

Ted Russell, Chief Financial Officer, Wexford Science + Technology, Baltimore
[email protected]

Gregory Herlong, Director of Development, Wexford Science + Technology, Baltimore
[email protected] 

Claudia Robinson, Senior Vice President, Community Development Banking, Bank of America, Washington, DC
[email protected]

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.