The Providence Preservation Society’s list of Most Endangered Properties this year included a conspicuous and hulking reminder of the city’s industrial past — the Providence Gas Company Purifier House. Standing proudly over Allens Avenue and overlooking Interstate 95 with its signature arched roof, this massive vacant industrial building spent more of its existence underutilized or empty than it did refining coal gas.
The building — located at 200 Allens Avenue — serves as both the unofficial gateway to the Port of Providence as well as the face of a fierce debate over Providence’s waterfront. It’s a conversation long overdue about improper use of what is arguably the city’s most valuable treasure, its port. The city’s industrial past has marred South Providence with a legacy of pollution, and disinvestment along the waterfront is the result. Because of this, the city needs to reinvest in its waterfront, and starting with the Purifier House could be the catalyst.
Legacy sites like the Purifier House are integral in the city’s transformation. Notably, South Street Station — once a Narragansett Electric power plant — has been reused by Brown University and Rhode Island College for a popular nursing program, spurring new development immediately surrounding the building, and serving as a nexus for the emerging Innovation District. Providence is a picturesque college town with the benefits of an active, working waterfront, so it’s only natural for an academic institution to step in and revitalize the Purifier House.
It’s here that a partnership should form between the City of Providence and the University of Rhode Island in rehabbing the historic structure. The building’s lofty four-story interior could offer opportunities for classroom and workshop space for the university’s emerging marine robotics programs, where students could test their latest creations. In acquiring the building for academic use, URI could bolster enrollment by offering more hands-on learning space for future engineers and entrepreneurs interested in working in the “blue economy.”
Providence itself is emerging as the center for the state’s blue economy efforts, where wind energy startup firms and venture capitalists cluster with talent from nearby institutions. With the university’s closure of the Feinstein Campus in the Shepard Building on Westminster Street, URI could maintain its presence in Providence with a new marine robotics facility in the Purifier House, perhaps led by the renowned Graduate School of Oceanography.
The Purifier House offers some attractive qualities for any marine-based robotic or tech company to literally dip its toes in the water. Located off Public Street, the building is near a boat launch at Collier Point Park, and features a ground-level garage with access to nearby slips.
In Rhode Island, the defense industry — particularly the Navy and many government contractors — maintains a significant presence, and the addition of a new facility at the Purifier House could contribute to scientific advancement, driving this sector of the economy as well as the many ancillary industries that depend on military spending.
Gone are the days where coal burning gas production for the Providence Gas Company kept the inside of the Purifier House aglow, but the building could become a harbinger for the future of Providence’s waterfront and Rhode Island’s economy.
If Rhode Island is to both embrace its nautical assets and transition its industrial economy, it must look to the dirtiest sites that offer the most promise for reuse.
Greg Miller is an editor and intelligence analyst for BLDUP, a Boston-based commercial real estate platform, as well as a member of the East Providence Planning Board.