Understandably, since it sat vacant for so long, Mayor Joseph Solomon and Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix turned the demolition of Christopher Rhodes School into a press event.
The former school came down to make way for the 30 single-family home development to be built by h.a. Fisher Homes. Rix was delighted that an albatross had been lifted from a neighborhood that had watched the property slip into disrepair. Solomon talked of returning the land to the tax rolls.
The sale of the Rhodes School is an isolated victory in an ongoing battle to re-purpose former school properties.
Adjoining the Rhodes property is the former Aldrich Junior High School, which was shuttered in June 2016. In addition, the city has the keys to the former John Wickes School and to the school administration building on Warwick Avenue now that those offices have been centralized in the former Gorton Junior High School.
Then, last week, Westbay Community Action announced it was no longer interested in the former Randall Holden School in Hoxsie, which the neighborhood opposed. Westbay had planned to relocate its offices from Buttonwoods Plaza to the school, paying the city about $200,000 a year. With the expectation Westbay would occupy a major portion of the school, the mayor had three municipal offices located to a wing of the former school. Now he is questioning the practicality of keeping the offices there when the rest of the building is shut.
And this all raises questions about another city property: the annex building behind City Hall that has been closed since a pipe burst on the second floor in January 2018. Former Mayor Scott Avedisian hastily relocated the offices to the former Greene School. With the exception of the three offices that went to Holden School, Solomon relocated municipal offices to the Buttonwoods Community Center that Avedisian closed because of the cost of upgrades. He had hoped to sell the property, but the council looked to save it and Solomon made that a priority as soon as he became mayor.
Still, however, the future of the annex remains unclear. The city has yet to settle an insurance claim with the Interlocal Risk Management Trust. As he has said in the past, Solomon said last week that talks are progressing. The mayor said valuations are holding up a settlement, adding, “We’re closer today than we were a year and a half ago.” The trust did not respond to a call about the status of the claim and Solomon declined to go into details about the claim.
So, assuming the city settles on a claim, what would it do with the property? Would Solomon look to bring the offices back to the annex?
“So far everything is working well with Buttonwoods,” he said. “We may pickle the building [the annex],” he said. He said he would want to look at all the city resources and “apply what is most advantageous to the taxpayer.”
That is likewise his thinking on the future of the vacant school properties. At this point, there is no active campaign to market the properties. The last effort came during the Avedisian administration when requests for proposals were sought for the use of Rhodes and Aldrich either separately or as a combined property. Fisher bid on Rhodes and the International Charter School made an offer for Aldrich that would have given the city $1.9 million up front and an annual payment in lieu of taxes of $70,000. City Council President Solomon joined ranks with the Warwick Teachers Union in opposing the charter school bid that never reached the council for a vote. He held out for more money from Fisher and when he became mayor they reached a deal.
Solomon is uncertain as to the future of Holden. If he pulls out the city offices now located there, he said fencing off the property is a possibility.
As demolition represents a big proportion of the cost of re-purposing the properties, especially if they contain asbestos, Solomon said demolition may be taken on by the city in some cases to make the properties more attractive to development.
Of the properties, he said, “Until they are converted, they are liabilities. My goal is to make them assets.”