By JOHN HOWELL When he entered the corner office at City Hall, Frank Picozzi made the sale of vacant school properties one of his priorities. He imagined it wouldn't take too long to advertise the four properties and to receive offers from developers
When he entered the corner office at City Hall, Frank Picozzi made the sale of vacant school properties one of his priorities. He imagined it wouldn’t take too long to advertise the four properties and to receive offers from developers looking to convert the buildings or demolish them and build something new. After all, that’s not too complicated.
It didn’t take long for Picozzi to learn government doesn’t move all that quickly.
On Tuesday, more than seven months after Picozzi was sworn in as mayor, the city opened bids to conduct an assessment of each of the properties – the former school administration buildings on Warwick Avenue and Randall Holden, John Wickes and Aldrich junior high schools. The assessments, which will list hazardous material such as asbestos requiring removal prior to demolition, are to be included with a description of each of the properties when listed for sale. Actually, unlike a conventional sale, the city will advertise for RFPs (request for proposals). In their proposals, prospective buyers will outline intended use of a building and an offer.
What would the mayor like to see happen?
“They’re eyesores,” Picozzi said of the vacant buildings, “they should have been liquidated years ago.”
Ideally, he would like to see the properties put to a use that is compatible to the surrounding residential neighborhoods. He imagines that would entail demolition of the buildings with the redevelopment of single-family or multi-family housing on the sites. The exception is Aldrich, which he would like to see re-purposed for housing, if not for another school.
The administration of former Mayor Scott Avedisian was on the cusp of an agreement to sell Aldrich to the International Charter School, but the deal, opposed by the Warwick Teachers Union as well as some council members, never reached a vote.
“I think residential makes the most sense,” said Bruce Keiser, who until recently served as city planner and now holds the job of economic development director. He thought that Aldrich could be subdivided into two properties with the building used for some form of multi-housing and the land used for single-family housing.
City Principal Planner Lucas Murray said the department has done studies of the school sites. He said the first consideration would be of proposals to reuse the buildings followed by consideration of what is the highest and best use of the properties. He said the Planning Department would look to see if the proposed use is consistent with the comprehensive plan.
“We want to make sure that the use is compatible [to the neighborhood],” he said. He said that could include preservation of some property as neighborhood open space or a mini park.
The properties are all zoned Residential A-7.
Murray said the solicitation for RFPs would include a rundown of “here’s what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
He points out that unlike a conventional sale where money is handed over and the seller walks away, the city is not only in the position of determining use of the property but the impact it will have on taxes for years to come.
“We get the taxes in perpetuity,” he said.
Some of the properties have unique issues that must also be considered. The Warwick Avenue property formerly used as school administration offices, which were relocated to Gorton Junior High School after it closed, has a sewer pumping station on it. After being used by St. Kevin School for a good part of the 2018 academic year when a burst hot water pipe forced its closure, a wing in Randall Holden School was converted into offices for the personnel, community development and management of information services offices. They are to be consolidated with other city annex offices in the sawtooth building that was built as part of the Apponaug Mill when renovations are completed sometime next year. That space will be leased under a renewable 15-year agreement with AAA Northeast, which will also be using a portion of the building for customer services.
Murray said there is some urgency to advertise for proposals for the schools, as there are federal tax credits and Rhode Island Housing programs that could be valuable to developers that face expiration.
Although there has been no active marketing of the school properties, Murray said a couple of contractors have contacted his office with particular interest in Aldrich. He did not elaborate.
Built in 1936, Aldrich has a total of 115,264 square feet. The administration building, with a total of 15,884 square feet, was built in 1932. Holden was built in 1950 and has 35,264 square feet, and the newest of the schools, Wickes, was built in 1954 and has 42,276 square feet.
In addition to asbestos, the assessment will look for other hazardous material including mercury, PCBs and lead paint. The intent of the assessment as defined in the RFP is to “better understand the extent of hazardous materials contained in the building and how they will impact the estimated cost of reuse or demolition, as it relates to future redevelopment strategies.”
Three bids ranging from $9,125 to $16,405 were submitted for the assessment. The bids will be reviewed by the Planning Department with the recommendation of a vendor made to the City Council for action next month. Murray is hopeful of having proposals on the use and sale of the school properties before the end of the year.
For Picozzi, the vacant buildings have been an albatross he’s vowed to rid the city of.