The Warwick City Council on Monday night approved the sale of the former Christopher Rhodes Elementary School to Hugh Fisher for $325,000. Fisher plans to demolish the derelict property at his own expense in order to build approximately 29 single-family dwellings, a proposal that garnered widespread praise from city officials and residents.
“I'm incredibly excited tonight to present recommendation for approval,” said planning director Bill DePasquale ahead of introducing the item for a vote, first by the public properties and land use committee and then by the whole city council. The measure passed unanimously 8-0, with Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis being absent due to an illness.
The sale comes nearly two full years after the city first issued an RFP for the sale of the Rhodes building, during which time the city opted to conduct an environmental hazards study and appraisal of the property on their own accord in order to strengthen their negotiations.
What resulted from their efforts, and subsequent conversations with Fisher, wound up being an increase in the bid, from $117,000 for the purchase of the property as is during the summer of 2017, to the $325,000 bid that was approved – “a gain of $208,000 to the city,” as described by Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, who sponsored and led the efforts to do something with the building after sitting vacant for more than 10 years.
Calling the building as it sits right now a “death trap,” Rix exalted the team effort between the city and neighborhood residents that led to Monday night’s approval.
“It turns a nuisance to neighbors, a financial liability to the city...into an asset to this city, expanding the tax base and it improves the neighborhoods, brings up property values and removes the nuisance,” Rix said.
Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley said that Fisher opting to finance the some $635,000 in hazardous mitigation of the property – which includes things like asbestos abatement in the old school, and the removal of an oil tank from the property – is a large burden that the city will now not have to worry about.
City Council President Steve Merolla was relieved that, should there be any unexpected environmental hazards discovered once Fisher starts digging into the land to develop it, those expenses will not be born by the city, and such language is written into the contract. He praised the council’s patience to not jump at the first offer they saw back in 2017 – which happened at a time when the increasingly dilapidating building had already gone out to bid multiple times without any significant bites.
“When you look at the big picture of how government is supposed to work, I think this is a good example of it,” Merolla said. “You had a council that was asking questions and a previous administration that thought they had put the best offer on the table. And this council, and also the finance committee and chair and also the sponsor from his own area, recognized that we could do better.”
Finance committee chair and Ward 5 Council Ed Ladouceur concurred with that notion.
“I think this is a perfect example of what we mean when we say good things happen to those who wait,” he said.
Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister focused not only on the infusion of dollars the new development will bring to the city, but also the infusion of people.
“This is very exciting,” he said. “We're going to generate residential property tax revenue, which is always needed, but new housing will also attract new families...This really is a win-win.”
Originally operating as an elementary school for about 70 years, the Christopher Rhodes School closed in 2008 and sat vacant for a year before being rented out by the Rhode Island School for the Deaf for another two years. Since their departure in 2011, the building has sat vacant and been subject to vandalism and break-ins.
Rix mentioned a neighborhood meeting in the summer of 2017 after the bid was publicized that showed the widespread approval of residents who wanted something to be done with the building.
“There was not a single person who was against this proposal,” he said. “It is very rare to find that kind of unanimity on anything of such consequence as the sale and development of 10 acres in a neighborhood.”
Two residents in the neighborhood expressed their approval and excitement over the project but also their concerns. One asked if there were plans to protect against a sinkhole in the wetlands near the area that claimed the life of a child in the 1980s. Fisher ensured that the area in question was on his radar and he’d incorporate a barrier of sorts into the construction plans.
Another resident expressed concern about potentially pushing rodents occupying the property into the surrounding neighborhood once the building is demolished. Fisher said ensuring that rodents and other pests are addressed was a standard part of the demolition and construction process.
“Any time we have to tear a building down we have to get a demolition permit from the city. One of the requirements is we have to [be aware of] pest problems that could persist at the time,” he said. “We will address that right up front. We'll have the proper pest people take care of it.”