Paul Salera believes things happen for a reason, although he sees no rationale for community opposition to the plan that would have had the Westbay Community Action offices now located in the Buttonwoods Plaza move to the former Randall Holden School near Hoxsie Four Corners.
In an interview Friday, Salera disclosed that the Westbay board voted unanimously to enter into a long-term lease agreement to use what had been 19,000 square feet of the former Citizens Bank call center on Jefferson Boulevard. The action means the agency has abandoned the plan to lease the former school from the city that met heavy neighborhood resistance when it came before the Zoning Board of Review.
Salera met with neighbors prior to the hearing and dispelled concerns that the school might be used as a shelter or clinic for distribution of medication and services for those faced with substance abuse. He said offices would be operational from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week and closed at night and on the weekends. The one exception is one federally financed program that is required to stay open until 6 p.m. one night a week.
At the Jefferson Boulevard location, which for the most part is ready to move into, Westbay will have the space to grow. Offices will be located in a commercially zoned site with easy access to the communities served by Westbay. There is a bus stop about 75 feet from the front door and a pedestrian crosswalk with a pedestrian-activated light. Salera is hopeful of completing the move in phases in February and March.
“I wanted to stay in Warwick. That’s where people need us,” Salera said.
After the zoning board tabled action on the variance that would have allowed office use of the school in a residentially zoned site, Salera and the mayor’s office talked about another neighborhood meeting to review the measures Westbay agreed to take to allay concerns. Salera even agreed to pull out of the school if neighbors found he hadn’t lived up to his promises after the first year.
Instead, Salera started to look elsewhere. When he found the Citizens office, it didn’t look like a lease could be worked out. However, Salera disclosed with the prospect of a new owner of the property stepping on the scene they were able to work out a 15- to 17-year lease that will have Westbay paying a bit more than its current location or the school had that worked out. He put the rent at $150,000 for two years with increases to $200,000.
He said his decision to drop the school plan was based on his desire not to put the mayor or Westbay in a position – had the zoning board granted approval – of neighbors saying they are doing what they want regardless of community feelings. Furthermore, he said he didn’t want to subject his staff to persistent scrutiny from neighbors who for any reason might be calling to complain.
Still, he can’t fathom the resistance to Westbay use of the school. In response to concerns over traffic, he noted the existing offices generate an average of 42 trips a day during the peak winter season.
What he did hear was, “We don’t want those people.”
He went on to say, “Those people are your neighbors…they’re your brothers and sisters, your nieces and nephews, your cousins.”
“Our clients are the community,” he said. He estimated 75 percent of those served by Westbay live in Warwick.
The move will not affect the Westbay Children’s Center on Astral Street or the executive offices that will remain on Buttonwoods Avenue opposite the plaza. The Westbay Marketplace, where those on assistance can pick out produce as well as canned and dry foods, will also be relocated to the Jefferson Boulevard location. There will be a separate entrance for the marketplace, he said.
Mayor Joseph Solomon is uncertain what the change of plans means for the school. He said measures will be taken to secure the property and that the city would seek proposals for its sale or use.
The city has relocated three municipal offices – personnel, community development and MIS – to a wing of the school. Now that Westbay won’t be leasing the building, the mayor is uncertain as to the future of the municipal offices. They may be relocated again depending on what happens with the school.