WESTERLY — Officials say two new deals involving the Royce Family Fund Inc. will help the town by helping alleviate a perceived or actual dearth of parking in the downtown area and preserve the Tower Street School building for potential municipal and private organization recreational programs.
Monday, the Town Council authorized interim Town Manager Shawn Lacey to sign contracts that will see National Grid lease a recently prepared parking lot on Canal Street to the town.
While terms of the lease were not yet final, officials said they anticipated the town would pay about $30,000 per year to lease the parking lot. The Royce Family Fund has agreed to split the lease cost with the town. The vote by the council was 7-0.
The fund will also lease the Tower Street School property for one year while it facilitates a public discussion of potential public uses of the property.
The Royce Family Fund and its founding member, Charles M. Royce, have been the driving forces behind several projects in town, including the restoration and reopening of the United Theatre, the vision for a creation of the Westerly Education Center, and the Washington Trust Ice Rink. The fund and related entities also led the way to restoration of Ocean House and the Weekapaug Inn, and are the owners of several buildings in the downtown area and elsewhere in town.
The council authorized Lacey to sign a contract with the Royce Family Fund to lease the Tower Street School building for one year beginning Jan. 1. Councilor Christopher Duhamel recused from the vote because the engineering firm he works for was involved with a proposed other use for the property. The six other councilors voted in favor of the agreement.
Under terms of the lease, the Royce Family Fund will coordinate a communitywide assessment and feasibility study of potential uses of the property. The fund will be permitted to sublease parts or all of the building for educational or charitable purposes with the approval of the town manager. The agreement also includes a single, one-year renewal option and gives the Royce Family Fund an option to purchase the property for $1.1 million
The fund will be responsible for utility costs and must address water leaking into the building. The fund will also be required to pay for liability and other insurance associated with the building. The fund will be permitted to improve the building and will be responsible for keeping the building up to its current condition, but will not be required to repair major systems such as heat, electricity or plumbing should they become necessary during the assessment period.
The 66-year-old Tower Street School building was operated as an education and human services-focused community center by the school department soon after the building was taken off line as a school in 2009 until the spring of last year, when the School Committee voted to stop using the building for public education programs and to turn it over to the town. The Town Council soon set about seeking offers to purchase the 11-acre property and the building was eyed for demolition. The demolition plans were eventually shelved. A real estate appraiser hired by the town found the Tower Street property has a value of about $2 million last year.
The Town Council's initial decision to sell the property ran counter to the Planning Board's determination that the property remained suitable for a potential new public use or purpose. Many of the families that used the center and some of the former tenants asked the council to reconsider its decision to sell the Tower Street property, saying it had evolved into an essential hub of services and activity, especially for families with economic challenges.
Thomas J. Liguori Jr., the lawyer who represents the Royce Family Fund, said Charles Royce suggested leasing the property and generating a dialogue on potential uses.
"Chuck [Royce] said, 'You don't want to wake up five years down the road and say, 'Wow we should never have sold it without going through some kind of opportunity for community input as to what use might be made of the property and whether that has substantial and public value,'" Liguori said.
New programs that the Westerly Education Center might be interested in starting but does not have room for at its Friendship Street facility could potentially find a home at the Tower Street property, as could human services organizations or recreation programs, Liguori said.
Council President Sharon Ahern said the council listened to residents.
"The community made it very clear they wanted to keep some sort of a foothold on a community center," Ahern said.
Ahern said she is hopeful municipal recreational programs could be moved into the building and that some of the organizations that were forced to move out can return.
Other proposed uses for the property include plans for a "substantial" housing development, Ahern said.
"I would hope the community is pleased. We listened to what people wanted and we took our time to get the right result," Ahern said.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. echoed Ahern's comments. While the town needs additional housing, Cooke said, at least one proposal for the Tower Street property involved an intensive use.
"At the end of the day, do we want 200 apartment units on that property or do we want to take a little more time and figure out what the best use of that property is?" Cooke said.
By dealing with the Royce Family Foundation, the council is working with an established and successful entity, Cooke said.
"Most of the stuff they touch turns to gold whether it's Ocean House, Westerly Education Center, United Theatre or the skating rink," Cooke said. "So if they can come up with ideas for that property it's a win-win for the town and the neighborhood."
Access to the parking lot is important, Cooke added.
"Everybody knows we need more parking downtown, especially with some of the new places like the United Theatre and more restaurants and more stuff than we've seen in a long time," Cooke said.
The fund's contribution toward the parking lot lease aligns with its commitment to the downtown area, Liguori said.
"The Westerly Education Center can certainly utilize additional parking and it makes sense as a part of the fund's overall interest in downtown restoration and revitalization," Liguori said.
Liguori said Lacey was able to negotiate the lease price down during talks with National Grid and noted that the per-parking-space cost to the town is less than the per-space price the town pays to lease a lot on High Street from the U.S. Postal Service.
Town officials have discussed using the National Grid property for parking for more than 10 years.
"Even if people say it's just a perception that we don't have enough parking, it's nice to have additional parking," Ahern said.