PROVIDENCE — Hours after the state terminated Scout Ltd.’s contract to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory, Kari Lang was still frustrated and tongue-tied.
“I’m angry, I’m disappointed, and I can’t even believe it,” Lang, who had advocated for redevelopment of the massive building for nearly 27 years, said in an interview with the Globe.
Lang had led the West Broadway Neighborhood Association until she retired from the position in 2021, but has since remained part of efforts to redevelopment the armory. The state-owned property has largely sat vacant since the Rhode Island National Guard announced in 1996 it was vacating the castle-like building.
“After all of these years, and after the most inclusive and transparent process this state has ever seen, this governor just ripped it all up,” said Lang.
On Monday, Governor Dan McKee’s administration announced it was terminating its contract with Scout, the Philadelphia-based developer that submitted plans to redevelop the historic armory. The move comes after JLL, a consulting firm hired by the state for $84,000, released a 42-page analysis that determined the project would not be “in the financial interest of the state taxpayers.” The move came just months after the developer accused two Rhode Island state officials of inappropriate conduct during a business trip to visit a Scout property in Philadelphia.
McKee “could be remembered as the governor with the Philly trip,” said Lang, who was told about the contract’s termination by state officials in a virtual meeting just half an hour before the governor held a press conference announcing the decision. “Or he could be remembered as the one who saved the armory, who called out bad behavior, and did the right thing.”
“The big take-away: They’re blaming the building, they’re blaming the community, and they’re blaming Scout for the state’s own bad behavior,” Lang added. “It’s insulting.”
Scout, which specializes in reviving urban buildings, had proposed to transform the armory into a mixed-use space that would include a small business hub; a workforce development program; state offices; an outdoor promenade; and an indoor soccer complex, as well as event, retail, and restaurant spaces. In Philadelphia, the firm won awards for a similar redevelopment of the much-larger Bok building, which was transformed into a space for small businesses and artisans. Former governor Gina Raimondo had awarded the contract to Scout in 2020, before she became President Joe Biden’s secretary of commerce.
Scout was notified of the termination in a letter sent Monday after the administration met with reporters.
By 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Scout executives had not responded to McKee’s letter, R.I. Department of Administration spokeswoman Laura Hart confirmed.
Representatives at Scout have not responded to the Globe for comment.
The news comes after months of issues between current and former members of McKee’s administration and Scout executives that stemmed from a series of racist and sexist comments that now-former state property director David Patten made on an official state trip in March to visit the Bok building. Patten resigned in mid-June after his comments to Scout executives were made public when Attorney General Peter Neronha ordered the McKee administration to release an complaint emailed to McKee’s office by Scout officials — a document the administration attempted to keep secret for nearly three months.
Rebecca Atwood, president of the WBNA, was on vacation when she heard the news. “I didn’t think I’d spend my vacation in rural Maine Googling ‘is whistleblower retaliation illegal,’ but here we are,” she texted a Globe reporter.
State Senator Sam Bell and state Representative Enrique Sanchez released a joint statement, decrying the administration’s decision after Scout’s executives reported “extortion and sexual harassment” by state officials.
“Retribution on this scale makes my stomach churn,” said Bell. “The culture where state contractors got extorted for kickbacks and would lose the contract if they even dared to speak up about it was one of our state’s greatest shames. That it continues to this day embarrasses not just McKee but the state as a whole.”
Sanchez said McKee’s move sends a message “that this is what happens if you speak out about extortion or sexual harassment in his administration.”
McKee pushed back against the idea that Scout’s contract was canceled because of his officials’ alleged misconduct. The state was being asked to invest $60.9 million in taxpayer funds to make the project viable, he said, while Scout was investing “zero dollars in the development.” He said the redevelopment Scout proposed was “not a state-wide project.”
McKee said the state is in “ongoing discussions” with the city regarding a potential transition in ownership of the armory. But city spokesman Josh Estrella said any transaction would require “adequate capital improvement funding” from the state.
During a recent episode of the Rhode Island Report podcast, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said the city was “prepared to put real financial resources into the proposal,” but that “the level of investment that we can make is not enough to get the project done on its own.”
Providence City Council President Rachel Miller, whose district includes the armory, said she remained committed to helping repurpose the property “for the betterment of” residents and the city “in a matter that respects the many years of neighborhood input.”
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who served as the city council president from 2019 to 2021 and is a candidate in the First Congressional District race, had advocated for Scout’s proposed plans for the armory to reach the next phase. Matos spokesman David Folcarelli said she “is disappointed that this specific proposal won’t move forward.”
Critics of McKee used the news to take shots at him on social media.
“Here we go again. Another botched development falling through the cracks,” tweeted Rhode Island GOP chairman Joe Powers, who said the news was déjà vu. “From Tidewater to the Superman Building, Gov. McKee has been a disaster as governor. Which project is he going to mess up next?”
JLL’s analysis found that the cost to implement Scout’s plan would result in “a net negative of around $10.5 million over 15 years.” The state previously estimated that ongoing maintenance and operations of the armory property will cost the state $28.5 million over the next 15 years if it’s not redeveloped.
Liza Burkin, who leads the Providence Streets Coalition, called the McKee administration “an absolute trash fire.” “Let’s continue to spend millions on the armory and get absolutely nothing in return,” she tweeted.
“Right now this building costs the state millions of dollars every year with bandaids and duct tape to just keep the building upright and watertight,” Smiley told the Globe in an interview for the podcast. “And so we as state taxpayers are spending money, real money, on a building that has no economic contributing value.”
State officials said they were “not concerned” over legal ramifications of terminating its contract with Scout, even though the contract said the state cannot use another developer for the armory project.
Brian Hodge, a Neronha spokesman, told the Globe on Tuesday that the attorney general was not briefed ahead of the administration terminating its contract with Scout..
For Lang, who is often seen wearing a gold pin of the armory on her shirt, the property is “so unique compared to anywhere else in the whole country.”
“It’s a castle, it’s an opportunity,” she said. “And again, another governor, another administration, just couldn’t understand that.”
“I’m still not going away,” she promised. “Not until this is solved.”
Globe reporter Steph Machado contributed to this report. This report has been updated to include information about Scout’s response to the termination, and information from a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office.