WARREN, R.I. — The Liberty Street School, which opened as Rhode Island’s third public high school in 1847 and has been vacant for years, could get a second life as condominiums. Yet, in a town where new home construction is sparse, neighbors are publicly airing their grievances over the project’s size, and some are asking planning officials to force developers to significantly downsize the project or reject the proposal altogether.
The property at 10 Liberty St., which includes a two-story early Victorian school designed by the major 19th-century American architect Thomas A. Tefft, is being proposed as the site for 25 new residential units. Seven of the units would be considered affordable.
The redevelopment project would preserve the school’s exterior. The existing building would house seven units, and a new addition that would be set back from the street would house the remaining 18 units.
During a nearly three-hour public hearing on the project this week, members of the Warren Planning Board heard complaints about the amount of parking being proposed, and how the project was “too large” for the historic neighborhood.
“Where’s the middle ground? They are proposing what is pretty clearly an overly large development for this site,” testified Mark Dobbyn, whose house is adjacent to the property and who said he did “not want to NIMBY the project.”
“You could reject their proposal, and that forces them to go to the state and appeal. [That’s] going to cost them time and money,” he said. “Developers don’t like to spend time and money.”
Others requested the developer decrease the number of units by replacing market-rate units with more expensive ones.
“What about... putting [in] high-end units? Increase their profitability,” testified Joan Coltrain, a nearby resident. “The proposed size... is out of character for the neighborhood.”
Both neighbors and board members also repeatedly requested the developers “save” the two Linden trees in the front of the school that will likely be removed.
“There’s an emotional connection to the trees,” testified Charles Staton Jr., chair of the Warren Tree Commission. “These trees on Liberty Street are really part of the neighborhood, a part of the atmosphere, a part of the feeling. If they come down, it’s going to change the emotional well-being of the neighborhood.”
While project representatives said they would replace the trees, neighbors said the existing trees assisted “Warren’s environmental ecosystem” by capturing greenhouse gases in the time of climate change, provided shade, and are historically significant. Others paraphrased a section on trees from the town’s charter.
Warren Planning Board Chair Frederick D. Massie nearly concluded the public hearing on Tuesday after he, too, said, “I’d love to preserve the trees.”
The property has largely been vacant for years. The building was “extensively remodeled” into an elementary school in 1927, which one of the project’s developers, Ron Louro of Warren, attended. The school was removed from education service in June 1975. It became the headquarters of a self-help program, and in 1998, became a day care. Plans for the property are intended to preserve the historical significance of its exterior, according to architect Cardelia Dawson, who owns her firm.
The developers — Louro and John Lannan of Bristol, R.I., — plan on having a mix of one- and two-bedroom units with 27 parking spaces. A new state law set to go into effect in January will allow developers to limit one parking space per residential unit. But current zoning laws require the site to have more than 37 spots. It’s one of the technical issues the developers are requesting relief on.
“Regardless of their income [or] job… People are going to have cars,” said Brett Beaubien, the vice chair of the board. “Thirty-seven spaces is required currently. That’s the law we’re following. The new law isn’t in effect yet. This is going to be a problem.”
It’s the second time this year Warren residents are strongly speaking out against a new housing project.
In February, after months of contention, the planning board denied a mixed-use development slated for 119 Water St. that would have razed two historic district buildings previously condemned to make way for a three-story building with 12 residential units. Three of the units would have been considered “affordable,” but opponents argued the project would have disrupted the area’s “character.” The Warren Preservation Society raised nearly $5,000 to retain legal counsel. An online petition of opponents garnered more than 1,300 signatures.
The planning board did not issue a decision on the Liberty School’s plans on Tuesday. The developers are expected to go before the board in November.
The news comes as industry experts say Warren is in serious need of new housing construction.
Since the early 1990s, state law requires municipalities to provide their share of affordable housing of 10 percent of the year-round units. In Warren, only 3.85 percent of all year-round units are considered “affordable” as of 2022..
Warren’s median household income is $75,755 annually, yet families need to earn nearly $132,000 each year to afford to purchase a median priced home in town — which is now nearly $410,000.
“For many people in the town of Warren, home ownership is absolutely out of reach,” said Melina Lodge, the executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island.
The seven affordable units at the Liberty Street School would be reserved for people who earn 80 percent of the Area Median Income. That means there’s an income cap for prospective buyers: single-person households could not earn more than $57,000 annually, and two-person households could not earn more than $65,000 annually.
The affordable units will be barred from becoming “investment opportunities.” “They cannot be rented,” Lodge said. The units not considered “affordable” could sell for up to $449,000 for a large two-bedroom.
“This project, I think, is one way to meet the town’s needs,” said Lodge.