NORTH KINGSTOWN—Town Manager Michael Embury announced last week that the town has entered into a purchase and sales agreement with Stanley Weiss Associates, LLC to redevelop Wickford Elementary School. The building, which has been closed since 2005, has been the subject of a number of discussions over the past several years as to how it should be best utilized.
“[This negotiation] has been going on for a while,” said Embury. “There are contingencies in which both the town was interested for making sure we had certain protections, and certain contingencies in which Mr. Weiss was interested, like any negotiation. We got it worked out.”
“Mr. Weiss came in with a firm proposal, and this plan seemed to us to be the best,” said town council president Elizabeth Dolan. “The negotiations with him took a good six to eight weeks back and forth with our town solicitor and his attorney [were about] doing the legal language, such as when deposits would be non-refundable and, for instance if this plan was to not work, he would have to bring alternatives to the town council for approval.”
Stanley Weiss, a well-known developer throughout Rhode Island, will transform the elementary school into a multipurpose conference and hotel space, slated to hold 30 to 40 rooms.
“This facility aims to attract business groups with state-of-the-art, digitally advanced meeting and breakout rooms,” read the town’s release. “[It will] host individuals and social/community events wishing to enjoy an historic coastal New England town.”
Dolan is glad that their six to eight weeks of negotiations with Weiss have borne fruit, and looks at the WES renovations as an opportunity to augment the tourist-focused area around Wickford Junction.
“I am ecstatic and thrilled, we all are,” said Dolan. “I think it is going to be a benefit to the whole town and Wickford, and the concept is to have some transportation linkage between the conference center and Wickford Junction to make travel easy and attract people who want meetings.”
“It will be a wonderful space for people to convene, and I know [Weiss] is optimistic,” she added. “The merchants I have talked to in the village are thrilled, and people see it as a nice opportunity for Wickford.”
Weiss will be responsible for obtaining permits from the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for potential construction of items such as a septic system or additional impervious cover, in addition to a zoning reclassification of the site to accommodate the new use.
“The town has proposed changing the zoning from public to Wickford Village center, [a zoning designation which] was created years back for mixed use properties in the Wickford area,” said Planning Director Jon Reiner. “The uses that Mr. Weiss is contemplating are not allowed in that zone, so we need to change the zoning to something that is suitable for the uniqueness of the property and also match the proposed uses.”
Reiner stated that a public hearing will be held on June 18 to discuss the amendments to both the town’s Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance which need approval for renovations to move forward.
“If the zone change and Comprehensive Plan amendments go through, [Weiss] would need special use permits from the Zoning Board, a new development plan showing the layout of the site, changes in parking configuration, and any changes or additions to the building, which I am not sure there are going to be,” said Reiner. “Once he receives the development plan approval, which is not required to go before the planning commission, he gets a special-use permit then pulls a building permit.”
According to the town, WES’s exterior façade will remain unchanged, but the entrance will be redesigned to face Boone Street on the west side. Weiss will have a period of six months to complete renovations from the start of construction, although he will be eligible for renewal time because of the extent of the work.
“Mr. Weiss has done very nice projects in Providence, such as Hotel Providence, and he was the first one who came to the table with this proposal,” said Embury. “I see it as something that is obviously necessary for the village, a real plus.”
“[WES will be on] a nice scale for smaller conferences, wedding receptions, and things like that,” he continued. “It will absolutely be a shot in the arm.”
Weiss has been criticized by Wickford residents in the past for his renovations of an historic home on Washington Street, which prompted Edward Sanderson of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission to state it was no longer eligible for placement on the National Historic Register. Embury stated that the WES renovation should be looked at separately.
The WES site was first the home of the Washington Academy, one of the country’s earliest teacher colleges. In 1848, North Kingstown signed a 99-year lease with the Academy in order that the school would accommodate Wickford schoolchildren. When the building was destroyed by fire in 1874 and 1906, the current structure was built.
In 1948, ownership of WES was transferred to the town. Since the school’s closing in 2005, the town has discussed several options for its future use. In 2011, for example, Edward Rowse Architects provided two options to consolidate town and school administrative functions at the building, such as Municipal Court and school department offices. The plans went to the public as a bond issue, but ultimately failed approval by North Kingstown residents.