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Federal Halfway House Proposal Riles Providence Neighborhood

Thursday, March 20, 2014


A plan to build a halfway house for federal convicts re-entering society has a neighborhood in Providence up in arms over concerns about public safety and the potential impact on property values.

A Florida-based nonprofit wants to convert an industrial building and vacant lot near the intersection of River Avenue and Valley Street in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood into a residential release center for an estimated 25 offenders with a federal felony conviction, according to city zoning board records and an attorney for the nonprofit, The Transition House, Inc.

But not if neighbors have their way. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have one of these. I’m saying they shouldn’t have it here,” said Joe Baginski, the owner of Professional Ambulance, at 52 River Avenue, next door to where the halfway house would be built.

Public safety worries

He worries about the impact on public safety, saying that those most like to visit ex-federal prisoners are “their criminal associates.” But John Mancini, an attorney representing the nonprofit agency and the current property owner, Nancy Kim, challenges such concerns. “It’s actually going to create additional security,” Mancini said, adding that the security cameras around the building will add another set of watchful eyes in the neighborhood.

There will be three staff on duty at all times, whom Mancini described as “counselors” who meet federal training requirements. He said the facility has a security plan and will have to comply with regulations from Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations.

The nonprofit agency, The Transition House, has a history of providing a substance abuse treatment services for the criminal justice system in Florida, according to its application to the zoning board. The agency’s Web site says that it also provides services to those suffering from mental health disorders and is a contractor for the Florida Department of Corrections. It does not mention any affiliation with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Baginski worries that ex-drug offenders might not make good neighbors for his business, where he houses the Class II narcotics that he uses on his ambulances. “Does that sound like a good mix to you?” he asked.

Asked to respond, Mancini said Baginski had a duty to keep his narcotics secure. “If there are drugs that are easy to access … I think that is a big problem for him,” Mancini said.

Mancini also said the halfway house would not be specifically geared to federal drug offenders. It could be anybody who has a federal felony conviction, according to Mancini.

Does that include violence offenders? Ultimately, Mancini said a federal review board would determine who would live there. “I think the odds are low,” he said. But, he added, “there is a possibility.” He suggested that it’s unlikely any sex offenders could end up in the facility, since most offenses involve violations of state, not federal, law.

Facility near playground, residential neighborhood

The proposal has alarmed many of the residential neighbors who came out in force to oppose it at a Jan. 30 zoning board meeting, according to city Councilman Terry Hassett, whose ward includes Mount Pleasant. One mother was reportedly brought to tears at the prospect of her daughter having a bedroom eye’s view of the halfway house.

The facility would be located at four lots—42, 46, and 50 River Avenue and 59 Prescott—which today is home to a woodworking shop and a storage facility. Across the street and next door are business and industrial lots. But the site sits on the edge of a densely populated neighborhood and is less than a block away from a playground, the John J. O’Brien Memorial Park.

Hassett said he opposes the project, describing it as “disruptive” to progress the community has made in recent years. “I think it would be detrimental to a community we’re trying to advance,” Hassett said.

Not that he’s against transitional housing for prisoners, Hassett added. “I think it’s the wrong area,” he said. When asked where he thinks it should instead be located, Hassett said he did not have an alternative location in mind. Instead, he said there needs to be a study of what the best locations would be.

The halfway house would be the first of its kind in Rhode Island. Currently, there is no such facility located between Boston and Bridgeport, according Mancini. Because it would be the first in the state, Baginski says there are no state regulations that ensure it will be safe, meaning no accountability for the owner.

But Mancini said the facility will have to meet the approval of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has identified a need for it in Rhode Island. He said the U.S. Marshal’s Office and the Office of the Probation Officer for the U.S. District Court would also be involved in the approval process. Mancini said the prisons bureau has already issued conditional approval for the facility.

Before federal authorities will sign off, The Transition House needs a variance from the city zoning ordinance, which does not allow halfway houses anywhere in Providence. In his application, Mancini noted that the city zoning ordinance does allow drug or rehabilitation centers and group homes with medical treatment in some areas.

The application went before the zoning board in January and is schedule for another hearing April 7. The zoning board chair, Myrth York, did not return a call seeking a comment. Neither did a city spokesman.

Baginski says he thinks a halfway house would be better suited to a suburban area where several acres of open space could provide a buffer between it and neighbors. But Mancini said federal prison officials want it in an urban setting where residents will have access to public transportation, highways, taxi services, and nearby jobs.

The halfway house would be for Rhode Island residents or ex-offenders who have some connection to the state—like a relative or a job lined up, according to Mancini. Opposing the project, he said, would not keep those offenders from coming to Providence or make the city safer.

Agency would be exempt from taxes

Beyond public safety, Baginski and Hassett are also worried about the economic impact of the halfway house. Both expressed concerns that it could diminish property values. “I don’t want to be near a correctional facility,” Baginski said, adding that he might just take his business, with its 60 employees and $2 million-a-year payroll, somewhere else.

Mancini maintains that property values won’t be affected. His office provided GoLocalProv with a copy of a letter from a Pawtucket based real estate appraiser, William E. Coyle, III, to the zoning board, who reached that conclusion. “Based on all of the information reviewed and prepared, it is my position and opinion that the proposed change in use will have no impact on the surrounding properties or their values,” Coyle states in the Jan. 30, 2014 letter.

Part of the problem, for Baginksi and others, is not only what The Transition House is adding to the neighborhood, but also what it’s taking away: a property that currently is on the tax rolls for Providence. As a nonprofit, Baginski said it would be exempted from local property taxes.

Mancini said the agency is “amenable” to making payment in lieu of taxes. He was not sure how much the payment would be.

The controversy comes on the heels of a similar one that erupted a few months ago when a state plan to relocate the state’s parole and probation offices to Fountain Street in downtown Providence. After meeting with stiff resistance from local business, state officials ended up backing off the plan.

Mancini insists that the halfway house would be a positive addition to the River Avenue neighborhood. He said the renovations would actually add value and bring new life to a street that is marked by several vacant lots. “We’re not trying to ‘throw more garbage on top of garbage,’” Mancini said, quoting a resident who had opposed the project at the Jan. 30 hearing.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


Related Slideshow: Providence’s 10 Most Endangered Properties of 2014

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57 Federal Street (Early 19th Century) 

Federal Hill

PPS Most Endangered: 2014

Building type: Residential

Threat: Neglect

Among the oldest buildings on Federal Hill, 57 Federal Street is a two story, 5-bay-facade, center hall-plan house with a single interior brick chimney and a central entrance with sidelights, located between Atwells Avenue and Broadway. While Federal- era houses of this style are not uncommon on the East Side of Providence, the Federal Hill neighborhood was largely undeveloped grazing land before 1820. Although 57 Federal Street is likely one of the oldest remaining buildings in the immediate area, it is not included on any historic resource survey, and is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While the existing door head may be a modern replacement, several of the building’s details remain remarkably intact including the building’s clapboards and window sash. Unfortunately, the house has been abandoned for several years, with broken windows on the second story leaving the building completely open to the elements.

In the coming year PPS hopes to better document this unique building, and work with the City of Providence to fully secure the building and address maintenance and safety issues.

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Atlantic Mills (1863)

100 Manton Ave, Olneyville

PPS Most Endangered: 2009, 2010, 2014

Building Type: industrial

Threat: Deferred Maintenance

The Atlantic Mills complex historically includes a collection of buildings on Manton Avenue with its original power source, the Woonasquatucket River, running behind it. One of Providence’s most highly visible and visually distinctive mills, it features almost-twin circular-plan stair towers topped with robust balustrades, high ribbed domes, and tall lanterns (one now missing). Otherwise utilitarian in design, a mill typically achieved architectural distinction through the ornamentation of its most prominent feature, the tower on its façade. Although the mill structure is being utilized, the towers are falling into a state of disrepair.

The mill’s eastern section, designed by Clifton A. Hall, was built in 1863 for the production of worsted cloth to supplement the original 1851 mill (long since destroyed); the nearly identical western section followed in 1882. Stretching west along Manton Avenue are small workers’ houses, originally fifty-seven in all—a remaining example of company-built housing in Providence. By the late 1880s, with 2100 workers, this was the largest textile mill in Providence. It continued to manufacture textiles until 1953.

After difficulties competing with modern textile facilities in post-World War II New England, several small industries and businesses were housed in the space. Today, the former mill complex is used as commercial space, including a furniture store, and carpet warehouse. Plagued by neglect, lack of maintenance, fire hazards and flood damage, Atlantic Mills is at risk. The towers, which serve as the distinctive “face” of the mill, are in the most danger.

PPS has worked with the owners and managers of Atlantic Mills in the past, and we look forward to exploring new opportunities in the coming year as the preservation community advocates for the extension of the State Historic Tax Credit program.

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Bomes Theatre (1921)

1017 Broad Street, South Providence

PPS Most Endangered: 2009, 2011, 2014

Building Type: Commercial

Threat: Underutilization, Neglect

The Bomes Theatre is a two-story, Beaux Arts-style, flat-roof, brick structure with stone trim. It is embellished with elaborate terra cotta trim and detailed moldings on the façade. Architectural embellishments include modillion blocks, dentils, a projecting cornice, carved shells, and stylized designs. A sign reading ‘Bomes Theater’ is centered at the roof line. Plywood now obscures the original fenestration.

Following its use as a theatre, the Bomes building was occupied by Jason’s Furniture. The property is currently owned by the Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA) and part of the Industrial and Commercial Building District (ICBD), a thematic, scattered-site local historic district. Much opportunity exists for rehabilitation efforts that would greatly enliven the community’s art, theatre, and music culture. This theatre could once again thrive as a premiere arts venue on the south side of Providence.

A community meeting hosted by the City of Providence in late 2013 openly discussed the issues and preservation options for building. PPS hope to continue this momentum in 2014 by determining preservation priorities with the PRA, and exploring realistic options for the building’s rehabilitation.

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Doyle Avenue Historic District


PPS Most Endangered: 2014

Building Type: Residential

Threat: Neglect

Located just north of the College Hill Historic District, Doyle Avenue is composed of several mid- to late-nineteenth century multifamily residences characteristic of working and middle class dwellings in southern New England. Named for Providence Mayor Thomas A. Doyle, the corridor was constructed during the 1860s to connect Hope Street and North Main Street. Doyle Avenue’s development closely followed the growth of Randall Square at the bottom of College Hill as a commercial and industrial center. The houses along this section of Doyle Avenue exhibit the period’s diversity of architectural styles, and include Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne style buildings.

The area was home to carpenters, teachers, and laborers, along with noted musician D.W. Reeves, leader of the American Brass Band and a founder of the Providence Symphony Orchestra. Reeves lived at 78 Doyle Avenue from 1872 to 1900 in a Second Empire style cottage.

The corridor’s historic combination of both owner-occupied and investment properties continues to this day. However, where local residents once purchased additional houses to rent, a number of buildings are now owned by absentee landlords who have purchased property at extraordinarily low prices in recent years. Developers are increasingly applying vinyl siding, removing historic porches, and making other exterior changes that serve to mute the architectural character of the district.

Although Doyle Avenue has a number of meticulously maintained historic houses, the adverse effects of inappropriate alterations deeply impact the overall integrity of this National Register of Historic Places district. The issues that impact Doyle Avenue are representative of those facing historic neighborhoods throughout Providence. Because the street is listed on the National Register, income producing properties (including rental apartments) are eligible for the Federal and possible State (should it be continued) Historic Tax Credit. In the coming year, PPS will reach out to owners to educate them about the unique character of their neighborhood in the hopes that they will proactively curtail the practice of removing historic detail before more character is lost.

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Grace Church Cemetery and Cottage (1834)

10 Elmwood Avenue, South Providence

PPS Most Endangered: 2014

Building Type: Ecclessiastical/Landscape

Threat: Deterioration

Located at the junction of Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, Grace Church Cemetery has served as a gateway to South Providence for over 150 years. Grace Episcopal Church originally purchased 4 acres for use as a burial ground at the intersection in 1834, which eventually expanded to a 9-acre triangular parcel by 1843. Among the 8,500 burials are Nehemiah R. Knight (1780 - 1854), Rhode Island Governor and, later, Senator, Senator Albert Collins Greene (1791 - 1863), and Episcopal Bishop John P. K. Henshaw (1792 - 1852). Around 1860, the Cemetery caretaker’s cottage was constructed in the Gothic Revival style promoted by A.J. Downing’s in The Architecture of Country Houses.

Today, the Cemetery is part of the Trinity Square Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long a focus of community activity, the caretaker’s cottage was meticulously restored by the Elmwood Foundation (now Community Works RI) in 1982. The cottage was restored again in 2008 in collaboration with the Providence Revolving Fund, and underwent extensive structural repairs after a car collided with the building’s foundation in 2010.

Although Grace Church Cemetery is an active burial ground, the number of interments has fallen in recent decades, greatly reducing funds available to maintain the property. Seasonal clean ups have been organized by Grace Church and the community, and, over the past year, Grace Church, Stop Wasting Abandoned Property (SWAP), and local stakeholders have met regularly to address security concerns and re-activate the Cemetery grounds. Spearheaded by SWAP, initiatives to repair fencing and explore lighting options are underway. Grace Church and the local Elmwood/Trinity Square/Gateway community are also working together to bring to fruition a long-standing plan to transfer ownership of the Cemetery to a separate non-profit named the Gateway Cemetery Company which was created for that purpose in 2001, in the hopes of improving fundraising opportunities and deepening community involvement.

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Historic Houses of Worship 

Historic Houses of Worship (including Broad Street Synagogue, Cathedral of St. John, St. Teresa of Avila Church, United Presbyterian Church, Westminster Congregational Church.)

Historic Houses of Worship are important to the historic and architectural character of Providence. They represent many facets of our community’s history and are often neighborhood landmarks. Each presents unique challenges to historic preservation, but each holds remarkable promise for the future. In 2014, we present four examples of endangered historic houses of worship.

Following a successful educational collaboration in the summer of 2013, PPS hopes to build on a relationship with the Partners for Sacred Places to bring trainings on the preservation and reuse of historic houses of worship to Providence.

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Industrial Trust Building (1928)

111 Westminster Street, Downtown Building

PPS Most Endangered: 2014

Building Type: Commercial

Threat: Deterioration, Vacancy

One of the most iconic and recognizable buildings on the Providence skyline, the Indiana-limestone clad Industrial Trust Company Building rises over 420 feet above the Kennedy Plaza, capped by a 4-story square lantern. The Art Deco skyscraper features streamlined classical motifs above the second story, and set-back pyramidal massing required by an early version of the Providence Zoning Ordinance. Upon the opening of the building in 1928, Providence Magazine commented that the Industrial Trust “has already taken a place in the heart and life of the community.” PPS believes this should continue.

The quickly expanding Industrial Trust Company eventually became Fleet Bank, before finally merging with Bank of America in the early 2000s. High Rock Development purchased the building in 2008, and Bank of America remained as the sole tenant until their lease expired in early 2013.

In the past year, High Rock, along with City and State officials, has started to explore the potential re-purposing of the building. High Rock engaged Providence-based Cornish Associates to research a number of options, discovering in feasibility studies commissioned by both the High Rock and City of Providence that mixed-use residential redevelopment may provide the most likely market for long-term sustainability.

Following a presentation to the PPS Board of Trustees by David Sweetser, President of High Rock Development, PPS issued a statement acknowledging that this may be the most critical development challenge currently facing any historic building in Providence, and one of the most important to resolve. PPS will continue to advocate strongly for a viable re-purposing of this icon and offer expertise in preservation planning and development to the building owner and his development team, to the City of Providence, and to the State of Rhode Island and its agents. We look forward to tailoring the ways in which this engagement might take place to the particular circumstances of the property and its ownership.

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Former RIDOT Headquarters and Garage (1927)

30 Arline Street

PPS Most Endangered: 2008, 2009, 2012

Building Type: Industrial

Threat: Redevelopment, Vandalism

A two-story Art Deco building with a flat roof and pier-and-spandrel construction, the former headquarters for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is one of the only examples of the machine aesthetic in the architecture of Smith Hill. It was one of the first modernist buildings erected by the State of Rhode Island.

The building was acquired by the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) for their Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) project. Plans were in place to have the building demolished until the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission determined that the building would be eligible for a National Register listing through a Consensus Determination of Eligibility in November 2006. Terms of the sale required the current owner to restore and maintain the Art Deco building, and there were reportedly plans to restore the building to garage a fleet of trucks, but the building remains in disrepair and is being underutilized as a warehouse. No plans to begin work on the building have been submitted despite its inclusion on the 2008, 2009 and 2012 Most Endangered Properties List.

The building is now owned by Quality Food Company, a family owned food distributor that has operated out of Smith Hill for over 75 years. With the possibility of an extended State Historic Tax Credit program, PPS hopes to continue the discussion started in 2006 and explore rehabilitation options with the Providence-based company.
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State House Lawn (1901)

90 Smith Street, Capital Center

PPS Most Endangered: 2014

Property Type: Landscape

Threat: Inappropriate Changes

The Rhode Island State House and its grounds, constructed between 1891 and 1901, were greatly inspired by the City Beautiful movement, an extraordinary national turning point in city planning and design largely influenced by the work of Architect Daniel Burnham and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Rhode Island State House, the design of McKim, Mead & White, unmistakably takes its cues from the "White City", the ideals of which were first expressed in the 1893 World 's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and masterminded chiefly by Burnham and Olmsted.

The State Capitol, the physical symbol of Rhode Island's 'lively experiment,' was purposefully positioned to be the focal point of a spacious and verdant landscape, itself designed to be inseparable from the classical architecture of the building. The intentionally-conceived setting, with specimen trees and encompassing greensward, was a pastoral oasis meant to enrich lives in our egalitarian society. This cohesive landscape contrasted sharply with the surrounding urban congestion and was created as the province of all.

Following expansion in 2013 of the parking lot into the State House lawn and the proposal for new surface parking on recently acquired land on Francis Street, these parking initiatives may be in conflict with Capital Center regulations that have successfully guided development in the area. Significantly, there are also substantial preservation concerns at stake with these activities.

Recently, our state government has shown great dedication in promoting the heritage of Rhode Island through the creation of the Charter Museum and Visitor's Center. Additionally, investment in rehabbing the Amtrak Station is a positive step for the future of Capital Center. With the listing of the State House Lawn, the Board and membership of PPS call on the State to continue this positive momentum by exploring long-term parking options that do not sacrifice our common history and denigrate this most spectacular national symbol of the convergence of iconic architecture with its surrounding landscape.

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Ward Baking Company Administration Building

145 Globe Street, Jewelry District

PPS Most Endangered: 2012

Building Type: Industrial

Threat: Vacancy, Neglect

This two-story, brick, flat-roof building originally featured numerous ells constructed between 1908 and 1956. The original complex was bounded by Eddy Street, Globe Street, and Manchester Street (now known as Marengo Street). All that remains is a two-story section of the complex at the corner of Eddy and Marengo. The entrance is flanked by sidelights and set below several bands of brick corbelling. This two-story block was part of the original building and appears on the 1908 Sanborn map. The blonde brick structure features projecting brick piers between each bay, topped with stone trim. Fenestration is comprised of rectangular openings with a combination of glass block and boarded up windows.

According to a combination of both maps and business directories, the Ward Baking Company building was constructed between 1901 and 1908. Between 1908 and 1918 small additions were built to the rear of the building. By 1926, an additionbuilt on the Eddy Street side of the building, adding an additional 6,432 square feet. Between 1937 and 1956 a large section for storage was added to the rear of the building.

The Ward Baking Company remained at this location through the late 1970s. After being left vacant in the early 1980s, Retailer’s Food Center Wholesale took over the site between 1985 and 1988. Tara Manufacturing Co. and Ideal Rack Co. were also housed there around 1988, sharing the space with Wholesale Foods. By 1993 the building was once again left vacant.

While the building is currently threatened by demolition, PPS is advocating that the owner and managers of the structure explore alternatives and honor a 2011 ruling by the Providence Historic District Commission to preserve the Administration Building.


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