Charrette brings out strong opinions on Halliwell property; 441 respond to survey

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – While opinions on which direction the project should go may vary, results of a recent survey and community meeting show that North Smithfield residents care about the future of the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School, and are invested in the outcome of the long-term project.

This week, the committee guiding the effort to plan for reuse of the land held a brainstorming session with residents, first presenting results of a survey soliciting opinions on how the 32-acre lot should – and should not – be utilized.

“This meeting is a very important step in our process to understand the needs and desires of our community in the Halliwell property,” said Halliwell Review Committee Chairman Jeffrey Porter, thanking the several dozen residents in attendance on Saturday, July 24.

Vice Chairman Christopher Simpkins noted that the group received 441 responses to the online survey, which ran for roughly six weeks. Simpkins, who said he works for a survey company, noted the response surpassed the group’s expectations.

“It’s tough to get people to take surveys,” he said.

One question presented brought out the same answer from a clear majority: 90 percent of respondents want the town to keep the property, and would not be in favor of seeing it sold.

As for potential uses, senior center was the top response, with mention by 41 percent of survey-takers. Community center was the second most often cited use, at 29 percent, while additional respondents referenced some type of center without mention of age.

Twenty percent of survey takers mentioned desire for a playground and recreation, and 7 percent pointed to a community garden, one use that’s already underway. Eight percent said they want to see Halliwell become a police or public safety complex, but Simpkins noted that North Smithfield Police Chief Tim Lafferty has indicated the department should remain at or near its current location on Smithfield Road.

Asked how they do not want to see the land used, 29 percent indicated opposition to any type of private commercial or industrial use, and 27 percent said they would be opposed to housing, or a condo development.

“I have spent so much time looking at these responses,” Simpkins said. “The first takeaway for me is that people are excited about this project.”

Simpkins noted that other clear takeaways were that residents overwhelmingly want something community-oriented, and to see the land used in various ways.

“People want to turn Halliwell into some kind of community space that offers multiple activities,” he said. “Residents want ways to connect with their neighbors.”

Representatives from Weston & Sampson, the firm hired to help the town to identify possible future uses for the space, guided an informal, collaborative conversation on Saturday, known as a charrette, after a brief explanation of current conditions of the existing buildings on the land.

“The exteriors are in pretty rough condition,” said Caroline Wells, senior project manager for Weston & Sampson.

Wells noted that to use any of the existing buildings, items such as the roofs, windows and electrical systems would need to be replaced.

“We have to make sure things are safe for public use,” Wells said, noting that the structures would also need to be brought up to modern code standards, with installation of sprinkler systems and ADA compliance.

Wells noted that the meeting marked the beginning of what is likely to be a very long process to arriving at an actual project, saying it will be around five years before any type of construction gets underway. She said the property could have several uses, with varying elements prioritized and phased in over time.

“Halliwell is a little different than many sites I’ve seen,” Wells said. “There’s a lot of land around it.”

Her firm, she said, has worked on many similar reuse/rehabilitation projects. Well was also working as the town planner in Warren during another rehabilitation that converted a former school into a culinary business incubator, including a farmers’ market and cooking classes.

“My point in showing you this is, if the community wants something that’s creative, it can happen,” Wells said.

Many uses were mentioned during an informal group discussion on potential plans this week, with some conflicting opinions on whether or not there should be space dedicated exclusively to town seniors.

“Right now, there is nothing in this town for seniors,” said Linda Thibault, chairperson of the town’s Senior Advisory Committee, noting that seniors use Scouter’s Hall for some activities, but many of North Smithfield’s older residents utilize dedicated centers in neighboring towns.

Resident Cynthia Roberts, a founder of community group Engage North Smithfield, said the Halliwell group should have further community outreach to get more opinions, and hold additional, focused discussion on whether or not the site should be multigenerational.

“I feel we have to have in-depth conversations about that,” Roberts said. “That seems to be the most controversial aspect of this discussion.”

Committee member Stephen Corriveau, the Town Council’s liaison to the Halliwell board, defended the survey’s reach, noting that in many cases, responses represented whole households.

Others at the roughly two-hour meeting on Saturday emphasized the desire to see an outdoor track, including Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski, who noted the only track currently in town is at the high school, and is dedicated primarily to students.

“I would like to endorse that we do some sort of outdoor track,” Zwolenski said.

Porter said that the size of the property makes it ideal for several such uses.

“There are opportunities to have either passive or active recreation in some way shape or form,” Porter said.

Former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski pointed out that it can be difficult to find such large lots of land able to accommodate something like a new school when the need arises.

“This is a unique opportunity, and we’ve got to incorporate some long-term considerations,” Ezovski said. “We need to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the long term. There may be a portion of this we need to save.”

The board is expected to utilize all resident input and data collected as members hash out a large-scale plan, with ongoing help from Weston and Sampson. The Halliwell Review Committee generally meets on the first and third Thursdays of the month, with agendas posted with the Secretary of State.

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