NORTH SMITHFIELD – After eight months of planning that included gathering both professional and resident input, bi-weekly meetings and consultation with various organizations, Halliwell Review Commission is set to finalize their proposal for Halliwell Elementary School this week.
And more likely than not, it will include demolition of all of the old buildings on the property and construction of a large, modern multi-use facility in the freed-up space.
“We just don’t think that there’s any value to keeping the existing buildings,” said Commission Chairman Jeffrey Porter this week at a public hearing on a report on the property by firm Weston & Sampson Engineers. “I understand building 10 could be reused, but how much money do we want to spend on a 70-year-old building? It’s not worth the return on investment. I personally think it would be a waste of money.”
Senior Project Manager Carolyn Wells presented Weston & Sampson’s report, which included many reasons that rehabilitation of the 11 buildings that once comprised the elementary school is not considered economically viable: the structures are filled with asbestos, plagued with mold and not up to modern standards on everything from fire suppression and energy efficiency, to ADA compliance.
“From our perspective, the outlay of cost really makes it impractical to reuse the buildings,” Wells said.
Further, Wells noted that much of the nearly 40-acre lot is covered with wetlands, buffers and slopes, making the space either difficult or impossible to use.
“This is a very complicated wetlands site,” said Wells, noting the large lot holds three streams ranging in size. “What I want to stress is that, although this looks like a very large parcel with lots of possibility, it’s more complicated than that.”
Wells said that if the current buildings remain, “It doesn’t give you a lot of wiggle room.”
The firm held a charrette to gather public opinion on potential uses in July.
“What we were hearing was that people really saw the site as a place for peace, for recreation, for relaxation,” said Wells. “A place to enjoy nature. A lot of people pointed to a lack of space for senior use.”
“The idea of a multi-use community center kind of emerged as something people could agree on,” Wells said. “If you can coagulate all of these uses into one structure, it really opens up the possibility of other uses for the rest of the site.”
Weston & Sampson architect John Comeau said that asbestos appears to have been used in nearly all aspects of Halliwell construction years ago, including the roofs, floors, ceilings, walls and more.
“It was kind of the heyday in putting asbestos in everything you could think of,” said Comeau of the wood-framed structures, which feature cedar siding. “They’re very much of their era, and have not seen substantial improvement over the years. A lot of the buildings have experienced water damage to the interior. They’re very mold infested.”
Rehab, Comeau said, would require a full gutting of the structures down to the studs.
Town Councilor Paul Vadenais pointed out that issues considered less urgent when the buildings were being used as a school would all need to be addressed.
“By it changing use, we need to bring the buildings completely up to code,” Vadenais said.
Wells presented several graphic renderings including the preferred design, which envisioned a new, multi-story building in place of the California-style former school campus.
Porter noted that the new structure could be several stories high, with dedicated space for seniors, as well as many other options.
“I understand there’s nostalgia,” he said of the buildings, noting that the plan could aim to recreate the feel of Halliwell with architecture, while using new materials for a more efficient, modern space.
“We’re feeling that ultimately, the best use for the property is a community center with space dedicated for seniors,” Porter said.
Town Council President John Beauregard said full realization of the vision could take up to 12 years.
“The plan should be small steps,” Beauregard said. “I think you guys have done a great job. The elephant in the room is money.
Linda Thibault, who leads the town’s Senior Advisory Committee said that the town’s senior population has been mobilized during the process.
“We’ve been using Scouter’s Hall. We share it,” Thibault said. “I’d like to see something in my lifetime.”
Town Councilor Kimberly Alves suggested that the wait might not be as long if the town looks at other possibilities for seniors, such as an expansion to Scouters Hall.
“There’s other options in town,” Alves said. “I think we just need to kind of look outside the box.”
Thibault pointed out that grant funding could be available for creation of a senior center.
“There are ways that we can make this happen,” she said.
Porter said that a full master plan for the property could include prioritization with a timeline demolition, creating trails and new construction.
“It could be diced and sliced any way you want it,” said Porter. “We really want to formalize our recommendations to you. Whatever it becomes, the Halliwell name is certainly going to still be tied to that property”
The hearing including little feedback from the general public, with most conversation between members of the two boards at the joint meeting and engineers.
“I’m wondering when the buildings might go up in flames or when a kid playing down there will get hurt,” said Commission member Anthony Guertin. “We have safety issues.”
Porter said that the council’s next meeting will include looking at hiring a firm to provide estimates for asbestos abatement, along with an estimated cost of demolition.
“That’s going to be presented at your next council meeting,” Porter said.
Whatever the plan, councilors will either have to officially expand the scope of the commission’s work, or it will come to an end in the upcoming weeks.
“I know that we’ve all been very invested and energetic,” said Commission member Christopher Simpkins. “We’re all very excited to continue our work going forward. I think we really have done a good job of listening and building a consensus.”