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Days numbered for former French Worsted complex

October 29, 2011

A Coventry Building and Wrecking backhoe sits in the parking lot of the former GianCarlo restaurant, which will be among the buildings at the former French Worsted mill complex to be demolished in the months ahead. Asbestos abatement work has already begun in the buildings in advance of the demolition project.

WOONSOCKET – A former textile manufacturing complex that helped put the city on the map is entering its final days before a demolition crew erases it from the Hamlet Avenue and Davison Street landscape.
City Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik reported this week that plans are moving forward for the razing of the former French Worsted mill complex at 153 Hamlet Ave., the last buildings of a textile manufacturing operation that once filled both sides of Hamlet Avenue.
Work crews for Coventry Building and Wrecking are conducting asbestos abatement work inside the four-building complex and also preparing to shut off city services entering the site from the street.
The property's owner, Henry Vara, of Boston, has contracted with Coventry Building and Wrecking to remove the brick, wood and steel structures from the property as part of an effort to convert it to more modern uses, according to Wojcik.
“My understanding is that there will be a complete demolition of the buildings at the site,” he said. Vara and his contractors have been working with city hall building inspectors on the demolition plan but have not yet pulled permits for the final demolition work, according to Wojcik.
The size of the 6.6-acre complex and its two large spinning buildings, five-story structures of 275,567 square feet and 152,281 square feet, will make the clearing project a complex one, according to Wojcik. The two smaller one-story buildings — the former machine and tool shop that housed a local youth recreation center a number of years ago, and the French Worsted office building that most recently served as a fine-dining restaurant — will likely be the first structures razed to help provide more room for the rest of the demolition work.
Demolition of the complex' towering smokestack will require detailed planning and possibly an implosion option like that used recently at the fire-destroyed Tech Industries building (the former Alice Mill of the U.S. Rubber Co.) on Fairmount Street.
The city's new middle school buildings on the opposite side of Hamlet occupy land cleared of the Lafayette Mill Complex, a textile manufacturing operation constructed in the early 1900s along with the French Worsted mills.
The French owners of the plant were encouraged to come to Woonsocket by Gov. Aram J. Pothier, a former city mayor and resident, and carried the city's existing textile operations to new heights of success and renown. The history of the old plant won it a National Historic Register designation although no federal or state funding has ever been allotted to its maintenance.
What will become of the cleared French Worsted site remains to be seen. Wojcik said his office has been encouraging Vara to consider a possible tie-in between his land at Hamlet and Davison Street and planned improvements at Landmark Medical Center related to its acquisition by Steward Health Care System, LLC.
The health care company's takeover of Landmark could spark a need for more medical and treatment service office space in the area and that could be provided at the French Worsted site with other development, according to Wojcik.
The site's proximity to the middle schools must also be taken into account and that could influence the type of commercial use proposed there, he noted.
Vara's local property manager, Tom Geving, on Friday said many concepts had been studied for reuse of the site and plans were even drawn up by local architect Daniel Peloquin for some of those options.
A key proposal for reuse of the National Historic Register listed property involved renovation of the old mill building into a mixed-used residential and commercial development similar to other mill property conversions around New England.
“We had everything ready to go and even had investors lined up,” Geving said. But the plan relied upon the use of the state's historic tax credit program and when that was eliminated the French Worsted redevelopment went with it, according to Geving.
“The investors pulled out and the project went nowhere,” he said.
Peloquin also tried to put together a proposal for the site to be used for a new Mount St. Charles Academy athletic center that would have required removal of some of the complex buildings and construction of a new ice rink but that also fell through, he said.
The current plan for the French Worsted site is for the buildings to be razed and the cleared land marketed for whatever a potential buyer seeks to locate there, according to Geving.
Vara has kept up with all his city fees for the property despite the high costs of insurance — $100,000 annually — and $125,000-a-year in heating costs for the entire 440,000-square-feet of usable building space. Vara had a handful of tenants at the complex through last year but the revenue did not cover the expenses related to maintaining the buildings, he said.
The French Worsted buildings were also built without the higher-end touches of stone window sills seen in earlier mills built in the city and the steel-reinforced concrete materials that were used are now speeding the building's deterioration.
All of that adds up to demolition as the best option for future use of the 6.6-acre site, according to Geving. “The commercial real estate people have said the property is more valuable with the building's leveled to the ground,” he said.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine's administration could help guide the choice of a future use with the creation of a medical services development zone that would offer possible incentives through tax credits or assistance from the state Economic Development Agency and other interested business development agencies, according to Wojcik.
“There are other possible uses for this property and Mr. Vara has discussed a neighborhood shopping center,” Wojcik said.
It is too early at this point to determine what redevelopment option will be pursued at the site and getting demolition started will only be a first step in that process, according to Wojcik.
Whatever occurs through redevelopment, it will likely increase the city's revenue from the site. The devaluation of the existing structures while unused have put building tax revenues approximately equal to the taxes gained from the land itself, roughly $36,000 combined for the $1.1 million assessed value of the entire complex, according to Wojcik.
A historic connection to the city's past fame in the textile manufacturing industry will be lost when the buildings come down, but Wojcik said that is unavoidable given the potential cost of trying to renovate the mills to a new use.
The structures were designed for a technology of manufacturing that was very specific to the making of woolen goods and that made it difficult for a new use be pursued a reasonable cost.

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