WOONSOCKET – The only bidder for a historic building at the center of a thorny dispute between the city and the state preservation authority has a familiar name.
It's state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket).
Baldelli-Hunt is offering to buy the so-called Victorian office building on Hamlet Avenue for $1, saying she wants to turn the stately, century-old site into a private school, according to Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik. The Middle School Building Committee – the owner of the building – must study the offer before making a recommendation on whether the city should accept it.
A buck might not seem like much, but more than one ailing, city-owned building has been sold off in the past for the same amount. And unless the city sells the Victorian office building, it might be on the hook for a pricey renovation of the structure it promised as part of the $80 million middle school project.
The cost of refurbishing the building has been estimated to be about $4.5 million, though the city says it might be allowed to preserve the building in its current condition for less. The city has balked at doing even that, however.
Despite pressure from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission to save the building, the city has argued that it should be razed, saying it makes no practical sense to pour resources into a structure the city has no hope of recouping by selling the site at market value.
The building was once the administrative hub of the old Lafayette mill complex, which the city acquired to build the middle schools. The dispute began at least a year before the schools opened in January 2010.
It all came to a head last fall, when the city, on instructions from preservation commission, decided to see if anyone in the private sector was willing to buy and renovate the building. After a public solicitation for bids, Baldelli-Hunt's offer surfaced as the only response the city received during a bid-opening at City Hall earlier this week.
While Wojcik says it's too soon to say what will happen to the Victorian office building, Baldelli-Hunt's offer is certainly worthy of study because it would relieve the city of a substantial fiscal liability.
“We face an extraordinary amount of fixup costs unless we offload it, so we need to offload it,” he said.
The preservation commission has the power to guide the fate of the century-old office building, in part, because it is eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. It is also one of two remaining buildings on the Lafayette mill site that the city promised to incorporate into the middle school project as a condition of receiving state reimbursements for some 70 percent of the construction costs.
The preservation commission firmly believe the office building is worth saving, even though city officials say it's deteriorated to the brink of becoming an eyesore and a potential safety hazard.
“Even in its current condition and juxtaposed with the adjacent new middle school building, the Victorian Office Building has a commanding presence on the site, particularly as one approaches from the Hamlet Avenue Bridge,” state preservation chief Edward F. Sanderson told city officials in a recent letter.
The city still intends to save the other building, a smaller “guard house” on Hamlet Avenue that will eventually be converted into an administrative center for information technologies, Wojcik says.
City officials said Baldelli-Hunt's bid documents do not elaborate on her plans for the Victorian office building, and she could not be reached for comment.
But this wouldn't be the first time Baldelli-Hunt has offered to buy city-owned property. A self-described real estate entrepreneur, Baldelli-Hunt made an aggressive offer for the Ayotte Little League Field off Providence Street about two years ago, but the city eventually pulled the parcel off the market. She also owns the Loads of Fun Laundromat on Social Street.