WOONSOCKET – In the most ambitious venture of its kind since the recession, a North Smithfield businessman is proposing a $1.25 million conversion of the historic Stadium Building into 21 small condominiums.
The city, which has seen scant private investment on a downtown strip pockmarked by vacancies and blight, is giving Leszek Przybylko’s proposal for 329 Main St. a cautious thumbs-up. But not everybody’s clapping.
The operators of the adjacent Stadium Theatre, which was built as part of the same project as the Stadium Building in 1926, are concerned the condos will be a turnoff for theater patrons. Cathy Levesque, the CEO and executive director of the Stadium Theater Foundation, says the project poses too much of a risk to the growing momentum of the city’s burgeoning arts and entertainment economy.
“Over the past twenty years Woonsocket has experienced firsthand the crucial economic impact that converting Main Street into an arts district has brought to our community,” she said. “It is in the best interest of this city to continue steadfast in maintaining this area as a true arts district by promoting the conversion of the adjacent Stadium Building into an arts and educational complex.”
It appears the job of deciding whether the project moves forward will fall to the Zoning Board of Review. Although the 29,680-square-foot, four-story Stadium Building is located in a zone that permits condos on all but the ground floor, the proposal needs some relatively minor waivers on parking restrictions and setback requirements, or how close the structure may be to its nearest abutter – in this case, the Stadium Theatre.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is currently owned by Wayne Daniels of Stadium Building Associates, LLC, which is headquartered in West Warwick. Garrett Mancieri, the realtor handling the sale to Przybylko, says Daniels already has the theater’s permission to use 25 of its parking spaces off Federal Street, or 19 fewer than the zoning ordinance requires.
Also, Mancieri said, if the building is used for residential purposes it must be at least 25 feet away from a section of the theater located behind the structure, but it’s somewhat closer than that.
The zoners are scheduled to consider Przybylko’s application for relief during a hearing on April 22 at 7 p.m.
A key bone of contention between the developer and the Stadium Theatre is the target market for the condos Przybylko would build if zoners grant the requested variances. Mancieri says they’ll be comparatively small, about 600 square feet, and sell for $85,000 or less apiece.
To some, the product sounds like just another down-market housing project that’s going to become a magnet for the poor. They say that could be a setback for the Stadium, which is often praised by city officials as the leading engine of a growing, nightlife-based arts-and-culture economy, especially the restaurant business.
“There are potential outcomes for the Stadium Theatre that would not be helpful,” allows Economic Development Director Mathew Wojcik. “But I’m not iffy about it – I’m going to support the project. I’m cautious, but I think it is in the long-term interest of the Stadium Theatre to save the Stadium office building in the same way.”
The Stadium is “a very important building” in the city’s inventory of historic structures and another chance to save it may not come around again for a while, if ever, Wojcik argues.
The local economy has landed in a kind of sweet spot for real estate investors, he says. As the region emerges from recession and a housing bust, real estate is undervalued and interest rates are at historic lows. The mix is attracting the attention of investors, but to cut a deal it’s critical to strike while the iron is hot because the conditions, inevitably, will be fleeting.
“We have a window opening with some of these buildings,” he says. “We can’t let the ideal get in the way of the very good.”
Przybylko wholeheartedly rejects the notion that the project he proposes will inject an unsavory residential element into the heart of a thriving entertainment district.
Critics infer too much from the fact that the condos are to be economically priced and comparatively small. Such units would be an ideal first home for well-educated young people who might like the idea of living in a lively arts district.
“What I’m hearing is negative thinking, looking too much in terms of short-term needs,” says Przybylko. “How about this – is it possible we could retain some youth in Woonsocket?”
Though civic leaders talk of “rebranding” the city as a new center of arts and culture as a stratagem for promoting economic development, Przybylko said it can’ t hurt to bring in more people who actually live downtown.
“Downtown needs people,” he says. “Without people there is no downtown.”
Mancieri, the realtor, agrees.
“We think people might like living here and not needing a car to go everywhere,” he says. “They can walk to Ciro’s, Chan’s, or Chelo’s. The building might even appeal to older people who spend half the year here and the other half in a retirement area like Florida.”
Mancieri said the plan is to find a restaurant tenant for the ground floor, which would also support the Stadium Theatre’s mission.
From a tour of the building, it’s readily apparent that it will require a costly and aggressive rehab to meet Przybylko’s goal of bringing the condos to the market by spring 2014. Some elegant details of the building’s storied past still survive, including ornate tile mosaics on the hall floors, ceiling murals similar to those in the adjoining theater and marble accents on the walls
Yet the long-vacant building has fallen deep into disrepair. Paint peels off the ceiling in palm-sized curls, plaster erodes from walls, debris and dust clutter the floors.
The brainchild of Arthur I. Darman, a civic-minded industrialist who came of age at the turn of the 20th century, the Stadium Building and the Stadium Theatre were meant to be joined at the hip, with several points of common egress. Darman maintained an office in the building which still bears his name on the door, beside the heading, Stadium Realty Corporation.
But Darman always thought of his architectural venture as much more than just an office building, according to an entry in the National Register of Historic Places.
“From the time Arthur Darman assumed control of the project, it was conceived to be as much a civic monument as a commercial enterprise,” the register says. “For Darman, the Stadium Building was another way of stating his civic commitment...it symbolizes the extensive multi-faceted energies of one man to work for the betterment of his city.”
In his own promotional literature, Darman called the Stadium complex “the consummation of a personal ambition to erect a proud landmark in the progress of Woonsocket.”
Przybylko, who runs a concrete company, says he has worked extensively on residential rehab but has never taken on a project of this magnitude on his own before. Beyond the purchase price of $250,000, Przybylko said he intends to sink $1 million into the brick and glass structure to bring it back to life.
He says he realizes the Stadium is in tough shape, but he’s undaunted.
“I’m not afraid of this building,” he says.