WOONSOCKET – Despite a request from the applicants to table the proposal for fine-tuning, the Zoning Board has unanimously rejected developer Leszek Przybylko’s plan to convert the Stadium Building into 21 owner-occupied condos.
The proposal represented a $1.3 million investment in a deteriorating landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the operators of the adjoining Stadium Theatre were hotly against it, arguing that low-cost housing would drag down theatre business.
The zoners apparently agreed, killing the plan on a 5-0 vote.
“We’re not against business but we don’t want to bring in businesses that are going to hurt the ones we already have,” said Zoner Richard Masse. “We’d be better off trying to build an arts and entertainment center there.”
Neither Przybylko nor his lawyer Lloyd Gariepy were present, though several dozen opponents, many affiliated with the Stadium Theatre Foundation, filled Harris Hall Monday to protest the plan.
Gariepy said he was surprised to learn of the panel’s actions because he had sent members a letter asking for the proposal to be tabled. The purpose of the delay was to give his client time to iron out a compromise plan with neighbors, including Beacon Charter School, that relies less heavily on recycling the empty office building for residential use.
“All I can say is in all the years I’ve been practicing before the zoning board these types of requests have historically been granted,” he said. “Unfortunately, for whatever reason that didn’t happen this time.”
Woonsocket’s Economic Development Director, Matt Wojcik, who also sits on the Stadium Theatre Foundation’s board of directors, said he supported Pzybylko’s plans because it is in the broader interest of the city to expand the tax base. But Wojcik said he has always been open to exploring other options for redeveloping the building, which was the rationale for Przybylko seeking the delay.
Wojcik said there might be some grants available to help Przybylko find an “adaptive reuse” of the building that is more harmonious with the endeavors of the Stadium Theatre and Beacon Charter School, but it is unlikely any of them will be accessible without dedicating some portion of the Stadium Building for housing. The economic development director supports downtown housing because, he says, the area needs more people living in it to thrive.
The census says 499 people live on Main Street, which is a tenth of the figure in Warren, a town with demographics similar to Woonsocket – and a vibrant Main Street.
“Saying you want to redevelop Main Street without a more vigorous residential component is kind of like being a water salesman in the desert,” he says. “It starts off sounding like a good idea, but then you find out you can’t even sell water in the desert because nobody’s living there.”
Even though there is a large, little-used municipal lot opposite the Stadium Building, Przybylko was required to seek a waiver from minimum parking requirements of two spaces per unit. If he had access to 19 more parking spaces, the board would have had no say-so over the fate of the project.
Przybylko said he’s not sure if he was treated fairly by the zoning board. Specifically, he said, it’s unclear whether the board is legally bound to apply the ordinance evenly, in the broader interest of the city, or if it has leeway to bend the rules from one locale to another, depending on popular demands.
“I’m a little discouraged, but I’m not really surprised,” he says. “I don’t think they have enough guidance. I really don’t know who they represent.”
Still, Przybylko plans to meet with representatives of the Stadium and Beacon Charter School to see if it’s possible to hammer out a compromise that works for everybody. Ultimately, he said, the plan will have to make business sense in order to move forward.
But Przybylko will have some very specific criteria to meet if he intends to win over Cathy Levesque, the executive director of the Stadium Theatre Foundation. She says the Stadium Building should be a center for arts and entertainment education that will cement Monument Square’s identity as a destination for arts and culture.
“Unless it’s an arts and entertainment center, we’re not interested,” she said. “We’re not interested in going into the low-cost housing business.”
Built in 1926, the four-story, 29,680-square-foot Stadium Building was the pet project of Arthur I. Darman, a prominent, turn-of-the-century industrialist who finished building the Stadium Theatre the same year. The two buildings, which are connected, were conceived as a single project that Darman intended to leave behind as part of his personal legacy as a civic-minded businessman.
The late Mayor Francis L. Lanctot spearheaded a campaign to rescue the Stadium Theatre from the dregs of neglect over a decade ago. Now managed by a non-profit foundation that operates mostly with volunteers, the Stadium Theatre is hailed as a major driver of the city’s nightlife economy of dining and entertainment, but the adjoining office building continues to fall deeper into disrepair and dereliction.
Had zoners okayed his proposal, Przybylko would have purchased the building from Wayne Daniels of Stadium Building Associates LLC for $250,000, according to Garrett Mancieri of Gateway Realty. He would have invested roughly another $1 million to convert the building in 21 small condos on the top three stories, with a restaurant and other small businesses on the ground floor.
Mancieri would have offered the studio-size condos for about $85,000 each, hoping to attract young professionals such as teachers or others with an interest in the performing arts.
“I spoke in favor of the plan,’ said Mancieri, one of the few who attended Monday’s meeting who did.