PAWTUCKET — In a move that took many neighbors and even some local officials by surprise, the owner of a vacant manufacturing building on Roosevelt Avenue has sought a special permit so the property can be used as a charter middle school that would be part of the Blackstone Valley Prep organization.
On Monday, a public hearing was held by the city's Zoning Board of Appeals for applicant Julian P. Forgue's request for a Special Use Permit for the property he owns at 1135 Roosevelt Ave to be used as a secondary/elementary school.
The Board of Appeals is expected to vote on the application at a meeting scheduled for Monday, Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Pawtucket City Hall.
The 59,304 square-foot, cinder block building formerly housed the Red Farm Studios, a greeting card manufacturer. The industrial building and surrounding land, which is situated in a densely populated residential neighborhood bordered by Roosevelt Avenue, Columbine Avenue, Mendon Avenue and McCabe Avenue, is zoned “MO Industrial Open” and a school use would be allowed by Special Use Permit, according to the city's zoning ordinance.
The building has been vacant and was for sale for about five years, according to application documents. Forgue, who lives in North Scituate, has owned the property for about nine months.
The documents filed with the application and labeled “Rhode Island Mayoral Academy” show plans to renovate the building into a 16 classroom school, with two parking areas and a bus drop off lane. The surrounding open space would be turned into a multi-purpose athletic field.
Although unspecified in the application, city officials say the proposed school would be an extension of Blackstone Valley Prep, a Rhode Island Mayoral Academy that is part of a non-profit, tuition-free network of public charter schools. Students are recruited and selected by lottery from four local communities: Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland and Lincoln.
Under this proposal, the Roosevelt Avenue site would house the middle school grades, 6, 7, and 8, that are planned to be added to Blackstone Valley Prep by 2013. This would mean approximately 320 students. Currently, Blackstone Valley Prep operates an elementary school for grades K, 1 and 2 at 291 Broad Street in Cumberland and another school at 7 Fatima Drive in Cumberland for grades 5 and 6.
Forgue's application was accompanied by a letter of support from former Pawtucket Planning Director Michael Cassidy, who was acting in the capacity of a land use/planning consultant. Cassidy outlined several ways in which the requested use would meet the criteria of the city's zoning ordinance. He also wrote, “Based upon my professional review of the City's Comprehensive Plan, as amended, it is my professional opinion that the proposed request is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and the use of the property as a middle school, will have no negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood.”
However, several abutters of the property told The Times that they are upset about the charter school proposal and believe it will negatively impact the surrounding residential neighborhood. They also maintained that they and the other neighbors were not given enough information about the public hearing and think the upcoming vote on the matter is taking place too quickly.
“Only eight neighbors showed up at the public hearing, because the letter only said 'secondary/elementary school.' It didn't say anything about a charter school,” said Deborah Leduke. “I think most people thought this school was something the city was doing.” She added that she and her husband, Stephen, are worried that the school will change the now-quiet area considerably with the addition of school buses, bells, increased traffic, and noise. She also said she thinks the narrow streets are going to problematic with the addition of school buses and parents dropping children off.
“We feel like this is being pushed down out throats,” agreed Sharon Dowrie, who lives on Roosevelt Avenue close to the proposed school. She and her husband, Shane, who have three school aged children, also say they are concerned about the additional bus and car traffic, parking issues, and noise that the school will generate. She pointed out that as a non-profit, the charter school would likely not be paying any taxes to the city, while still being in need of municipal services.
Dowrie added that, given the size of the building and surrounding site, she expects it to be expanded far beyond the middle school grades and 320 children that are described in the proposal. “This could end up being a school with 1,000 students, and this neighborhood just can't handle that,” Dowrie said.
Dowrie and Leduke both said that they felt that City Councilor David Moran, who was at the public hearing, was not being responsive to the neighbors, citing another area woman who said he had not returned several phone calls. They also said the council president, who represents the district, appeared to be on the side of the applicants—something that he denied.
The Ledukes said they intend to get a petition against the proposal going around the neighborhood and the Dowries said they would like to set-up an informational page on Facebook, the social media network, to get the information out. Yet, Dowrie lamented that there is not much that can be done in the one week's time preceding the vote.
Zoning officials say that over 100 letters were sent out two weeks ago to property owners who live within 200 feet of the site notifying them of Monday's public hearing and inviting them to view the plans and applications in the Building Inspector's Office at City Hall. Yet, the letter just names Julian P. Forgue as the applicant and 1135 Roosevelt LLC as the owner of the property and lists his request for a special use permit for a secondary/elementary school. No mention is made in the letter of an affiliation with Blackstone Valley Prep or the Rhode Island Mayoral Academy.
City Councilor David Moran said that he had only learned of the proposal about a month ago and had been filled in one some of the details just prior to the meeting. He said that while he is the district councilor, he did not intend to testify at the hearing because the use is already allowable by permit. He said it is his job to make sure that the charter school, if approved, would be a suitable fit for the neighborhood and he will be watching it “extremely closely.”
Moran noted that the building is zoned for manufacturing, he said he thinks a school would be a far more acceptable use to the neighbors than a manufacturing company that could potentially generate more noise or pollution. He added that he had tried to speak to some of the opponents at Monday's meeting, including a woman who had been trying to reach him previously.
Moran said he had tried to reach out to a few school officials, including Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke, who told him she had only just recently learned of the proposal. He said that personally, he is “for education,” and currently maintains a neutral position about charter schools until he sees more data about their success rate down the road. “They could be the wave of the future,” he said.
Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, who is chairman of the board of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academy and a member of the Blackstone Valley Prep advisory board, said there are no plans to make the Roosevelt Avenue site a full K through 12 charter school, as there would not be enough space. He said the intent of Blackstone Valley Prep is to be a regional entity, and the board intends to keep its location in Cumberland, and is also looking for space in Lincoln. He said the latest proposal would serve to just “step us into Pawtucket” as part of the overall plan.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said that some of the concerns that have been raised from residents about Pawtucket losing school aid or having increased per pupil costs due to the charter school coming to the city are unfounded because the school is already established with an approved plan from the Rhode Island Department of Education. He said Blackstone Valley Prep would essentially just be moving its school into the city and the number of Pawtucket children who would be attending has already been accounted for. “This wouldn't be any different for Pawtucket then if they were putting the middle school in another community,” said Grebien.
The mayor also added that the concerns about the property coming off the city's tax rolls may also be unfounded, depending if the school is leasing through a privately owned company or not. He said he did not yet have the details about the arrangement, but said if the ownership remained private, the city would still collect taxes on the property.