WARREN, R.I. (WPRI) — One of Rhode Island’s oldest school buildings could soon become a multi-million dollar condominium.

The historic Liberty Street School in Warren has been vacant for years. In the just over half-acre lot, developers want to put seven units inside the current building and another 18 in a brand-new building that would be constructed behind it.

“We are not changing one thing on this building. We’re going to restore it,” developer John Michael Lannan told 12 News. “The bricks will be cleaned. Everything will be done the right way.”

“The rear building is going to be almost an homage to the front,” he added. “We’re going to have the brick façade, like windows, like roof, like everything.”

Liberty Street School in Warren
Liberty Street School in Warren

The project’s architect, Cardelia Dawson, says the cupola on the original building will need to be rebuilt, and the only change to the original building would be the removal of the fire escapes and the installation of a sprinkler system inside.

However, some neighbors aren’t fond of the plan.

“It’s just too much,” said Barbara Keegan, who lives across the street.

Keegan used to be a student at Liberty Street School. She wants something to be done with the building, but doesn’t like the idea of developers adding more to it. She’s also concerned about traffic.

“I mean, the streets were made for horses and buggies. They were not made for what goes on nowadays,” she explained.

Another concern for Keegan is parking, since the plan only allots one space per unit.

“You’re not going to have just one person live in each apartment, I’m sure, which means more cars,” she said.

A new state law which goes into effect in January states that’s all developers are required to provide.

At a nearly 3-hour planning and zoning meeting Tuesday night, Michael Dobbyn said he won’t be the “not-in-my-backyard guy,” even though Liberty Street School is literally in his backyard. He called on the board to reject the proposal and send the developers to appeal in court because he believes the project is an overly large development for the area.

“It’s hard to picture 25 units on that lot, if you look at it,” Dobbyn added. “Maybe there is a middle ground where we convince the developers to build something that’s slightly more in line with what is appropriate for the space.”

Lannan said that’s not something they plan on doing.

“We don’t go to Superior Court. We don’t challenge things. We just negotiate, and then we come back to another meeting and we’ll find a way through this,” he explained.

Lannan pointed out that they’ve already taken steps to try to reach that middle ground.

“We’ve given a lot already,” he said. “We’ve already shrunk the building in the rear. We’ve taken care of fire apparatus egress, a lot of things that needed to be done here. We basically said yes so far to everything that’s been asked of us, or met people at least halfway.”

Many are also worried about the two giant Linden trees in front of the school that the developers say need to be removed.

“These trees on Liberty Street are really part of the neighborhood, a part of the atmosphere, a part of the feeling. If they come down, it’s going to change the emotional well-being of the neighborhood,” Charles Staton Jr. of the Warren Tree Commission testified.

He, along with other members of the tree commission, asked for “everything to be done to save the trees.”

Only one community member spoke in favor of the proposal, calling it a great opportunity for some people to get on the path to home ownership.

Lannan called his proposal “a win for the town and for us,” noting that it provides the area with some affordable housing.

“There’s a dozen realtors and a dozen people that will tell you there’s a need for this,” he said. “There’s a need for housing throughout the state. We’ve all been derelict in our duties, not building enough in order to drive the price down.”

Liberty Street School sign

The median home price in Warren is nearly $410,000. According to Melina Lodge, executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, a family would need to earn nearly $132,000 to buy a home, but the median household income is $75,755.

“For many people in the town of Warren, home ownership is absolutely out of reach,” she said at Tuesday night’s meeting.

The current proposal lists seven affordable units at Liberty Street School: three one-bedroom units that will cost $175,000, and four two-bedroom units that will cost $253,000. The price may change, depending on interest rates. Lodge explained that if they rise, the cost of the units will go down.

The affordable units will only be available to those who earn 80% of the area median income. Lodge said that breaks down to no more than $57,000 a year for a single-person household, and no more than $65,000 a year for two-person households.

The other condos will be priced under $500,000, Lannan said.

The planning board did not issue a decision on the proposal. The developers are expected to go before the board again in November.

Lannan said he’s open to hearing more suggestions as they await a decision.

“We’re not touching anything until we talk to the town and the historic people and the tree people and the neighbors,” he added. “We’re going to try to do this the right way.”