PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Months after real estate developer Joseph Paolino’s high-profile announcement that he would donate portions of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital to the city of Providence to build a new school, the bureaucratic process of making it happen is underway.
The Providence City Plan Commission on Tuesday night approved a plan — with some strings attached — to rezone the entire St. Joseph’s complex, including acres of land and a building that Paolino is keeping which is not included in the donated parcels set to be taken over by the city. The zoning change also has to be approved by the City Council.
The rezoning of the other parcels on the property has caused concern among residents of the Elmwood neighborhood of South Providence, who argue there should be a concrete plan for what to do with the rest of the property before the city allows it to become a commercial zone, opening it up to a wide variety of development options in a residential area and next to a proposed school.
But city planners argue there is no reason to leave the rest of the former hospital property in an institutional zone known as I-1, mainly meant for hospitals. In an effort to allay concerns, the commissioners included conditions that the remainder of the property next to the future school not be developed into a homeless shelter, liquor store or drug treatment center.
Paolino, a former mayor of Providence, said he has no problem with the conditions imposed and has no plans to revisit putting a homeless shelter on the property, his original proposal for the St. Joseph’s building that was met with widespread opposition.
“I’m not going to do that,” Paolino told 12 News, adding that he understands neighbors may be distrustful of politicians and business people, of which he is both.
Asked what his plans are for the rest of the property, Paolino said Wednesday: “I don’t have any yet.”
Paolino still has a tenant — an urgent care center — in the second building next to the one he is donating the city. But he said after the lease is up he wants to keep his options open, which is why he applied for the zoning change to a C-2 commercial zone. He suggested he could sell it to a charter school, which would fit in well next to the proposed public school.
The zoning proposal is to change more than 30 lots from I-1 (healthcare institutional) to C-2, a general commercial district. (Schools are permitted in both residential and commercial zones, as well as a specific educational zone, but not the current I-1 zone.)
Neighbors who testified at Tuesday night’s meeting and submitted written testimony said they were pleased with the proposal to build a school in the former hospital. But their concerns regarding the rezoning were about the remaining properties.
“There are a whole variety of commercial uses that would be permitted by the C-2 that would be highly incompatible with the neighborhood,” said Tim More. Neighbors say the streets are already too congested with traffic and speeding cars.
Multiple people asked the city to approve only the zoning change required to move forward with the building that will become a school, and hold off on approving any changes for the rest of Paolino’s land.
“Our neighborhood has suffered from commercial intensification that has eroded quality of life for residents over many decades and warrants more careful consideration of development going forward,” said Dylan Peacock, who submitted written testimony.
But Paolino seemed unlikely to go along with zoning changes that didn’t address the entire complex.
“From our perspective this is an all or nothing zoning proposition,” Paolino’s lawyer, Wayne Kezirian, said at the planning meeting. He also noted that Paolino Properties had originally offered to donate the entire former hospital to the city, but the city declined. (Jordan Day, senior deputy chief operating officer for Mayor Jorge Elorza, said the entire property was too large for a school.)
State Rep. Grace Diaz was among those who submitted a letter asking the planning commission to postpone consideration of Paolino’s zoning application.
“The proposed C-2 zoning would allow heavy commercial development that would be incompatible with the abutting residences … could overwhelm the narrow streets, and result in ambient night time lighting,” Diaz, D-Providence, wrote in the letter.
Dwayne Keys, leader of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, said he opposed the zoning changes because of a lack of engagement with the “historically excluded community” prior to submitting the zoning application.
The city and Providence Public School Department did hold a zoom meeting for community members on Jan. 7, after the proposal was submitted.
One of the biggest area of concern has been about four plots of land called the Peace & Plenty Community Garden, used for decades by locals to grow food and share with neighbors long before Paolino owned the land.
But after the Southside Community Land Trust recently approached Paolino about buying the property to keep the garden intact, he said he would give them the land for free.
“My intention is to donate it to them,” Paolino told 12 News. “But I’m not going to do that now,” he added, saying he wanted to wait for the zoning approvals to go though. He agreed to change the garden to a residential zone instead of commercial, which passed the City Plan Commission Tuesday.
Andrew Cook with the Southside Community Land Trust said locals grow a variety of produce in the garden, including vegetables native to immigrant communities that aren’t often found at the local grocery store. The concern with the zoning proposals, Cook said, was that whatever Paolino does with the surrounding lots could put development pressure on the garden to become a parking lot, since the city requires certain buildings have a minimum number of parking spaces.
“We’re happy that Paolino and the city are both working to get it closer to our control for long term garden use,” Cook said Wednesday.
The donation agreement between Paolino and the city of Providence includes the main east building on Peace Street, the chapel, and parcels across Plenty Street that are slated to become a soccer field, playspace and parking lot, according to the city.
The vacant hospital will need massive renovations to become a brand new school, with the cost pegged at $75 million as part of a larger school capital improvement plan, funded in part by bond money approved by voters last fall. The pre-K through 8th grade school is expected to open in 2024.
While the donation agreement estimated the building’s title would be transferred to the city in December 2020, Paolino currently still owns it. Ben Smith, a spokesperson for the city, said the title transfer is contingent on project approvals from the R.I. Department of Education.
While Paolino is giving the building to the city for free, taking it off the city tax rolls will result in a decrease of $420,000 in tax revenue annually, Smith said. The building was under a tax stabilization agreement originally awarded to CharterCare before Paolino bought the property.
The city also agreed to drop a court action related to the building’s property taxes as a result of the donation.
While the Providence schools have been taken over by the state, the buildings remain the responsibility of the city. The school on Peace Street would be unique in combing elementary and middle school into one building.
Paolino said he hopes the distrust from some neighbors will wane as the project moves forward.
“I was mayor of Providence, I love the city, my business is here, I live here, born here, gonna die here,” Paolino said. “I’ve been able to do well in life where if I can give back I wanted to give back.”