NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It’s been almost four years since the North Kingstown Town Hall was vacated, but the debate over its future continues to be one of the prevalent topics in town and voters will have their say again as they head to the polls for the Nov. 5 special election to decide on approving an additional $7.5 million bond to renovate and update the building as well as the adjacent Veterans Memorial Park.
Question 1 on this year’s ballot pertains to Town Hall, asking voters if they approve of “an act authorizing the Town of North Kingstown to finance construction, renovations, demolition, remediation, alterations, additions and other improvements and/or related equipment for the Town Hall at 80 Boston Neck Road and at Memorial Park (Plat 90, Lot 23) and to issue not more than $7,500,000 bonds and notes.”
Last November, voters approved by a nearly three-to-one margin $27 million in bond projects for the town and school department, $5 million of which was dedicated to the renovation and restoration of Town Hall, which has been standing since 1888.
However, the $5 million bond approved last year would only cover the creation of new Town Council chambers and meeting spaces at Town Hall, according to the North Kingstown Board of Canvassers, while a study presented to the Town Council by DBVW Architects in July 2018 showed that for $12.5 million, the town could move all of their offices currently located at 100 Fairway Drive to the 80 Boston Neck Road facility in a proposal that would expand the current building by 16,000 square feet, or nearly five times its current size, and would be slated for completion in roughly 30 months, around May 2022.
Another plan for $8 million could see a smaller facility with most of the town offices and council chambers moved to the Old Town Hall, while the $5 million plan would restore the current building and bring back some offices and council chambers, but keep most offices at 100 Fairway Drive in their current location.
All plans would make the building up to code and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, something which the facility currently lacks.
For Town Council President Greg Mancini, a supporter of Yes on 1, a yes vote is crucial for the survival of the building.
“Question 1 is probably our last opportunity to save this iconic building,” Mancini said.
Mancini said approving the measure would mean the town could spend no more than the additional $7.5 million on the project and contracts for its construction will be bid out through the public procurement process and that the lower qualified bidder will be awarded the contract.
For Mancini, though the project is more expensive, it makes more economic sense and would be more useful to move all town offices under one roof.
“We have money available now to restore the council chambers and to make the building ADA compliant,” Mancini said, referring to the $5 million plan. “That means the building would be used only for municipal court and Town Council meetings, so the building would be vacant 335 days per year.”
“That will leave us with two Town Halls, the one at 80 Boston Neck Road and the one at 100 Fairway Drive,” Mancini added. “Our town couldn’t take care of one Town Hall, I don’t see it being able to take care of two.”
Mancini said that the expanded building would therefore have expanded parking, allowing for more spaces for those attending council meetings and other events at Town Hall.
These plans, however, would most require some changes to the Veterans Memorial Park, which could include moving the monuments there next to the Civil War Memorial in front of Town Hall or over to Updike Park, but Mancini says the town is flexible on the issue and believes the town should go through a public process to determine such actions.
“The big dispute is whether or not we’re going to keep Veterans Memorial Park the way it is or whether or not we’re going to use a portion of it for parking,” Mancini said.
Mancini said the town is within its rights to do so, presenting a document from the United States Department of the Interior dated December 1965 detailing the town’s purchase of the land and stating “a small parking lot will be constructed.”
That point has proven to be one of the more contentious in the debate, with some arguing that paving over part of the park would be disrespectful to veterans.
“Ripping up and relocating Memorial Park, in my opinion, is absolutely unconscionable,” Jackie Alger of North Kingstown wrote in a letter to the editor featured in the Oct. 17 edition of The Independent.
For many opponents of Question 1, asking voters to approve additional funds after approving $5 million last year is both unfair and fiscally irresponsible, and that the building can be repaired at $5 million or even less.
“As far as I’m concerned, don’t look at $5 million as being a little bit of money and that the building is going to go to hell because it’s not going to be fixed,” Town Councilor Richard Welch said during the Oct. 28 Town Council meeting. “It will be fixed, but I have not supported the $12.5 million right from the beginning, $5 million can do a hell of a job over there.”
Others, such as Town Councilor Mary Brimer, argue that the preservation of historic districts and buildings should be left up to private investors and foundations rather than taxpayers, and that the factors surrounding the decision aren’t worth it.
“The building is in a flood zone,” Brimer wrote in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Oct. 24 edition of The Independent. “The proposal requires moving a war memorial in exchange for a parking lot – so that residents and visitors can compromise their personal safety by crossing a state road to access the building.”
According to FEMA, 80 Boston Neck Road is located in an AE High Risk flood zone, which it describes as “areas subject to inundation by the (one percent) annual-chance flood event determined by detailed methods.”
Save Our Town Hall, the organization supporting Question 1, argues on their website that most of coastal Rhode Island is within that same level flood zone and that precautions to make the building flood resilient have been taken.
The Board of Canvassers estimates the useful life of the new renovated Town Hall as somewhere between 10 to 30 years depending on what project is chosen.
“The old Town Hall can be made ADA compliant and re-purposed for much needed community meeting space for far less than the $5 (million) that was already approved by voters in 2018,” Brimer wrote.
Brimer proposed a fourth option for the project which would focus on renovating the town offices at their current locations and utilizing Town Hall as a community meeting space, something she says will cost roughly $3.8 million and allow for the town to explore utilizing the former Wickford Elementary School or another location for a future Town Hall if needed.
“Question 1 is an outrageous financial imposition on the entire town to further support the property values and rents of those who reside in the historic district,” Brimer wrote.
Mancini said that while he appreciates the passion of No on 1 supporters, he believes they aren’t looking at the bigger picture.
“I think it’s going to cost more money over the long run if they don’t do this… I think that we have to make the investment now,” Mancini said. “This is all coming about because previous Town Councils over many years did not adequately invest in public improvements and so if we continue not to do that, then we’re going to pay more money down the road and not approving this bond and not moving everybody to the Old Town Hall will cost more money down the road.”
Voters will have their final say when they head to the polls on Nov. 5 for the North Kingstown Special Election. For those unable to make the polls, emergency mailer ballots applications are available until 4 p.m. on Nov. 4 and can be received by contacting the Board of Canvassers at (401) 294-3331 Ext. 128.