2014-04-10 / Front Page

City Prepares to Market Vacant Schools

By Tom Walsh

For decades, the three stood proudly at their posts in Newport. Thousands of children came and went. Fond, lasting memories were forged.

Today the three still stand, but in silence and alone.

The three school buildings, Coggeshall, Cranston-Calvert and Underwood, were rendered obsolete for today’s children by the new Claiborne Pell Elementary School on Dexter Street.

But while the schools have stood silently throughout this coldest of school years, the debate over what might become of them has been anything but quiet.

“We have three excess school buildings,” said City Councilor Kathryn Leonard, herself a real estate agent for the Lila Delman agency. “To me, the question is how do you get the most out of something? The end game is to put them in the proper hands, collect taxes, and put these properties to their highest and best use.”

Paul J. Carroll, the city’s director of civic investment, agreed with Leonard’s objective, adding, “We need a best-use analysis. What’s feasible? What’s the current zoning? What are the neighborhoods like? Do we sell, or can these properties be strategic assets"?

“Each one is so different,” Carroll said. “But we have to be certain that we don’t do something that adversely impacts the neighborhood. We can’t just drop something in that makes economic sense but does not respect the texture of the neighborhood.”

The debate began last Oct. 1, when the school committee gave city officials jurisdiction over the future of the three vacant schools. Cranston-Calvert School, opened in 1935, is an urban building just off Broadway. Coggeshall School, opened in 1870, is on Van Zandt Avenue. The Underwood School, opened in 1962, is in the city’s Southern end, not far from the New York Yacht Club and other expensive properties.

Newport’s long history has included 24 elementary school buildings, the first of which was known as the Potter School that opened in 1795. Many of these school buildings still stand, including the formidable stone Lenthal School on Spring Street that now houses condominiums.

Most of the questions posed by the three vacant schools should be answered in the weeks to come by Prudential Prime Properties, the Middletown real estate brokerage firm located on West Main Road. The agency was selected by the city from among four finalists. A fourth vacant property, the Sheffield School on Broadway, was assigned a separate real estate firm by the city last August.

Carroll said the city was still working on a formal contract proposal for Prudential Prime Properties. He said any such agreement will include language that ensures the public will be engaged as the process moves ahead. He said he hoped that part of the process will be done by “this week or next.”

Brian Russell of Prudential Prime Properties said that once the contractual issue has been settled, property appraisals will take about eight weeks.

“The results will dictate the highest and best use of the properties,” Russell said. “Then our customer, the city, will decide what’s best for the taxpayers.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the selection of Prudential Prime Properties.

“Marketing is going to be so important,” said Councilor Leonard. She said she would have preferred a national firm rather than what she called a franchise agency with national affiliations. “These properties have to be marketed to as many people as possible,” Leonard said, adding that she said she was not sure whether the local brokerage firm will be able to reach the broad audience that she believes the situation requires. “It doesn’t work to have just one website and think people are going to find you,” she maintained.

Russell of Prudential Prime Properties said the agency has a wellrecognized “national-global presence. We have contacts all through the Northeast – Boston, New York, all through Massachusetts. We’re going to float it out there and see where people lie.”

Leonard said the process must determine the best uses for each property. “Could two of those schools be considered for small business use, or for technology use?” she wondered.

Leonard also suggested that the process should produce jobs. “We need to investigate that,” she said. “The key is to have a vibrant economy.”

Russell said his firm’s “great platform” includes “a lot of information about where we can find buyers.” And, he added, his own children attended Cranston-Calvert.

“All of these schools have great stories,” Russell said. “Now we’re looking at what the next stage of life for these school buildings will be. My job is to make it happen.”

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