2018-04-19 / Front Page

Council Talks Condos for Armory

By Leif Walcutt

This view from the rear of the Armory building from the Ann Street Pier shows the entrance to the Maritime Center. (Photo by Susan Duca) This view from the rear of the Armory building from the Ann Street Pier shows the entrance to the Maritime Center. (Photo by Susan Duca) The Newport City Council moved forward in the potential sale of the Thames Street Armory property to the National Sailing Hall of Fame by a vote of 4 to 3 at its April 11 meeting.

A three-page letter of interest proposed that the sale create two condominiums at the Armory property: the city would retain possession of the basement of the Maritime Center, and the Thames street level and above floors would exist as a separate unit owned by the Sailing Hall of Fame.

The potential purchase price is $1,685,000 and the city would preserve the public's right-of-way to water, beach, and access to the Ann Street Pier.

Newport City Solicitor Christopher J. Behan, Esq. explained that the purpose of the document is “commonly used in business transactions such as this for the purchase or leasing of property.” Behan says the letter is not legally binding unless the city enters into a purchase and sale agreement with the Hall of Fame.

Mayor Harry Winthrop, council members Lynn Ceglie, Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Marco Camacho voted in approval for the letter of interest. Council members Jamie Bova, Susan Taylor, and Kathryn Leonard voted against the resolution.

“First of all, we’re not selling the building tonight. There’s no purchase and sale agreement,” said Winthrop. “We’re determining if do we want to do something different with the building. Do we want to sell it or do we want to entertain another entity coming in.”

The property is set to close 90 days after signing the purchase and sale agreement, during which time the city agrees not to solicit, entertain, or accept any other offers for the Armory property.

City Manager Joseph Nicholson outlined the assessment and fair market value of the building during the meeting. He said the purchase price outlined in the letter of interest was from three separate independent sources, one of whom was the town’s tax assessor.

Aside from discussion of the property’s market valuation, city council members discussed the potential sale process, “In going through this process, it seems to me we’ve missed a step,” said council member Jamie Bova, who opposed passing the letter of interest.

“Before we can vote on the LOI, I think we as a council would have had a public discussion and vote on the divestment of the Armory building, excluding the Maritime Center,” said Bova.

Council member Kate Leonard reminded the chamber that the Armory is one of two waterfront properties currently owned by the city, the other being the Newport Yacht Club, which is publicly owned and leased as a private entity.

"This is a discussion of the merits of the proposal that is before the city council. This is not a public workshop to discuss a myriad of different options,” said Winthrop before opening up the discussion to the public.

One concern about the proposed condominium agreement is that the city could be outvoted due to losing majority percent ownership of the property. Behan said this claim is “not true,” adding, “all decisions require the vote of all condominium unit owners.”

One of the letter’s stipulations is that the property must be free of tenants and occupants at closing, a provision that would affect the more than 70 antique dealers currently selling at the Armory Antique Marketplace.

More than 15 members of the public spoke, the majority opposed to selling the Armory.

Susan Haliberda, a contractor at the Armory Antique Market, said, “The Armory employs majority of people 55 and older… age discrimination is very much alive and well in our society.”

She added, “We are asking for an opportunity as the Armory Antique Marketplace to at least reach a laurel leaf out to the city to see if there’s anything we can do to help raise funds, work out some kind of deal with the tenancy.”

Council member Lynn Ceglie wanted to clear up a few misconceptions she has observed over the past months’ discourse on this topic, “If the sale goes through, the Armory would be on the tax rolls for the first time ever.”

Ceglie said the city has used reputable firms to appraise the building, the sale will “save a historic building,” and the property could not be converted to residential units. “I believe the Sailing Hall of Fame is acting in good faith,” she said.

Regardless of a provision in the letter of interest ensuring exclusion of “right-of-way to the water and Ann Street Pier” from the sale and condominium declaration, Newport residents were still wary of giving up the property. “The adjacent beach behind the Maritime Center is our deeded publicly accessible waterfront property, the only one between Perotti and King Park,” said Newport resident Pam Fleming.

“There has not been adequate encouragement of community involvement in addressing the future of this property,” said Fleming, who is part of Newport Friends of the Waterfront, a local non-profit organization with the goal of “ensuring continued public access to the Newport harbor front.”

Other members of the community spoke in favor of the Armory’s sale to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, including Brad Read, Executive Director of Sail Newport. “I commend the city and all the diligence you’ve done to continue to provide the public’s access to the water,” he said.

Newport resident Bartlett Dunbar, former chairman of the Newport Redevelopment Agency said, “The Armory is the city’s last connection to the waterfront.”

He said the potential sale could be the “best of possible worlds. It retains the waterfront access and it gets a use to connect with that location.”

“A hall of fame type of organization would be a perfect fit on Thames Street,” said Read. “Fort Adams has seen its share of museums. They have failed.”

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