RIDE Has a Plan to Tear Down Mt. Pleasant High School?!

0
2093
Mt. Pleasant High School photo: courtesy of Providence Preservation Society

Mount Pleasant High School (MPHS) is a storied neighborhood landmark with an uncertain future. The Depression-era structure, built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration, is a “monumental…building in the Collegiate Gothic mode…relatively scarce in Providence,” according to the Providence Preservation Society. Now the Providence Public School District (PPSD), under takeover by the RI Department of Education (RIDE) since 2019, is embarking on a mass-restructuring, which it terms “Newer and Fewer”. PPSD is closing and merging schools, renovating, constructing, and demolishing buildings, and laying-off teachers. Among the restructuring, Mount Pleasant HS is in a likely position of major change.

Mt. Pleasant High School needs major repairs, everything from the installation of a building-wide sprinkler system, to the repair of a leaking gym ceiling, to completely new technology systems, and much more, according to a complete building and systems assessment completed in 2017.  At that time, the estimate to repair it was approximately $31 million.  Then, another assessment was completed in 2022, and it said that Mt. Pleasant needed $151 million to fix all its deficiencies.  In the summer of 2023, RIDE and PPSD proposed three options for Mount Pleasant High School – complete demolition, hybrid demolition and renovation, and complete renovation. PPSD Superintendent Javier Montanez said at the time that “we haven’t made a decision yet,” but only days later his Deputy of Operations, Zach Scott, said that full renovation is “not a viable option” due to cost, which PPSD estimated to be $190 million.

Controversy arose when the district held three public meetings, two organized in tandem with Ward 5 Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan and the third a tour of Mount Pleasant High School.

Community members voiced concerns about the varying numbers, the plan to demolish the school and also, the fact that the public engagement had been (and remains) inadequate.  Many wondered why the whole building could not be simply renovated. State Senator Sam Bell, representing Providence’s fifth district – which also includes Mount Pleasant High School, observed that “the people in the community who attended the meeting … want to see Mt. Pleasant renovated.” Senator Bell publicly refuted the district’s claim that full renovation would cost $190 million, citing the 2017 Jacobs Solutions Report, which assessed every Providence school building and estimated total renovation of Mount Pleasant to cost only $31 million.

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS), which included Mt. Pleasant High School on its 2007 Most Endangered Properties list, and more recently, the entire Providence Public School District on its 2024 Most Endangered Places list, has advocated for adaptive-reuse of the building instead of environmentally harmful demolition. “At about twice the size of the Cranston Street Armory, Mount Pleasant is a megastructure that would create enormous amounts of waste for our landfill at a time when the world is moving swiftly towards adaptive reuse and sustainable development,” Marisa Brown, PPS Executive Director told the Providence Eye.

David Morales, State Representative for Providence’s seventh district, whose constituency includes MPHS, thinks that the school district has not properly followed up on community desire to renovate the structure.

“There was limited public input in the summer,” Morales said, “and there’s been no follow-up since then. Their general approach…is to say that there’s public engagement, but they don’t advertise the few public meetings that they hold, and then there’s low attendance.”  Neither PPSD, RIDE, or the City of Providence have held public meetings specifically regarding Mount Pleasant since September.

Senator Sam Bell aired his concerns about demolition. “RIDE has made clear that they want to destroy the building or at least get the school out of there,” he told the Providence Eye.

Bell fears that the building will be closed and subsequently handed over to a charter school – “that’s exactly what they did with Carl Lauro,” referring to the Federal Hill elementary school, which PPSD shuttered in June 2023, citing delapidation.  Then, on March 11 of this year, the Providence Board of Contract and Supply (BCS) recommended that Excel Academy, a Boston-based charter network, take over the building.

As PPSD continues to make plans for Mt. Pleasant, their construction proposals gradually become reality. In September, 2023, PPSD submitted its plan to RIDE – which allows for complete or substantial demolition with an earmark of $110 million. The Board of Contract and Supply (BCS) issued a request for proposal (RFP), allowing contractors to submit bids to complete the project. As of March 25, 2024, the BCS received two bids.

Photo: courtesy of Homes.com

The first is from Agostini Construction Co., based in East Providence. The bid offers four options, ranging from $105.8 to $138.9 million at expense of taxpayers via a $235 million bond passed by RI voters in 2022. Option A, the most expensive of the four, includes total demolition. Option D, the least expensive option, proposes renovation of 220,000 square feet and demolition of only 7,600 square feet. The $105.8 million price tag for Option D is about $4.2 million cheaper than RIDE’s $110 million budget. Options B and C fall in the middle – partial demolition and new-build for $106.9 and $126.9 million respectively. This contradicts PPSD’s contention that renovations would be too expensive and new-build would be cheaper.

Agostini, which would partner with Bacon Construction Co., has won several contracts with the city – including to renovate the Narducci Learning Center, Classical High School, and Nathan Bishop Middle School.

The second bid is from the firms Shawmut Design and Construction-Feingold Alexander Architects in a joint venture. Shawmut has offices across the country, including in Providence, and Feingold-Alexander is headquartered in Boston. Their bid outlines two proposals – the first includes demolition of the majority of the structure and renovation of only the auditorium, and the second includes total demolition and new construction. Their bid only provides an initial expense of $17.5 million for design, with the cost of construction to be determined.

The BCS – whose membership includes Mayor Smiley, Council President Miller, Councilors Goncalves and Anthony, School Board President Rogel, and various city department heads – will determine a winning bid based on multiple criteria.  According to PPSD spokesman, Jay Wegimont, in an email, “There has not been a decision made to renovate the facility. It will either be all new or mostly new (preserving some components of the building). Factors determining the selection will include community input, feasibility, and overall cost.”  The BCS will refer the winning bid to the Providence City Council’s Finance Committee.  If approved, it will move to the City Council for a vote. If passed, the project will proceed to permitting and construction.

How the decision will be made as to which design/build firm is selected, and which vision for the school is selected has not been announced. Likely, however, PPSD’s redesign of Mount Pleasant HS will play a role. The redesign plan, which introduces new pedagogical models for Mount Pleasant, Hope, Alvarez, Juanita Sanchez High Schools and DelSesto Middle School, will transform MPHS into an “Early College and Career Academy.”

Meanwhile, Nathan Bishop Middle School was slated for demolition years ago, and ultimately, due largely to neighborhood protest, was completely renovated.  It is now a showcase school for PPSD.   It is not clear how, or if, the Board of Contract and Supply, PPSD, RIDE and the City Council will factor community concerns about demolition and renovation into their decisions about Mt. Pleasant High School.

Dexter Vincent is a senior at Classical High School, Co-Director of the Providence Student Union Leadership Team, and Elmwood neighbor.  He is passionate about local politics, climate resilient urban planning, and independent journalism.  In his free time, he reads books about cities and art, listens to Rachmaninoff and Miles Davis, draws Providence architecture, and plays with his baby brother.