Still Hoping for the Cranston Street Armory

0
755
Exterior Cranston Armory Credit: Taylor Polites

The Cranston Street Armory, one of Rhode Island’s most iconic treasures, remains lost in a morass of politics and funding questions despite years of State and community attempts to save it.  Even so, efforts like the current one continue, fueled not by greed but by the community’s desire to protect an important and unique Providence landmark.

An agreement with Philadelphia-based developer Scout Ltd. to restore and reinvigorate the Armory was abruptly terminated in July of this year by Governor Dan McKee. Scout had successfully led similar projects in Philadelphia and in Providence at 50 Sims, but McKee said, “It became clear that the proposal put too much risk on Rhode Island taxpayers.” The background for the termination, however, included the whistleblowing of two top McKee representatives during an official visit by them to a Scout Philadelphia project, a massive 1930s-era vocational high school. The behavior, described as inappropriate and offensive, was so outrageous, one would have to wonder if the decision to not fund the Armory re-development had already been made. State ethics investigations are ongoing.

After the July announcement, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley was reported to be in negotiations with the Governor to take over the State-owned property, presumably to reanimate the development plan the Governor had killed. In the meantime, a contract with a Hollywood movie studio to use the Armory as a soundstage for an upcoming feature film received State approval. While the news was generally reported as a hopeful turn of events, residents and organizations like the West Broadway Neighborhood Association were concerned. In a community letter, the WBNA decried the below-market rent being offered by the State and the damage from previous soundstage ventures to both the Armory and the Dexter Training Ground park that it abuts. WBNA Executive Director Siobhan Callahan noted that the Armory being put to use is a good thing, but “this is a densely populated neighborhood and there should be respect for that.” She added, “The goal for the community is the long-term use of this historic landmark, so we want to make sure that it is being taken care of properly.”

The Armory was completed in 1907 from plans by prominent Providence architecture firm William R. Walker & Son. The original purpose was to house the state militia, but the scale and elaborate style of the building was all about civic pride, industrial powerhouse Providence competing with the grand armories of New York City and Boston.

Armory and Training Ground during World War I   Credit: Rhode Island State Archives
The New State Armory   Credit: Collection of Taylor Polites

The “Armory” style of the period was expressed in fortress-like structures, but Providence’s Armory is eclectic and fantastical, made of yellow brick and rose-colored Maine granite with a vast drill hall joining two high-rising head houses of copper battlements and stone-carved lions. Anchors, a symbol of Rhode Island, can be found throughout the building from wood-carved newel posts to iron railings on viewing balconies to stone-carved corbels that dress turrets and towers.

 

 

Exterior Anchor Stone Carving Credit: Taylor Polites

 

 

Newell Post with Anchor
Credit: Taylor Polites
West Head House Credit: Collection of Taylor Polites

Current debates about the safety and viability of the Armory as a community space are at odds with its long history of welcoming people from across the state, from its grand opening ceremony where thousands packed the drill hall, still one of the largest indoor spaces in Rhode Island, to the decades of use as a venue of trade shows featuring cars, flowers, boats, and state agricultural fairs as well as sporting events, community fundraisers, political galas, and public health campaigns. State militia basketball teams played in the drill hall, and indoor track and field competitions between local high schools were a regular feature of the Armory’s life. The New England Patriots even held a practice there in the 1970s.

Chafee Inaugural Event 1965 Credit: Rhode Island State Archives
State Poultry Exhibit Agricultural Fair. Credit: Collection of Taylor Polites

This was the vision that Scout proposed: Turn the expansive 40,000 square foot drill hall into an indoor soccer field and lease out the remaining approximately 120,000 square feet in the basement and head houses to small businesses and entrepreneurs for offices, workshops, and retail spaces. Imagine families coming from across the state, their children playing in tournaments, browsing concessions and small shops, maybe enjoying the park, the farmer’s market, or the burgeoning businesses along this stretch of long-neglected Cranston Street.

Scout’s plan was inspired by guidance gathered through years of community meetings, charettes, and listening sessions led by the State Department of Administration and community organizations that began in 2016. The findings emphasized community access and economic opportunity. Many hailed the arrival of the development agreement with Scout as the opportunity that the State and City had been hoping for. The “low touch” plan focused on a phased renovation that enabled early access and use. State Senator Sam Bell, whose district includes the Armory, stated, “The specific thing I really like about the Scout plan was avoiding a use that overly commercializes a state property and furthers gentrification. It is critical that we remember that concern as part of this conversation.”

The total development cost as proposed by Scout was $72.8 million, with a total of $47 million coming from the State, $28 million directly and $19 million from Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. JLL estimated in their report to the Governor that the project could create “over 400 full-time-equivalent, direct jobs during construction…and approximately 175 ongoing jobs.” This economic activity could lead to over $50.4 million in tax benefits over fifteen years to State and local authorities, not including profit-sharing fees to the State of potentially $2.7 million over the same period. That was the plan the Governor killed. Instead, the State now faces basic maintenance costs over the next fifteen years of $28.5 million, as estimated in JLL’s report, with no clear future.

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has said the Cranston Street Armory is “a critical project in the city’s economic development.” A lot of hope rests on the Mayor’s offer to take over the building from the State, but that transaction poses a financial risk the City would find far more difficult to absorb than the State. In communications revealed earlier this year, Smiley requested $45 million from the State to accompany a transfer of ownership. In this scenario, the State would be making virtually the same investment without any upside. It remains unclear how this form of investment in the Armory would pose less financial risk to State taxpayers. In addition, the deal would require approval from both the General Assembly and the Providence City Council. State Representative Enrique Sanchez whose district includes the Armory is particularly concerned about the amount of funding the State might provide. “I definitely support the Cranston Street Armory falling into the hands of the City, but I think we are not asking enough money. We need at least $65-75 million dollars to sustain the building. The City doesn’t have the funds.”

Aerial View of Cranston Armory 1957    Credit: Rhode Island State

Both the Governor’s and Mayor’s office confirmed negotiations were ongoing without providing any details. The movie deal adds another wrinkle. “All the things highlighted in the Scout proposal we would love to see come to fruition with whomever can do that,” says WBNA’s Callahan. For now, the Armory sits decaying in a familiar limbo, caught between political and financial realities, waiting for a plan.  While Rhode Island’s state motto is Hope, we should all be concerned about the Cranston Street Armory and the way politics have subverted a years-long community-driven plan to make a new future for this important and historic monument.

East Head House Credit: Taylor Polites

Taylor M. Polites is a Rhode Island-based writer, researcher, and educator. For more information about his work, visit his website at www.taylormpolites.com.