Cover Story – NEWPORT – City officials “State of Our City”
Purchase of Navy hospital, sale of Armory and longevity of cell tower at high school are the other major changes discussed at a forum Tuesday.
NEWPORT – City officials chose a “State of Our City” forum Tuesday night to make some major announcements on school security, the city’s planned purchase of the abandoned Navy Hospital on Third Street, the proposed sale of the Armory on Thames Street and the likely longevity of the cell tower on the Rogers High School campus.
City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson, who is also the city’s director of public safety, said beginning this week there are now full-time police officers stationed at the high school, Thompson Middle School and Pell Elementary School. In the past, there have been budgetary concerns and grants were sought to pay for police presence at the schools.
“It’s no longer about the money,” Nicholson said. “This is the new normal.”
“Our number one priority is public safety,” Mayor Harry Winthrop said. “Who gives a damn about a pothole on Bellevue Avenue if we are not safe?”
More than 100 people gathered in the Pell cafeteria for the forum that was sponsored by Alliance for a Livable Newport, the major neighborhood advocacy group in the city. Audience members submitted written questions that were consolidated and asked by ALN officers Tom Hockaday and John Hirschbeck. Besides Nicholson and Winthrop, Council Vice Chairwoman Lynn Underwood Ceglie responded to the wide-ranging questions.
Such events are not usually the arena in which new initiatives and developments are revealed to the public, but that’s what happened.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently informed the Navy that it could not sell the hospital property to the city until it cleaned up the lead contamination on the site, Nicholson said. That could be a two- to three-year process, he was initially told.
That caught the audience by surprise because the city believed the Navy’s final environmental impact statement was completed and hired an appraisal firm last year to set a value on the hospital property.
Navy leaders came to Middletown on Jan. 30 to complete the sale of the 3-acre former Navy Lodge property at the corner of Coddington Highway and West Main Road to the town for $1.3 million. The deal was the first for the 165 acres of federal land on Aquidneck Island that is part of the ongoing Base Realignment and Closure process.
Newport thought it was next in the pipeline for a property purchase, but “the BRAC people told me they were avoiding me,” Nicholson said. That is when they dropped the EPA ruling on him.
Nicholson said the city initially was given the choice of waiting for the Navy to clean up the property, or buying the land and taking on the full liability for the lead clean-up, “which we were not going to do.” The property must be cleaned to “residential standards,” he said. The city has hired a Boston attorney familiar with the BRAC process to explore whether there could be a “fast transfer” of the land to the city under the condition that the Navy returns to the property and conducts the cleanup, Nicholson told the audience.
“That is our path forward,” Nicholson said. “I don’t want to wait anymore.”
Since the Navy declared the hospital site surplus property in February 2010, the city has eyed the parcel for economic development purposes, but it looks like the wait will continue.
The proposed sale of the Armory to the National Sailing Hall of Fame was given a new twist during the forum.
Members of the public have been concerned about the fate of the city-owned Newport Maritime Center, located in the basement of the Armory, which the city opened in 2012, as well as the beach at the back of the building and the adjoining Ann Street Pier.
Nicholson said earlier this month the Sailing Hall of Fame would own the whole building, but lease the basement to the city for a nominal fee under a 99-year lease. He explored the model of dividing the building into condominiums, with the city retaining ownership of the basement maritime center condominium that fronts the beach, but attorneys had advised him against that, he said at the time.
“I changed my mind,” Nicholson said at the forum.
He now favors dividing the building into two condominiums, with the Sailing Hall of Fame owning the main assembly hall on the first floor level with Thames Street and the second floor. The city would retain clear ownership of the basement level, the beach, and the pier.
“That would answer the public’s concerns about protecting public access,” he said.
Does that delay action on the proposed sale of the Armory? Nicholson was asked.
“Everything is delayed,” he responded.
Winthrop told the audience that the Rogers High School cell tower is likely to be redesigned so that is “amenable” to the neighbors, but it is likely to remain where it is.
AT& T, Verizon, and T-Mobile currently use the cell tower, but Verizon’s contract expired June 18, 2017, AT& T’s contract expired Oct. 23, and the T-Mobile contract expired Dec. 28. The companies continue transmitting though. The school department receives a total of about $90,000 annually for the lease of the tower, an amount the companies continue to pay.
The School Committee voted in December 2015 not to renew the telecommunications contracts once they expire. This action was taken because of ongoing neighbors’ complaints about the tower.
“It was a misinformed decision of the School Committee,” Winthrop said at the forum.
He said the companies have explored with city officials whether a new tower could be built near the high school auditorium, or whether a new tower could be constructed across Old Fort Road at the Fire Department’s Station 5. Both towers would be too large and obtrusive, he said.
The three telecommunications companies hired a consultant firm to complete a comprehensive report on the impact of removing the existing Rogers High School tower. The firm determined large areas around Ocean Avenue, Brenton Road and Gooseberry and Hazard beaches would be left without cell coverage.
“We cannot lose cell coverage in the south end of the city,” Winthrop said.
Time was spent at the forum discussing the realignment of the Pell Bridge ramps, which could free up about 60 acres for economic development, both Winthrop and Nicholson said.
The state Department of Transportation, which is now designing new approach ramps, will hold a public workshop on the project on Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m., in the council chamber of City Hall.
The state has committed $40 million to this project, Winthrop said. It was one of a long list of public investment and private investment projects that were either completed in the recent past, are now taking place, or are pending that city official presented.
Leading the public investment list was the $120 million that the city has been investing in its two water treatment plants and the wastewater treatment plant.