Connect with us

Politics & Elections

Gondolas? Senator Sam Bell holds community meeting on the Cranston Street Armory process



Another idea was “putting gondolas, like ski gondolas, around Armory Park,” said Bell, which elicited laughter from some of those in attendance.

State Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) held a community meeting at Bell Street Chapel Monday evening to answer the community’s concerns and questions about the Cranston Street Armory, the iconic castle-like structure in the Armory District. The building, which has seen various uses over the years since the National Guard pulled out in 1996, is in need of repair. Bell said that he has seen estimates as high as $20M just to get the building into shape, never mind the funds needed to repurpose the building.

The new plan for the Armory, said Bell, where the state is trying to “give the Armory to a private developer, to have a master lease for probably about a thirty year term, but the building would stay, technically, under public management… this means no property taxes.”

This doesn’t sit well with Bell. “one of the things that’s been very important to me is that we find some kind of city revenue. If this building is going to be privatized it’s going to be a private building, Providence needs to have some revenue…”

The first part of the process is to have what’s called an RFI [Request for Information],” said Bell, where people submit “vague ideas” about how they would use the Armory building, “but they don’t have to commit to anything.”

The RFI generated four proposals. “The one that I got the most comments on was the charter school proposal,” said Bell. “Which would bring in ACE [Academy for Career Exploration], which is one of the virtual district charters,” because the school has a heavy virtual component, that is, students are taught via screen time with a computer rather than classroom time with a teacher. Another interested charter school was the Wangari Maathai Community School.

Can we please ask a favor?

Funding for our reporting relies entirely on the generosity of readers like you. Our independence is how we are able to write stories that hold RI state and local government officials accountable. All of our stories are free and available to everyone right here at But your support is essential to keeping Steve on the beat, covering the costs of reporting many stories in a single day. If you are able to, please support Uprise RI. Every contribution, big or small is so valuable to us. You provide the motivation and financial support to keep doing what we do. Thank you.

Become a Patron!
Opens in a new tab - you won't lose you place

Bell heard “a lot of opposition to the charter school idea from people in the neighborhood.”

Another proposal was about “which people might be good but no clear idea about what to do with the building.”

Another idea was “putting gondolas, like ski gondolas, around Armory Park,” said Bell, which elicited laughter from some of those in attendance.

“The idea,” said Bell, “comes from Southern models of development.” The idea is, “to have some sort of high revenue generating commercial thing that subsidizes everything else. But I don’t think that’s the right thing for the Armory.”

The fourth proposal was very bare bones, said Bell, from New York.

“Part of the reason we don’t have any fully fleshed out proposals is because for a long time no one has known anything about the building’s specifics. And if you’re a developer, how are you supposed to vaguely guess?”

Potential developers also have no idea how much, if any, public money is being committed to the project.

The next step of the process is the RFP (Request For Proposals). “That’s the formal privatization process,” said Bell. “That is starting in October… It’s going to be a lightning fast process.” The RFP will open, and the first responses are going to be due in one week. “I have a great concern about the schedule because it’s a schedule that’s set up to not invite anyone else to come in and bid.

“This is also the first time the building’s technical details will be published,” continued Bell. “So I think it’s a process that’s set up up to constrain us and not have any more bids. I’m really worried that we’re not going to get even one decent bid.”

While knocking on doors in his neighborhood, Bell heard from constituents that people want access to the building. They want the building to be for the entire West End, not just for people with money. And they want a development that will support the neighborhood, and one that is supportive and works with the adjacent Armory Park.

The schedule now includes public hearings, tentatively scheduled for January.

Bell is part of the process. He has a position on the committee, and he wants to see how the process will play out. “But I’m growing increasingly concerned, and I think I’m not the only one on the committee growing concerned, about whether this process will succeed and whether we’re going to actually come up with a decent private user.”

“I’m worried that we won’t and that we’ll just end up giving the Armory to some other private development that’s not going to be good for the neighborhood.”

Bell wonders if the Roger Williams Park Casino might be a good model for the Armory. “The idea is that it’s a publicly run event space, and that we open up the drill hall,” as a phased approach to reclaiming the entire building.

Once the drill hall is opened, the drill hall will be its own advertising, said Bell. People brought into the event space will be its own advertising, then we may “get a lot of interest… finding a user for the towers, and some of the space in the basement.”

This approach doesn’t commit the City to anything long term, and it doesn’t ask some private developer to sign something without knowing any of the math,” putting taxpayers on the hook later.

Below is the full meeting:

UpriseRI is entirely supported by donations and advertising. Every little bit helps:
Become a Patron!

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.