Valley Breeze

The Valley Breeze Woonsocket North Smithfield 04-18-2019

The Valley Breeze Newspapers serving the Northern Rhode Island towns of Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, North Providence, Scituate, Foster, and Glocester

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22 WOONSOCKET APRIL 18-24, 2019 | VALLEY BREEZE | NORTH SMITHFIELD BLACKSTONE WOONSOCKET EDITION turnover of leadership in the city's Planning Department since he first approached the city almost three years ago. Since 2016, Yip said, he has worked with several differ- ent members of the Planning Department, updating the new director every time there's a change in person- nel. His interactions with the city, he said, began with for- mer Planning Department employee Joel Mathews, who served as special projects director until his retirement from the post in December 2016. In 2017, Yip's primary contact at City Hall was the late N. David Bouley, but the former city planning director stepped down from the post in December 2017, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer the fol- lowing March. In January 2018, Mathews returned to fill the post, but remained only a year before a dispute with some members of the City Council led him to abruptly resign in January. Since then, former Planning Board member Steven Lima has been appointed as acting director of the department. Though Yip did not men- tion the position, the depart- ment has also seen high turn- over in the position of city planner. Within the past few months, former City Planner Ian McElwee was one of sev- eral city employees to leave or be dismissed from various city departments. McElwee replaced former City Planner Rui Almeida, who left the city for a post in Westerly last May. Yip told councilors he had also worked closely with Scott Gibbs, the Economic Development Foundation of Rhode Island president who served a brief term as inter- im economic development director for the city begin- ning last August. Yip said he learned of Gibbs' departure from the position when he called Gibbs to update him on the project only to be told the former director was no longer working for the city. "I don't know what's going on here. I'm not complain- ing, I'm just bringing up the reason for the delay of this project," he said. Yip said his requests were also due in part to the ris- ing cost of construction materials since he began planning for the project, a development he blamed on the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. Estimates on materials, he said, were coming in much higher than he had origi- nally anticipated, with costs for items such as HVAC, electrical systems and an elevator priced hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than he had budgeted. Last year, Yip had told council- ors he expected to invest about $13 million to create approximately 100 apart- ment units in the former school building. "The fact is, the cost of the project is now a lot higher," he said last Thursday. While the project is being partially funded by federal tax credits, those credits come with requirements that can also drive up cost, Yip explained. The company expects to receive 20 percent of their investment, or $2.6 million, back in federal tax credits for historic preserva- tion, but those credits come with a mandate that any new additions to the structure must meet historic standards. After learning replacing the building's poorly insulated windows with historically compliant ones would cost $4 million, Yip said the company now plans to skip the window replacement and hope the state grants a vari- ance on energy efficiency requirements. Other factors driving up the cost of the project, he said, include rising interest rates and the uncertain status of the EB-5 visa program, a federal program designed to encourage investment in U.S. businesses by foreign entities. The Tai-O Group had planned to use the program to gain additional financial support, but the program is currently up for possible changes by the fed- eral government. "This is going to cost more, a lot more," said Yip. "By the time you add up every single item you have, you cannot do this project basically." City councilors gave no commitment of support for the requested accommoda- tions, telling Yip they would need to see documenta- tion on the financial costs of the project before they could consider his request. Councilor James Cournoyer asked whether the company had considered forgoing the federal historical tax credit in exchange for more leeway with construction materials and the ability to purchase cheaper parts. "If we're going to make some of these accommoda- tions, I just think we need some level of support that documents that," he said. Members of the city administration also pointed out the company still has a long way to go toward construction even if the City Council grants the accom- modations. Public Works Director Steven D'Agostino said he has yet to see the company's plans for drain- age, sewage and parking on the property, while Lima said the company has not yet submitted applications for building permits. The Tai-O Group first began talks with the city in 2016, when the developer was one of two companies looking to rehab the vacant municipal property. The original proposal for a 165-unit complex was later scaled back to a proposal that included just over 100 units. Last spring, the group cleared its final hurdle before signing a purchase and sales agreement when the council approved a parking agreement for the property, a source of dispute between several city coun- cilors and members of the administration. BREEZE PHOTO BY LAUREN CLEM Plans for the former WOONSOCKET MIDDLE SCHOOL BUILD- ING could be delayed after Tai-O Group representative Louis Yip requested an extension on the closing of the sale of the building that was approved by the City Council last fall. TAI-O GROUP From Page One

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