After the city believed it had been spared from the wrecking ball, the developer who acquired the Elizabeth Mill as part of the 86-acre Leviton property says preserving the icon of Warwick’s industrial heyday doesn’t make economic sense.
The news has prompted Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson to launch a “Save Elizabeth Mill” campaign on Facebook and comes as a disappointment and a sense of betrayal to members of the administration who successfully fought a plan to level the 100,000-square-foot brick building more than a year ago.
Mayor Scott Avedisian holds out hope that the building could be marketed to someone prepared to take on its conversion to a new use, or at least incorporate features of the mill and its signature bell tower into new construction.
But in an interview last week, Michael Integlia of MICO LLC, who bought Leviton last fall, said a financial feasibility study of the mill concludes the “numbers are pretty thin” and that “federal and state tax credits are needed to save any [historic] building.” Integlia said he looked at a variety of new uses for the mill, including offices, apartments, a hotel and even a commercial reuse of the structure.
Integlia said he continues to meet with consultants and has broadened efforts to save the mill with its outright sale for redevelopment. Another avenue being explored, he said, is a joint venture and new construction that would replicate the character of the Elizabeth Mill.
But to redevelop the mill would take more than $20 million, he estimated. He doesn’t see that feasible without tax credits.
“I think the city has done a lot to open two lots [the Leviton property was subdivided into five lots] for development,” City Planner William DePasquale said. “I think it’s got to be a two-way street and some time should be offered to Elizabeth Mill to market that property.”
But Integlia is talking of demolition as soon as this year.
Integlia said there are some fundamental issues with the building, including its “very porous” bricks and its long and narrow layout, which doesn’t lend itself to office development. The windows and the roof need to be replaced.
“Even with all those upgrades, the envelope [of the building] wouldn’t meet the standards for energy,” Integlia said.
Meanwhile, under the terms of the subdivision that facilitated Integlia’s purchase of Leviton, he was to have bifurcated the historic portion of the building from its newer sprawling warehouse – now owed by Dean Warehouse – by April. The city has extended that deadline to June. Dividing the building will separate the mill from its heat source, meaning the sprinkler system will need to be drained before winter.
“We have a small window here of 30 to 60 days [to reach a course of action],” Integlia said.
Those actions could include outfitting the mill with a heating system, a projected $250,000 expenditure that doesn’t contribute to the redevelopment of the property; conversion of the wet to a dry sprinkler system estimated to cost $75,000 to $100,000; and demolition.
“This is a tricky period of time,” said Integlia. “We’re sincerely making an effort.”
He doesn’t see “returns” in converting the mill, citing Rhode Island residential and office rental rates. He said if the mill were in eastern Massachusetts, rentals would be 50 to 100 percent higher and the project would be financially viable.
Although built in the 1870s as a steam powered mill by Thomas Jefferson Hill – it was named for his wife, Elizabeth – the mill is not designated as a historic building and therefore is not subject to protection.
Nonetheless, DePasquale argues it is a landmark and the building that will make development of City Centre – the area between the airport and Jefferson Boulevard – unique from “Anywhere USA.” He says once the mill is gone “it is gone,” and even though elements of it could be saved or incorporated into new construction, it won’t be the same.
DePasquale said the city worked with Integlia to subdivide the Leviton property, which “released the value” and enabled him to market it. Soon after the closing, Integlia sold off the warehouse to Dean. About 30 acres of wetlands and land with environmental issues arising from the disposal of industrial waste is to be left untouched. This leaves two other sites for Integlia to develop in addition to the mill property.
“Let’s give it a bit more time,” argues DePasquale.
Another developer who had control over the property was prepared to raze the mill so as to save on property taxes more than a year ago. When the administration learned of the plan, it stepped in to save the mill. It then worked with Integlia to put together the deal that resulted in the sale of the property and its subdivision.
DePasquale said leveling the mill would not serve to save Integlia taxes and that, in fact, with the building gone the land would carry a higher value for tax purposes.
Even if they were available, which they aren’t at this time, Integlia says state historic tax credits may not be the mill’s salvation. He said if he won tax credits, he would be required to use union labor and that would crank up costs by 25 percent. Depending on the amount of the tax credits, any savings could be wiped out.
“We’ve been struggling with this,” he said of efforts to save the mill.
Vella-Wilkinson is hopeful public pressure and publicity will serve to bring forward a group or company looking to re-purpose the building. Possible uses she suggests are a brewery, a museum and housing. But having talked with Integlia, she’s not convinced he’s open to saving the mill.
“It seemed to me that he had made up his mind that he wants another big box office building,” she said.