Preservation Commission’s Law resigns due to ‘contentious’ working conditions

Preservation Commission’s Law resigns due to ‘contentious’ working conditions

Former chairwoman of the Smithfield Historic Preservation Commission Katie Law searched the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center for historically significant artifacts over the years. Here, she uses a flashlight to look through the attic of the center, looking down at the vent pipe for the projector in the old silent-film theater.

SMITHFIELD – Smithfield Historic Preservation Commission Chairwoman Katie Law said she has resigned from her position on the commission after feeling degraded and insulted by the Town Council during a recent work session on the status of the closed East Smithfield Neighborhood Center on Esmond Street.

She said she decided to leave the commission after the June 18 work session with the council, SHPC and East Smithfield Neighborhood Center Subcommittee became “immediately contentious” and she felt attacked by members of the council.

At the meeting, Law said she did not feel she was given a chance to speak without being “rudely interrupted” by questions from the council.

Town Council President Suzy Alba said the purpose of the work session was to update newer members of the council on the status of the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center, including why it was closed and its historic context for the town.

She said she plans to hold another joint committee work session by the end of the month to continue the discussions on the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center, and its future.

“The council is coming together to get a plan in place to repair the building and bring it up to code,” Alba said, adding it may take several years.

She said the three bodies are working together toward a common goal of seeing the center open at some point.

Alba declined to comment on Law’s specific accusations.

At the June 18 meeting, Councilor Dina Cerra said Law’s committee was working in isolation and needs to present the council with the status of the building.

Law said her job as a volunteer on the SHPC and ESNCS is to look at evidence and present facts to the council to inform members of the status of historic buildings in Smithfield, and help provide a pathway to rehabilitate the building.

Law said members of the council intentionally tried to change public perception of the volunteers as working in a vacuum and lacking transparency.

She said the building is on the Smithfield Register of Historic Places for its role in Smithfield’s history. The center was used as a school, chapel, bowling alley, silent-movie theater, public theater, a pool hall, town library, dance hall, and hosted various parties, events, weddings, youth dances, scouting meetings, and town-wide school graduations.

“I love this building with my whole heart but I physically cannot take this anymore,” Law said.

She said she will continue to work with the Smithfield Preservation Society, and as an advocate for preservation in Smithfield, particularly in Esmond.

“It’s disheartening that this is the turn of events,” Law said.

She said her biggest fear is that town politics will get in the way of volunteerism in town, especially related to historic preservation.

“The most dangerous thing that could happen is the dampening of enthusiasm of the youth to be involved in town, and that’s what’s going to happen,” Law said.

Law said the ESNCS worked with the Recreation Department and contractors to create a plan that will make the center a useful neighborhood building with a possible food bank, recreational space and office.

“The direction was how can we make this happen in this historic building in the simplest way possible, in the most financially responsible way and what the priority list would be,” Law said.

Instead, James Cambio, the town’s building official, presented the council with the multiple building code violations, including a lack of emergency lighting, fire alarm system, sprinkler system, exposed wires, missing ceiling tiles and more, that shut the center down in 2017.

Cambio said once 50 percent of a building’s area is being renovated, then state code requires that the building be brought up to code entirely. SHPC member and historic architect Robert Leach said repair work will have the building voluntarily brought up to code.

“I think it will be built to a standard the town will be proud of,” Leach said.

Law said she and Leach worked to create a plan to gain federal funding and benefits from the National Park Services to help preserve unique historic character of places. She said the town’s comprehensive plan dictates that the town should create a certified local government, and she was doing her job by helping to create that pathway.

Town Manager Randy Rossi said the town is exploring potential grant funding to help supplement any municipal funding that can be utilized for center renovations.

He said after working with the boards, he would like to see municipal offices for recreation and human services in the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center.