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Historic Cost

A well-known state office building gets millions of dollars in much-needed renovationsl; from electrical upgrades and roof repairs to replacement windows and a fresh coat of paint. But it’s the makeover of the building’s bathrooms that is raising questions: Why was it the biggest ticket item - $700,000, a price tag that includes marble sinks and stalls?


It is the building where many Rhode Islanders got their first driver’s license or had a car registered. The old DMV on Smith Street left more than two decades ago, allowing the state Department of Transportation to take over its first-floor offices.

Let’s just say: time has not been kind to the building, which is now occupied entirely by the DOT.

Reanud: ``We took over many complexes that had not seen any significant work in decades.’’

Ron Renaud is the executive director of the state Department of Administration, which oversees many of the state’s office buildings and is the landlord, in effect, for the DOT. When Renaud took over in 2006 the DOT building - directly across the street from the State House and adjacent door to his own office - was near the top of the list for much-needed renovations.

Hummel: ``What struck you when you walked through that building?’’

Renaud: ``Peeling paint chips in diameter size of 10 to 12 inches. Windows that were breezy, leaky. Roofs that were leaking and we were getting calls for water infiltration and you could see water dripping down walls that were stained, ceilings stained - the building was in complete disrepair.’’

So the state began a long-term fix up, with plans to pour in $2.5 million over a six-year period, beginning in 2008.

It included $625,00 for window replacement.

$470,000 for roof repairs.

$357,000 for electrical upgrades.

Another $250,000 for fire code upgrades.

And $135,000 for interior painting.

But it is the eight bathrooms scattered through the four floors that caught our attention after someone who works in the building contacted The Hummel Report.

So we took a visit of our own last month and found some pretty impressive rest rooms. Complete with marble sinks and stalls, stained birch to match the previous oak doors and tile walls and floors. They are an oasis in what is - let’s be honest - a dumpy-looking building.

The total cost: more than $700,000.

But did the state need to spend an average of nearly $90,000 per bathroom?

For years there have been rumors that the legislature or administration wanted to expand across the street and use the prime real estate to add to their own offices. The talk was reignited last year when the DOT bought this massive former office building in Warwick, which it plans to renovate and use for its materials testing lab, currently housed in the basement on Smith Street.

Renaud has heard the rumors but insists there are no plans to relocate the rest of the DOT offices - adding there is a simpler explanation for the pricey bathroom makeover.

Renaud: ``I have to talk to historic and see what their concerns are.’’

`Historic’ is The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, located in the old state house on Benefit Street. It turns out the DOT building is listed on the state’s register for historic buildings - even though it is only 87 years old.

The commission’s deputy director, Richard Greenwood, declined our request for an on-camera interview, but he did tell us by phone that the building was considered historic because it was one of the early buildings in Rhode Island government, at one point housing the Department of Agriculture.

But Greenwood was surprised when we told him about the bathroom renovations - saying bathrooms weren’t typically considered what he called ``character defining areas.’’

Renaud: ``In this case they told us they really wanted the bathrooms done to historic period, because a lot of that building through the course of some time changed. And they wanted the bathrooms to remain under their original design.’’

Renaud said the old bathrooms had original marble that had deteriorated so badly it couldn’t be salvaged, but that the historic commission representatives on a committee overseeing the renovations insisted on marble replacement.

Renaud: ``Historical usually gives us products and they say these are acceptable, so it’s not like we’re going shopping or we go to the contractor and say put in whatever marble you want. They’ll mandate and dictate and say, here, your choices are A,B and C.’’

Hummel: ``But it added expense.’’

Renaud: ``It does add some expense, absolutely. It’s the price you pay for having historical period correctness: ‘’

Hummel: ``That building is less than a century old and somehow got onto the historic register, but that doesn’t leave you any leeway.’’

Renaud: Not at all. I have no leeway, if that was my building and I had just $20,000 to fix something I just couldn’t go to Lowe’s, pick up a couple og sheets of plywood, paint it and say, here bathroom is fixed.’’

There are men’s and women’s bathrooms on each floor on the front side of the building and a unisex bathroom in the back of the building on the first floor.

Another bathroom  in the basement is currently undergoing renovation. That and the women’s room on the first floor will complete the project.

Renaud pointed out that the bathrooms also needed plumbing and electrical upgrades and a reconfiguration to become handicapped accessible, all of which added to the cost.

Greenwood told us quote: ``Marble is a fine choice to use, but it was not required.’’

Renaud took issue with that, saying the state has limited dollars to spend and wouldn’t use more expensive material unless it absolutely to and the historic commission said it had to be marble.

Hummel: ``Would it be fair to say if you didn’t have the historical restrictions, you might have done it differently?’’

Renaud: ``Absolutely - again nothing against historical, we probably would have done it a little differently.’’

Hummel: ``Would you have put in marble n the bathrooms?’’

Renaud: ``Probably not. Probably would have been a laminate or something like that, just easy to clean, cheaper to install, cheaper to maintain.’’

He said in this case the state had some leeway - the stained birch saved about 30 percent over oak replacement doors, but Renaud added that the historic commission has been unyielding in some other projects, like the steps of the State House.

Renaud: ``They were emphatic on the type of marble, the quarry it came out of, and it had to match specifically. So we do get some of that.’’

Hummel: ``Don’t you think that’s a little out of hand?’’

Renaud: ``I’ll leave that to the historical folks and people above my pay grade. All I know is I have to deal…those are the parameters in which I have to work.  If I could do it without any barriers or any regulations, we could have done it much more cost effective.’’

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.