PAWTUCKET — A new venture that would function as a boarding school and educational facility for students from China and other foreign countries has been proposed for the former Weeden Manor, which is located at 11 Walnut St.
Founders Benjamin Ben Tre and his business partner, Basil Lee, are planning to purchase the 9,390-square foot Darius Goff House for use as the Roosevelt Educational Academy. Ben Tre said the sprawling property, which last served as a non-profit assisted living facility, would house international students who would be attending local private and public high schools. He said the academy would serve as the students' residential facility and would also provide tutoring, counseling, and mentoring opportunities.
The founders have already received a certificate of zoning compliance for the property, which has been “grandfathered” in as a legal non-conforming rooming house, according to the city's Division of Zoning and Code Enforcement. However, a “tavern” license is required from the City Council (due to the type of lodging facility being proposed) and approval must be obtained from the Narragansett Bay Commission and the state Department of Health. The City Council is scheduled to take up the request for the tavern license at its upcoming meeting on May 9.
The 17-room house has been on the market since February by Ernest Ricci and his realty company, TriStar Properties, at an asking price of $399,000. Ricci purchased the historic home last November at auction for $125,000. Ben Tre said he had not officially closed on the house yet as he was waiting to see how the project would be received by the neighborhood and if the tavern license was approved.
On Wednesday, about eight neighbors showed up at an informational meeting hosted by St. Raphael Academy, which is one of the schools that has agreed to partner with the Roosevelt International Academy. District 4 Councilor John J. Barry also attended.
St. Raphael Academy Principal Maryann Donahue-Lynch told those assembled that SRA and Ben Tre had been working for over a year on a plan to have 10 Chinese students attend SRA while residing at the nearby academy. She was highly supportive of the proposal, saying it would be a “win-win” for both the students and SRA, which is planning to offer a Chinese language class. “We're excited about it because it opens up more cultural educational opportunities,” she stated.
Ben Tre said said he anticipated closing “soon” on the purchase of the property, and would begin immediately with renovations. He said the license would limit the housing to no more than two students per room. However, while saying that the number of students would be “more than 15,” he told those assembled that he could not give an accurate figure on capacity right now due to the possible reconfiguration of some of the rooms. He said the academy would be co-ed, but would have male students living in one section of the house and female students in the other, with two staff members remaining on the premises around the clock.
Ben Tre said the first group of students are expected to arrive from China on August 1. He said that while the initial proposal grew out of the current exchange student programs with China, including the relationship with Hengshui High School and Shea High School, he could foresee students from other countries being interested in the academy as well. Besides SRA, the other host schools that have signed on with the academy are Moses Brown, Bishop Hendricken, and St. Mary Academy Bay View.
Ben Tre added that while public schools are part of the program, Pawtucket's public high schools do not have the proper paperwork in place to accept long-term international students. However, he said he expects this to be a possibility at some future point. Cumberland High School is currently the only local public school that is now partnering with the academy, with plans for 10 Chinese students to attend.
While neighbors had plenty of questions for Ben Tre, most seemed receptive to the proposal. Several, such as Joseph Asermely and Douglas McKinnon, spoke of how having the now-vacant house renovated and occupied will help to raise and maintain the property values of the surrounding homes.
Another nearby resident, Maggi Rogers, asked Ben Tre about his previous experience in operating such a facility. She said she had gone on-line to learn more more about the academy but found much of the information to be in Chinese. Ben Tre admitted that this academy was something untried for him and Lee, but said it is modeled after a Massachusetts International Academy where students from outside the U.S. take part in a college-preparatory program. He added that he and Lee have established other exchange programs and summer sessions for Chinese students, and have many years of experience as developers of commercial, residential and educational facilities.
Rogers and her husband, Dale, also voiced support for the proposal, however, and told Ben Tre the academy would be welcome in the neighborhood.
However, other neighbors were more skeptical, expressing concerns about the level of security being provided, the number of vehicles that would be on the property, and how large the student population there could grow to.
Susan Rivet, a direct abutter to Weeden Manor, spoke at length about her concerns, saying that she has had numerous problems with things like broken windows and fencing, tennis balls being hit against her house repeatedly, and other nuisances stemming from a nearby group home that also houses teens and adolescents. She also said she was worried about what could happen to the property if the academy didn't work out, since the property would hold a tavern license.
Ben Tre tried to assure Rivet and the others that he had no intention of operating anything other than the educational facility that he described. Additionally, Barry noted that the City Council would be renewing the license every year and had the ability to revoke it if there were recurring problems for the neighbors.
The Pawtucket Congregational Church had owned the former Darius Goff House since 1983 and used it to run the Weeden Manor assisted living facility for many years. Citing rising expenses, the church closed the facility in 2010 and the house languished on the market for many months until being purchased at auction by Ricci.