The city of New Haven began demolition last Saturday of 61 buildings in order to construct a new Prince-Welch Annex school for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The city has intended to build the Prince-Welch Annex school since the summer of 2001. Over the past two years, however, New Haven residents who live between Davenport Avenue and Congress Avenue — where the school will be built — have protested and brought a lawsuit in federal court asserting racial discrimination. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said today that the city may redraw its plans and spare three buildings on Congress in order to accommodate the area’s residents.
But some members of the Save the Upper Hill Now organization said they are still skeptical of the mayor’s plan. The city’s continued effort to build the school comes on the heels of a federal lawsuit where 43 of the displaced residents lost their claim that the Board of Education’s plan violated the 14th Amendment by discriminating against the neighborhood’s predominantly black and Hispanic population.
The Rev. Ruth Drews, an active member of SUHN, said the federal judge agreed with the group’s charge of racial discrimination but could not rule in favor of the residents because they waited too long to bring the suit.
“The judge wrote in favor of the discrimination,” Drews said. “But he also ruled that the suit was brought too late. That was one of the heartbreaking things about the lawsuit.”
Nevertheless, the mayor’s proposal to save three buildings from the demolition and alter the school’s design has failed to appease Drews as well as many of the residents.
The New Haven Design League has found alternate locations for the school, said President Anstress Farwell.
“We’re trying to get them to look at a different site which would not require the demolition of any housing at all,” Farwell said. “It would also have the benefit of not being near a methadone clinic or a liquor store and it is somewhere you could have playing fields and open sites for children. You couldn’t actually build as good a facility on Congress Avenue.”
Under the mayor’s plan, however, one of the buildings that may be saved is a currently vacant 27-unit apartment building intended for recently released convicts to make the transition back to the community, Drews said.
“Our organization has never been contacted by the mayor in anyway about the possible condensing of the site,” Drews said. “We continue to believe that the destruction of all this housing is unconscionable.”
But the issue remains more complicated and difficult to truly solve than either side is willing to admit, said Yale Law professor Robert Solomon, former director of the New Haven Housing Authority.
“The neighborhood needs a new school — I don’t know what the alternatives were, so I don’t know if this was the best site,” Solomon said in an e-mail. “It’s always helpful to preserve housing units in a residential neighborhood, but, whether that’s feasible depends on the quality of housing, the commitment to rehabilitation and the quality of management.”
“In the case of Prince-Welch, there’s an awful lot of water under the bridge, and like all histories, much of what is now said is more revisionary that an accurate depiction,” he added.