Commission delays building of school

In recent weeks, the construction of a New Haven high school has been put in doubt because of controversial plans to demolish the historic building currently on the site.

In response to protests against the demolition of 230-232 Crown Street in the pending Arts Coop High School project on Crown Street, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism’s history council voted last week to table the decision on whether or not to protect the building.

Currently host to Club Image, the three-story brick structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans to construct a new arts and humanities high school downtown, slated to begin in 2006, cannot move forward without the commission’s approval.

Paul Luther, the state preservation office director for the council, said the decision to demolish a National Register building is not taken lightly, especially in a historic city like New Haven where so many have already been taken down.

“The council is being as thorough as possible in order to understand the city’s proposal, keeping in mind that a National Register property has certain protections, but no property is necessarily sacrosanct,” Luther said. “They are trying to make sure that any decision they make as to whether or not they seek the assistance of the attorney general to prevent the demolition is a well-considered decision.”

The current design for the school requires a theater to be built in the space that 230-232 occupies. School construction program coordinator Susan Weisselberg said although she would have liked to reuse the building in some way, it clearly did not work in terms of floor plans. She said it is critical to build the theater on the Crown Street side of the project so it is near the Shubert and Palace Theaters.

“The vast majority of our school construction projects are renovations of old buildings, and we honor the past wherever feasible, but here it really didn’t appear to be,” Weisselberg said. “Our priority is to make it the best building it can be.”

But the owner of Club Image, Dennis Dean, said he thinks the space would be ideal for a theater. The city informed Dean last May that he would be relocated because of the project and would have to close down by December. Dean said he suggested to the planners that they use the second floor of the building, where Image often hosts private performances, as the school’s theater space.

“I told them it would be a shame to tear this beautiful building down,” Dean said. “It would take some work, but the premise is already there for them if they are willing to try.”

The New Haven Town Green Special Services District has stepped in to strongly advocate for the preservation of the building. Scott Healy ’96, the executive director of the special services district, drafted a letter to the History Council imploring it to prevent the demolition of 230-232 Crown St. until the city seriously considers other designs for the school.

“Overall, the design [architect] Cesar Pelli unveiled is good,” Healy said. “Unfortunately, not all public suggestions have been included in his most recent draft. Such demolition sets a bad precedent in New Haven, a city that has lost far too many historic streetscapes to 1960’s urban renewal, private development and other schemes.”

Many factors affected the city’s plans to tear the building down, including price and space constraints. Architects from Cesar Pelli and Associates, the firm in charge of the school’s design, have met continuously with groups such as the Board of Education, the City Plan Department, and the Historic Preservation Commission in order to determine the best layout for the school.

Design team leader Anne Haynes said she thinks the facade of 230-232 Crown St. is a valuable piece of architecture, but it is not a landmark building. Given the financial requirements of the city, Haynes said most of the groups she met with agreed that the community’s priority lies in building the best school possible.

“We are trying to work for a long-term vision of downtown,” Haynes said. “Inherently in such a project, there must be trade-offs, but the end result is more desirable than leaving the building as is.”

Healy’s letter was considered at the council’s meeting last week, when it ultimately stated that it felt it had insufficient evidence of the architect’s research into rehabbing, saving and incorporating the building into the new design. The council requested that the architects produce additional documentation such as engineering reports, architectural renderings and a cost analysis to show that incorporating 230-232 Crown St. would not be feasible. Additional testimony will be considered at a meeting next month.

The city cannot proceed with the demolition until it has the state’s approval for the entire project, Weisselberg said.

“We have never demolished a building for a school project and then not built the school,” Weisselberg said. “We fully expect this project to go forward.”

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