City hears Armory input

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Photo by Sari Levy.

A combination of New Haven aldermen, city staff and community members gathered Tuesday at City Hall to consider the fate of the vacant Goffe Street Armory.

The forum marked the first effort of the newly formed Goffe Street Armory planning committee of the Board of Aldermen to gather community input regarding the board’s plans for refurbishing the factory sitting at 290 Goffe St., which has been without use since 2010. The current proposal would transform the former stationing ground for the Connecticut governor’s foot guards into a community center aimed at centralizing services and opportunities for both young people and the elderly.

“The lack of opportunities for young people in this city has reached a state of crisis,” Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12 told the News after the meeting.

Eidelson, who is the vice-chairwoman of the Armory committee as well as chairwoman of the Board of Aldermen’s youth services committee, said refurbishing the Armory will go a long way in fulfilling the board’s mandate to empower New Haven youth.

“There’s a whole host of resources for young people that the Armory could potentially be home to, whether it’s college prep, arts programs, legal services, English as a Second Language programs or health clinics,” Eidelson said. “Our goal is to determine priorities based on what residents feel is missing in their communities and to figure out what sort of services are out there that would best make use of the space.”

The Armory committee, which comprises three aldermen in addition to a number of city and community members, heard from four community service providers, who spoke about their organizations’ plans for potential usage of the space and were pressed by committee members to specify how they would cover their costs while expanding services.

Though the committee opted to use the forum largely to gather input and ask the presenters questions, it did move to tentatively grant Artspace, a city arts nonprofit, the right to use the Armory for the organization’s annual arts festival, provided that requisite upkeep is completed in time. Ward 28 Alderwoman and committee chairwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe lauded the festival as an opportunity to bring potential donors to the Armory.

In addition to providing for the expansion of current community service providers, the proposed Armory renovation would also be home to a community center that, according to Robinson-Thorpe, will serve as a “one-stop shop for needy New Haven residents.”

“Our vision is for this to be a center where people can come to see a doctor or get legal advice,” Robinson-Thorpe said after the forum. “That being said, the primary focus will be on young people. Right now, youth in this city have no place to call their own. This will be a space where kids can turn when they have nowhere else to go. There will be computers, basketball hoops and tutoring services.”

The Armory committee’s plans all hinge on the city’s acquisition of funding grants to make the project financially sustainable, said New Haven Chief Administrative Officer and committee member Robert Smuts ’01.

Smuts said the city is currently in negotiations with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development over three grants, which, combined with a State Historic Preservation Office grant, total $2.8 million. Until the grants are finalized, Smuts emphasized, the city will not even formally accept that it owns the Armory.

“There’s a state statute that says that if the state stops using the Armory for a period of two years, it reverts back to the city for ownership,” said Smuts.

He explained that the state moved out of the armory in 2010 when the governor’s foot guards left, leading to a vacancy period that has resulted in negotiations over the conditions of the Armory’s renovation. A series of damages, including a caved-in roof and an asbestos outbreak, have complicated negotiations, as Smuts said the city seeks to avoid paying for costly repairs.

Beyond the question of financial feasibility, Citywide Youth Coalition Executive Director Rachel Heerema told the News she is concerned about the possible trade-off between the board’s plans and existing programs.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Heerema said. “A youth center is already in existence in New Haven, so will new money for the Armory take away funds from the after-school programs, the summer camps, the tutoring programs and the family services? These programs are competing directly for dollars.”

Though cost is a concern, a combination of philanthropic, city and state money provide a breadth of avenues for funding, said New Haven Chief of Staff and interim city spokesman Sean Matteson.

Matteson also said that the massive size of the Armory, which spans an entire city block, will allow it to serve multiple purposes, potentially as a warehouse or as office space.

Before the committee adjourned Tuesday evening, its members moved to hold additional communitywide hearings, which will occur in mid-January and allow city residents with a stake in the Armory’s use to share their opinions. Robinson, who described the prospect of new uses for the Armory as the fulfillment of “a huge dream” of hers, said after the meeting that community input will allow the committee to settle on criteria for choosing services for the Armory.

Capria Marks, a junior at Common Ground High School who attended the forum, said she hopes the Armory will be put to use in uniting New Haven residents.

“What the Armory can do is provide a space where people from different neighborhoods throughout New Haven can get to know each other and unite,” Marks told the News after the committee meeting. “It can teach people that this is not ‘my side of town’ or ‘your side of town.’ Maybe there won’t be such a divided feeling in New Haven anymore. This could become a vibrant center in our community and work to take people off the streets and turn them into role models the next generation of kids.”

The Armory planning committee’s second forum for service providers for the youth and elderly will occur on Dec. 4 at 6 p.m.

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