Local school to become community arts center

On Grand Avenue in Fair Haven, an unoccupied school building is undergoing a transformation into a new home for New Haven’s local arts scene.

The Strong Performing Arts Center, or SPACe, is an initiative led by Lee Cruz of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association to convert the former Strong School building in Fair Haven into a venue for community arts performances, exhibitions and education. In addition to common spaces that can feature work by any tenant, the building will be occupied by various community arts organizations and businesses. The project has progressed significantly in the past few months, with the most recent development being an environmental study conducted on the building and submitted to the city for review at the end of August.

“This is a relatively poor neighborhood in New Haven that is looking to lift itself up by creating an economic engine that also serves the social good,” Cruz said.

Cruz explained that SPACe will have a sustainable business model in which revenues from the building’s occupants will cover its operating costs in addition to paying for a building administrator. He added that the only outside funding the group is applying for will go toward bringing the facility up to certain standards, which necessitate the installation of handicap-accessible ramps and bathrooms among other features.

Anika Singh Lemar ’01, a visiting professor at Yale Law School who represents the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association in the project, said the association has conducted a careful analysis of project costs and has shown its viability effectively. Cruz said that in its consideration of whether to grant approval for the project, the Board of Aldermen requires an economically sustainable building plan.

“If I said that I needed 80 or 90 percent of the building to be rented out at all times to cover the cost, it would not be considered a reasonable business plan,” Cruz said, explaining that it is standard to expect only 70 percent of the building to be rented out at any given time.

Cruz, along with several other members of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, first presented the idea for the project at an annual association meeting held in January 2012. Since this May, the initiative has begun obtaining approval from the Board of Aldermen and in receiving support from the community. In July, mayoral candidate and Ward 1 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 expressed his support for the project at an arts forum that hosted a discussion with the five candidates about the New Haven arts scene. In the past few weeks, the Yale Law School Community and Economic Development Clinic have agreed to represent the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association in the project, and the group submitted an environmental study on the building to the city. Cruz said that while he is not familiar with the small details of the study, the report did not identify any obvious problems with the building.

“For a building built in 1915, it is in remarkable shape,” Cruz noted.

The construction of SPACe may also lead to new possibilities for the arts at Yale. Lisa Kereszi ART ’00, the director of undergraduate studies for Art, said she has always encouraged her photography students to explore the Fair Haven area for its post-industrial architecture and multicultural environment. She added that though she cannot officially guarantee the University’s participation to SPACe, she hopes students will be able to rent studios and stage productions at the site in the future.

“There has been talk of trying to expand and find alternative space for our shows and for students to work,” Kereszi said. “I could see an art class putting on a show over there … or maybe a theater student could put on a production using actors from the neighborhood.”

The Strong School’s new location is on Orchard Street at the site of the former Vincent Mauro School.

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