The city made the promise 20 years ago: two elementary schools in the Hill neighborhood, one dating from 1930 and the other from 1936, were ensured that their cramped facilities would soon be replaced.
It is only now, as part of the sweeping 10-year, $900 million plan to rebuild New Haven’s public schools, that the long-awaited construction may soon begin — at the expense of area homeowners. Of the city’s existing school renovation projects, this plan would uproot the greatest number of residents, some of whom are now putting up a loud fight.
The split pits two community interests — education and housing — against one another. But with 72 percent of the properties already approved for acquisition and renovation plans in place, city officials said residents will have no choice but to leave eventually.
“We feel we’re moving along, and frankly we feel we have an obligation to build a new school,” School Construction Program Coordinator Susan Weisselberg said. “It’s a 20-year promise, and we would like to meet that promise.”
Yet some residents are not yet willing to concede that the city will acquire their homes.
“It is certainly to the advantage of the Board of Education to paint this as a done deal and a lost cause,” said Ruth Drews, the pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Hill.
The area in question spans 8 acres and encompasses 61 lots. The lots are individually owned by the city, businesses and families. Of the 61 lots, 50 are residential properties.
Some residents said the decision to rebuild the school in their neighborhood was made largely without their consent. Drews accused the city of treating another renovation project in East Rock, a middle-class neighborhood, with greater deference.
“The people have not been treated with as much dignity and respect — as people in other neighborhoods,” Drews said.
But Weisselberg said the area in the Hill was selected because “it was seen as an area with more blight.” She added that the area’s economic status was not relevant to how the city was treating residents.
“I just don’t agree with that,” Weisselberg said. “They’re two different projects in two different parts of the city. They’re not linked.”
Drews said the city was paying residents prices 30 percent below their homes’ assessed values and that one resident was offered as much as $56,000 less than market value for his home.
Weisselberg said that numerous public meetings were held on the matter, and that the city’s appraisal process has been fair.
The Board of Aldermen approved the plan in November 2000, sealing the deal and making any further appeals against acquisitions more difficult. Weisselberg said the city will eventually acquire every lot. Any property owner looking for greater compensation from the city for the land must go before a judge to determine a fair price.
The group Christian Community Action is located near the 8-acre plot and for a time, its executive director, Bonita Grubbs, heard rumors that the organization’s building would be torn down. Though the building was spared in the final plans to renovate, Grubbs said she was concerned with how the city handles the competing interests of the schools and the residents.
“If the sentiment of the group is a certain way, pro or con, their voices ought to be respected and heard,” Grubbs said.