In a neighborhood spat turned cause celebre, a group of angry residents has been working for months to fend off a school construction project that would demolish their homes. But city officials told them yet again this week their fight has “no chance at all.”
During a community meeting Tuesday night, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and city officials emphatically rejected demands from residents that the eight-acre construction site in the Upper Hill neighborhood be relocated, saying the Prince/Welch Annex School project — with half of the land already purchased and a new school already promised — is too far along to halt.
“We’re at the 11th hour here in terms of this whole project,” said Tom Roger, the program director of New Haven’s expansive school construction initiative. “People are saying, ‘Let’s look for another site.’ The truth is, there isn’t another site.”
But residents are now considering legal options to halt the project. The area in debate is the site of 61 structures, a quarter of which are owner-occupied. The city has already acquired 31 of those properties.
Save the Upper Hill Now, a group formed in response to the demolition plan and supported by Elm City Congregations Organized, presented a set of demands to DeStefano on March 14. The group asked that the city temporarily stop all property seizures in the construction area, form a committee to reconsider the site and make a greater effort to ensure that all residents are fully compensated for their homes. But the mayor said no to each demand.
DeStefano was not available for comment yesterday.
“We feel the city has just continued to bulldoze us with this, and it’s very threatening,” said Ruth Drews, the pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Hill and an organizer of Save the Upper Hill Now.
When assessors determined how much the homes in the area were worth, Drews said, some residents were shocked to learn how little they would receive for their homes.
Drews said that 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.
“Most anyone with half an eye can see that they need to get more money for these properties,” said Carlos Torre, the president of the New Haven Board of Education.
Torre said that the city would be willing to pay more to residents but that the state would only compensate the city for the amount determined by the assessors or by a court.
“We ourselves felt the prices given by the assessors were low, but we can’t do anything about it,” Torre said.
Residents who are not satisfied with the price they have been offered now have the option of taking their demands to court.
“We don’t want people to feel like they’ve been mistreated,” Roger said.
The properties already acquired only form a checkerboard pattern, but the city is eager to begin construction of the long-promised school as soon as possible.
“Don’t be fooled by a small group of people who have been organized by community groups who try and make it appear like everyone in the neighborhood opposes the school,” Roger said.
Roger said demolition work on the properties now acquired by the city would begin in the next couple of months. He added that upon seeing properties being torn down, those who are still unwilling to move might finally concede the beginning of the end.