After rejecting plans to redevelop the Strong School building in Fair Haven on Monday, the city has changed course and may finally be moving forward with plans to turn the building into a community center.
Plans to repurpose the 33,000 square-foot building into a community arts center were submitted by Strong Performing Arts Center, a group led by Fair Haven neighborhood organizer Lee Cruz. The school building has stood vacant for three years, and the city has been searching for a developer to revive the old building at 69 Grand Ave. since 2010. SPACe was the only group to submit a proposal for redevelopment, which involves converting the building into apartments, office space and a theater.
Economic Development Administrator Matt Nemerson SOM ’81 said in a letter to Cruz last Monday that the city decided not to move forward with SPACe’s plan at the recommendation of a panel including Alders Richard Furlow and Abby Roth, as well as two architects and a community organizer.
He cited concerns that the project lacked adequate financial backing as well as input from parties with development expertise.
“The panel reviewed the response to the [request for proposal], and their recommendation to the city was that the response wouldn’t succeed in developing the building,” Nemerson said.
SPACe then asked for time to respond to the panel’s concerns, said Deputy Economic Development Director Steven Fontana. At a meeting on Wednesday night, the city gave SPACe six months to correct deficiencies in their plans, Cruz said.
“They like what we want to do enough that they’re willing to give us more time,” Cruz said.
A final decision on the project is unlikely to be reached anytime soon, Fontana said. He added that financial and environmental concerns might take weeks, if not months, to address.
According to Fontana, the city’s main concerns with the proposals centered on three areas: the long-term financial viability of the project, short-term construction expenses and ongoing operational concerns.
The project might have a final cost of $9 million, Nemerson said. Furlow added that it was unclear whether SPACe had the financial backing requisite to complete the project.
“What they were thinking of for rents in that particular area was just a little too high,” said Furlow.
Fontana added that the city had concerns about ventilation valves in the school’s floors, which he said might pose safety concerns.
Nemerson said the city is eagerly looking for ways to use the building, which weighs heavily on the city’s finances. But, he said, the city does not necessarily want to convert it into an arts building. He noted that the United States, unlike Europe, has little public support for the arts, and arts centers require large amounts of capital and generous patrons to stay afloat.
“The community is interested in turning it into an arts center,” he said. “The city is interested in finding someone who can redevelop it. The tragedy would be if no one ever came forward, and no one ever figured out how to keep it in the community, and it became a parking lot.”
Cruz emphasized that the SPACe project will be a community effort, unique in this respect among efforts to redevelop many of New Haven’s early 20th-century buildings, like the Goffe Street Armory.
Cruz also contrasted his group’s project with one led by a single developer.
“We’re not looking to maximize profit, because we’re not a for-profit developer,” he said.