Yale Daily News

The New Haven Housing Authority unanimously approved a plan to buy the historic New Haven Clock Company building on Hamilton Street on Aug. 15, in an effort to convert the former factory building into an affordable housing complex with over 100 apartments. 

The landmarked building, which was constructed in 1866, is also the site of decades of industrial contamination from factory operations. The pollution at the site consists of carcinogenic chemical compounds and residual radioactivity. According to advocates and city officials, efforts to realize the plan would entail a lengthy and expensive process of cleaning the building and repairing its infrastructure.

“Repurposing pre-existing infrastructure for what we need in the twenty-first century is a really critical piece of planning,” said Peter Harrison, the director of Desegregate CT, a nonprofit that advocates to reform land use policies throughout the state.

Plans to repurpose the New Haven Clock Company Building began in 2016, when the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development made plans to loan $4 million to Oregon-based company Reed Realty to clean the property before converting the building into affordable housing. But Reed Realty has since dropped the project.

Karen DuBois-Walton, president of the New Haven Housing Authority, explained that the Housing Authority’s decision was a product of several factors, including purchasing the former clock factory at a reasonable price and ensuring that the organization would have both the time and resources to fund such a project.

As a result of New Haven’s growing population, DuBois-Walton explained that there is not enough housing within the city. The current homeowner vacancy rate among New Haven residents is 2.9 percent, while the rental vacancy rate is 7 percent. Rising demand for housing also leads landlords and sellers to increase rent and housing prices, further exacerbating the ongoing housing crisis. Rent prices in the city have increased by 4.3 percent within the past year.

In addition to providing affordable housing units, advocates argue that repurposing the New Haven Clock Company building will also help to celebrate part of the city’s history. 

“This is an opportunity to preserve something that has both a long history and emotional memory in this community,” DuBois-Walton said.

According to DuBois-Walton, the building’s seller, Taom New Haven, will perform the lengthy cleaning process involved in ridding the building of industrial pollutants. Once the cleaning is complete, the New Haven Housing Authority plans to incorporate design elements that would reduce both carbon emissions and energy costs. DuBois-Walton said that these design elements are part of the Housing Authority’s efforts to create safe and environmentally friendly homes.

Former Prospect Hill Alder Steve Winter, the executive director of the city’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, explained that adaptive reuse helps to reduce carbon emissions associated with materials like steel and concrete — which make up around 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. 

Harrison also suggested that the environmental benefits of such a project could play a role in mitigating environmental racism in New Haven, where exposure to air pollution contributes to elevated asthma rates and low-income groups are subject to disproportionate health risks. 

Advocate Peter Harrison explained that many repurposing projects within Connecticut stem from the state’s history as a manufacturing center during 19th-century industrialization. Because industrial buildings are often located in downtown areas, Harrison said that repurposing them plays a role in revitalizing the communities to which they belong. 

“There’s no world where we solve the housing crisis without more publicly owned homes,” Harrison said.

The New Haven Housing Authority has until the end of the year to execute the purchase of the sales agreement on the New Haven Clock Company building.

Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.