Q House Backers Question Armory Plan
by Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez | Jun 27, 2012 9:11 am
Posted to: Dixwell
Joseph Montgomery seemed agitated when he took the microphone.
“I don’t understand all this talk about the armory,” he said. “I thought the fight was about the Q House!”
Montgomery (pictured) made his statement Tuesday night during a public hearing held at City Hall by the Board of Aldermen’s Youth Committee. The topic: state grants the city is seeking to transform the abandoned Goffe Street Armory into a community center. (Read a detailed story about that here.)
The hearing was supposed to be a straightforward matter of approving the necessary motions. Instead it sparked a debate about which community development projects should be given priority—those to which people have emotional attachments, or those which are economically feasible.
The “fight” Montgomery referred to: Opening another community center somewhere in the Dixwell neighborhood to give young people more alternatives to the streets.
Montgomery was concerned that the city has decided to focus to the new armory project instead of repairing the legendary Dixwell Community “Q” center, which has been closed for years.
For Alderwomen Sarah Eidelson and Claudette Robison-Thorpe, who have spearheaded the efforts to revitalize the armory, the answer is that it is not an either/or issue.
“Nobody has chosen the Armory over the Q House,” Eidelson said. “We are here to discuss the grants we can get from the state to fix the armory.”
She explained that, since Connecticut owns the armory, it is the state’s prerogative to invest money to fix the building. If the city can get enough capital to repair the place, she argued, then it should go forward with it. She added that does not mean that the Q House project—a potent symbol for a neighborhood that watched a once-thriving communal oasis rundown and close amid an increase in shootings of young men—has been abandoned.
That was not the only theme of discussion Tuesday night. Committee members questioned the city’s plan for the armory as it appears on the application for the state grant, alleging that it emphasizes government offices and storage spaces over the community center.
Aldermen also raised concerns about who should get the jobs that would open with the revitalization of the building—the people who are going to benefit from the community center, or out-of-town contractors.
In the end, the committee agreed to advance the proposal to the full Board of Aldermen on the condition that aldermen retain veto power over any money spent on the project. The committee will work on the exact wording of the proposal over the next week.
Kids Come Forward
Tuesday’s hearing was unusual in that the majority of the testimony heard by the committee came from students. Among them were the three Marks sisters: Jacqueline, Alexandra, and Capria. Each of them urged the committee to approve the armory project.
To back up their requests, they presented the results of a poll they took among their Dixwell peers, most of whom said they do not feel they have “a safe place to go after school.”
Capria, the oldest of the three, gave a sharp rebuttal to Montgomery—who as part of his statement about the abandonment of the Q House complained that the armory is located right next to the city jail.
“I prefer people in a building than outside, where the bullets are flying,” she said. “It’s our lives that are at stake. If the Q House can’t open, I’ll take anything—even if it is right next to the jail.”
Montgomery and another speaker, activist Maurice “Blest” Peters of the group Frontline Souljahs, argued that the Q House can, and should, open. He suggested to the kids present that they direct their organizing and officials direct their quest for public money to that goal.
“How come the Q House didn’t come up before the armory?” Peters said. “I was raised in the Q House.”
Another concern was practical: the cost of maintaining ongoing programs at the gargantuan armory. Little public discussion has taken place so far about the feasibility of securing money to keep the building open and programs running.
Fair Haven Alderman Ernie Santiago pointed out that the armory has an old heating system. He asked the city’s architect, William MacMullen, to estimate the cost of turning that system back on and running it.
“Astronomical,” MacMullen replied.
Dire Need Of Repair
Despite the wide-ranging debates, the official focus of Tuesday’s hearing was relatively narrow. New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts presented to the Youth Committee a number of grant proposals that the city wants to submit in order to get $2.8 million in state money.
The grant applications would pay for basic repairs to the heavily damaged armory building. These repairs, city officials said, are necessary if the armory is to be habitable at all—regardless of the purpose for the space’s ultimate use. Smuts explained that the repairs include fixing the armory’s roof, which collapsed under last winter’s heavy snow, and cleaning up asbestos that has leaked from the building’s old insulation.
Securing money for repairs, city officials said, is thus a necessary step before any discussion of the actual use of the building can take place. When asked what was the city’s vision for the armory once it is repaired, Smuts called himself “an agnostic.”
A “Placeholder” Proposal
Nevertheless, the city can’t just ask the state for money to fix the building. It has to show that it has a plan for what to do with the armory once it spends the state’s dollars.
The plan presented by the city to the Youth Committee dedicates most of the armory’s 240,000 square feet to office and storage spaces, and not to the community center. Members of the Youth Committee took exception that proposal.
“I understand that why the city had to present a feasible plan, but in this plan the vast majority of the space is dedicated to offices,” Eidelson said. “Why this plan and not another?”
City officials responded that the plan had been drawn hastily and was just a “placeholder” to show the sate that the city has the ability to transform the abandoned building into a place useful for the public interest.
“We had to show that we could map out a feasible plan for the building before they gave us $2.8 million,” said Smuts.
Aldermen wondered out loud why had the city put forth a proposal that it does not intend to follow. Officials replied that it is essential to have a “back-up plan” to ensure that the armory will be put to good use even if the community center project fails.
After much discussion, the committee agreed to send the proposal to the whole board—but also said that it would add language that gives aldermen veto power over how the state money is spent.
“We want to make sure that community interests are given priority over other uses,” Eidelson said in an interview after the hearing.
Who Will Work To Fix The Armory?
Another issue that raised discussion was who will take the jobs brought by armory’s redevelopment. At present, city ordinances stipulate that at least 25 per cent of publicly funded construction work has to go to New Haven residents, with smaller percentages dedicated to women and minority groups.
Aldermen were concerned that the contractors who will eventually work the project will abide by the bare minimum. They asked city officials for ideas to increase community participation in the project.
“I would like to see more than 25 per cent New Haven residents doing work on this project,” Eidelson said. “I would like to see the people who would be served by the armory put to work in creating it.”
Smuts replied with two concrete proposals to bring small businesses—and hence local residents—into the project. In the first place, break down larger contracts into manageable pieces. In the second place, communicate better with local business about what is expected of them if they win a bid for public construction work.
The first proposal would allow a mosaic of smaller companies to do different parts of the work, instead of having one monolithic corporation take on the full project. The second one would ensure that those businesses only take on projects that they can actually finish.
The committee was again not entirely satisfied with Smut’s proposals, but agreed to give the project green light on the condition that the city pushes to put more than the legal minimum of city residents to work on the armory.