The state Department of Correction’s (DOC) planned relocation of its parole office from Westville to Grand Avenue is moving forward despite city concerns that it conflicts with the development vision of the Mill River District.
The City Plan Commission at its most recent monthly meeting approved the DOC’s proposed renovation plan for 620 Grand Ave., an 11,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Grand Avenue and Wallace Street.
City planners learned from DOC staff that the state plans to move its New Haven parole office from its current location at 50 Fitch St. in Westville to the renovated site on Grand Avenue.
Westville Alder and City Plan Commissioner Adam Marchand asked the applicants at the meeting last week just who and what will be occupying the new facility, and whether or not the DOC’s planned use for the building will require the implementation of new security structures like increased lighting and fencing to protect the neighborhood.
“These are individuals that have been released from correctional facilities under parole supervision,” explained Eric Ellison, the DOC’s deputy director for parole and community services. “They’re residing in their own homes. They would come to this office, just as they have for many many years over at Fitch street, to see their parole officer and discuss their supervision plan and their service plan.”
He said the DOC does not intend to add any new security enhancements to the facility, as most of a parole officer’s responsibilities involve field work rather than office work.
“We’re a field-focused, field-oriented supervision unit,” he said.
He said the location’s 10 full-time parole officers spend most of their time with the 525 to 550 parolees under their supervision in the neighborhoods in which the parolees live, checking on their employment and coordinating a variety of services, from alternative housing help to behavioral health treatment.
Marvin Anderson, the parole manager at the New Haven parole office, said that in his nearly five years at the Fitch Street office, he cannot remember one instance of needing to call local law enforcement to help with an incident involving a parolee at the office.
He said most of the work that takes place at the office is administrative and computer-based, and that the staff and parolees keep a very low profile.
“When individuals are released to the community,” he said, “they may come to the office to meet the parole officer for the first time, but the rest of the interactions are in the field. There’s very little visibility around the parole office as it is right now. There’s no loitering at the current location. We’re a great neighbor, and you really wouldn’t know that we were there.”
Ellison and Anderson added that there is an additional security benefit to having a parole office in the neighborhood. Ellison said the parole officers are all armed and trained to make arrests if necessary, and they have a close relationship with local law enforcement.
He said there are four other DOC parole offices throughout the state, most of which are located in downtown commercial districts.
Glenn Noffsinger, a state facility engineer, said that the renovations to 620 Grand Ave. should take four or five months to complete, putting a potential relocation of the parole office from Fitch Street to Grand Avenue as early as Fall 2018.
Not The Best Fit?
Although the City Plan Commission approved the DOC’s renovation plans for 620 Grand Ave., all but paving the way for the parole office’s move into a site that allows for the parole office use as of right, city staffers said that the parole office’s proposed relocation to the Mill River District does not fit well with their vision for a new neighborhood of small businesses, shops and stormwater parks in the former industrial corridor.
“It is the city’s desire to have the DOC maintain a presence in New Haven via a vis a parole office,” mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer told the Independent. “It is consistent with the mayor’s vision for this city in terms of being a welcoming place for reentering residents and where there are services readily available to assist reentering residents. But the Grand Avenue site was not the city’s first’s choice.”
City Economic Development Officer Carlos Eyzaguirre confirmed that the city had been in conversation with the state DOC and Department of Administrative Services (DAS) about alternative locations for the parole office, and that the city’s economic development department would have preferred to see that building go to a use that would create more jobs and commercial activity in the area. He reiterated that the city is interested in keeping the parole office in New Haven in general, and that, besides working with the state over the past few months to try to identify an alternative location, there is not a lot the city can do about this relocation.
New Haven Urban Design League President and Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team member Anstress Farwell expressed concerns about the parole office being relocated to a site right across the street from the new Farnam Courts public housing development. She said that she had hoped the DOC would have made the rounds of the local community management teams to explain their intended use for the building and the potential impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
Marvin Anderson said that he did indeed reach out to the local alders and community management teams about setting up a meeting, but that the earliest time that everyone could get together was on April 24, after the scheduled City Plan Commission site plan review. He said that he is scheduled to meet with local alders and some members of the Downtown-Wooster Square team at Whole G Café on Orange Street on the 24th. (Update: Downtown management team chair Caroline Smith said that instead of meeting on the 24th, the team is now looking to have Anderson present at an upcoming regularly scheduled management team meeting.)
“We weren’t trying to disrespect the alders in no form or fashion,” he said.
As for the alternative locations presented by the city, Anderson said that none were as sufficient or attractive as 620 Grand Ave.
“It will put us in a stand-alone building where we don’t have tenants above us or next door to us,” Anderson said. He said that the parole office has had innumerable maintenance issues at the current 50 Fitch St. site, including a collapsed ceiling after an upstairs, unrelated tenant of the building left a bathroom sink running and the water damage wore through the parole office’s ground floor ceiling.
He said that the city presented three alternative locations on Dixwell Avenue and Grand Avenue, but that they were either too big and needed a lot of repair, or too small and were not handicap accessible.
“One was located next to a package store,” he said. “We did not want that.”
In regards to Farwell’s concerns about the proximity of the new parole office to Farnam Courts, Anderson said, “I would hope that the city and residents would feel a little bit safer with a law enforcement agency across the street. Would they have the same concerns if this was a substation or a police station across the street?”
He said that the state DOC is a strong proponent of the Second Chance Act, and that the parolees are already in the community
“We’re field officers,” he said. “The majority of field officers do home investigations, job checks, and make sure the individuals are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Where that building location is, you’re really not going to know that we’re there.”
“It’s been a long, drawn out, frustrating process to try to find a home,” he continued. “We’re just glad we finally found a place that will meet our needs.”