Sole Bidder Seeks Strong School

Melissa Bailey File PhotoThe city’s latest effort to revive an abandoned Fair Haven school building has come up with only one response—a plan to reclaim the space for arts and apartments.

That was the result of the city’s request for proposals for developers to buy and rehab the former Strong School at 69 Grand Ave. The city has been trying to sell the historic brick building since 2010; so far it has failed to find a developer.

The sole bid came in from SPACe (Strong Performing Arts Center), a collaborative spearheaded by Fair Haven community organizer Lee Cruz. SPACe proposed buying the building for $250,000 and converting it into a community arts center with six to 12 apartments. The 1.055-acre site is valued at $3.2 million, based on data from the latest grand list.

The city tried to drum up interest in the site in a recent tour.

Matthew Nemerson, the city’s economic development chief, said he had intended to form a selection committee to review bids. He said now that only one bid has come in, he will check with counsel on how to proceed. Nemerson said he has not seen the proposal; if the Harp administration decides to pursue it, the Board of Alders would need to approve the deal.

Seeking to fill a $3 million budget hole, the city in 2010 issued a request for interested developers. Only three bids came in and the city decided not to pursue any of them. Fernando Pastor of SEEDnh, who took part in the bidding that year, has returned with a new proposal—this time teaming up with Cruz.

Chris Randall/ I Love New Haven Photo Illustration

Cruz, who lives near the Strong School, has spent two years rounding up arts groups and not-for-profits to get behind a plan to convert the 25,000-square-foot building into a community space and performing arts center. The plan centers on converting a 35,000-square-foot gymnasium into a 100-seat theater and then leasing out former classrooms into office space for arts groups and other small businesses and not-for-profits.

Cruz initially tried to negotiate with the city to lease the building to SPACe; the city insisted on selling it instead.

In the new proposal, Cruz formed a board of directors and teamed up with Fernando Pastor of SEEDnh, O,R&L Construction, and the Sustainable Energy Funding Program. SEEDnh has built four Yale rooming houses and converted four historical mansions on Prospect Hill for Pike International.

To make the plan sustainable, Cruz and Pastor plan to rely on rent from apartments.

The plan calls for tearing down a classroom addition on Perkins Street and building six townhouse-style, three-story apartments there. Each 2,400-square-foot townhouse would rent for $2,350 per month.

If the market allows, SPACe would also build six new “penthouse apartments” on the roof of the building. The “modern lofts,” of 750 to 1,200 square feet, would rent for $1,950 to $2,350 per month, according to the proposal.

The total project, including historic rehabilitation and new construction, would cost $7.5 million, according to the proposal.

To establish credibility, Cruz recruited letters of intent from interested tenants. Included in its submission to the city were letters from the following potential tenants expressing interest in the space: Long Wharf Theater, Neighborhood Music School, The Connection, Arte, Inc., Bregamos Community Theater, the Fair Haven branch of the New Haven Public Library, Fair Haven Community Health Clinic and the Grand Avenue Special Services District.

The plan calls for renting office space to those tenants, as well as creating some street-level retail, a coffee shop, or perhaps a restaurant. Some of the propose uses—the restaurant, health clinic and the apartments—would require an exemption from zoning laws.

Cruz expressed confidence about the new proposal.

“We have a world-class architect, a very reputable construction firm.” With the apartments, he said, “we are presenting an unusual but very credible source of funding.”

He said the proposal represents a homegrown, grassroots effort that aims to elevate the entire neighborhood.

“We are totally invested in the neighborhood,” Cruz said. “If the project flops, it’s our house values that go down, or stay down.”

Nemerson was asked what he thinks about the fact that only one bidder applied.

“This is the market speaking,” he said.

He said there is no rush to sell the building if the proposal doesn’t suit the city’s needs. The building is currently being used as storage for the Board of Education. He said the important thing is that he project be done right.

“This is an exciting neighborhood that is trying to burst out, given its proximity to the water,” he said. He said Mayor Toni Harp would support proposals that don’t just increase the price of housing, but provide a range of affordable housing.


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posted by: anonymous on June 26, 2014  6:15pm

I want this site to be redeveloped, but am curious about the following numbers.

“Each 2,400-square-foot townhouse would rent for $2,350 per month.”

Why would a 2,400 SF townhouse rent for $2,350 per month, which is the cost to rent an entire detached house in many neighborhoods throughout the New Haven area?

Lofts of “750 to 1,200 square feet, would rent for $1,950 to $2,350 per month.”

Why would small apartments in Fair Haven rent for more than they do in Downtown?

Anyhow, perhaps additional state subsidies can be found to cover some of the construction price (like was done recently for Forest City in Newhallville), so that rental income can sustain the project even if the developers don’t get the level of rents that they have projected above. It’s very important to make this building an active contributor to the neighborhood again, not a Board of Education storage space, but the City needs to be 100% sure that it will be properly and completely developed before it sells it.

posted by: Don in New Haven on June 26, 2014  6:29pm

With so many projects increasing the number of apartments, soon many of them will become affordable according to the Law of Supply and Demand.

The City needs revenue in order to achieve its multitude of goals. In no way does this proposal state how it will provide such revenue.

Turn the page and leave the BOE storage alone as we wait for a real proposal that meets the needs of the City.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 26, 2014  7:32pm

posted by: anonymous on June 26, 2014 6:15pm

I want this site to be redeveloped, but am curious about the following numbers.

“Each 2,400-square-foot townhouse would rent for $2,350 per month.”

Why would a 2,400 SF townhouse rent for $2,350 per month, which is the cost to rent an entire detached house in many neighborhoods throughout the New Haven area?

Lofts of “750 to 1,200 square feet, would rent for $1,950 to $2,350 per month.”

Why would small apartments in Fair Haven rent for more than they do in Downtown?

I am going to keep saying it.Wake up.The Gentrification vampires are coming.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on June 26, 2014  9:24pm

The prospective office tenants are certainly solid citizens of the New Haven community—there’s not a fly-by-night organization among them.  The plan sounds innovative and very intriguing.

3/5 asks:  Why would a 2,400 SF townhouse rent for $2,350 per month, which is the cost to rent an entire detached house in many neighborhoods throughout the New Haven area?

2400 square feet is a pretty big townhouse—bigger than plenty of the detached single-family houses in this town.  The location is pretty attractive.

posted by: Bradley on June 27, 2014  6:42am

Skepticism is in order here, and it may make sense to take no action until there are more options on the table. But requiring that the city be 100% sure that the property will be properly and completely developed before selling it is an impossible condition - I am not 100% certain that I will not be hit by a bus tomorrow. One possibility would be to sell the property subject to reverter clauses, e.g., the property would revert to the city if the developer failed to line up financing, start construction, or complete construction be agreed-upon dates.                                                                                Gretchen is right that this location may support the rents the developer is proposing, which are comparable to those being charged for the Prospect Hill development.

posted by: fairhavenmom on June 27, 2014  11:54am

As a resident of Fair Haven, with two children attending Fair Haven public schools, I am in absolute support of this proposal. Lee and Fernando have spent a great deal of time and energy surveying neighborhood needs and crafting a thoughtful, viable, mixed use project for this space. This proposal will add much needed cultural space, arts programs, dance programs, and living space with a high quality childcare program right there. I would be so happy to have cultural activities available to my children without having to schlep downtown. I would love to be able to walk right down the street to see a Bregamos production and yes, I would adore a coffee shop…even if that makes me a terrible person.

I believe this proposal to be in line with the needs of the Fair Haven Community. While admittedly the new apartments are not “affordable housing” it would be nearly impossible to make this space viable without a income generator of some kind attached to the project. We cannot change this unique but unused, abandoned schoolhouse into something useful and attractive without a serious infusion of funds.

The Fair Haven Community is behind this proposal!!

posted by: Hope on June 27, 2014  12:59pm

It’s so easy to be negative and cynical.  Sticking your neck out to build something positive is much harder.

Of course the City should pursue the policy that will best benefit its residents, and I am glad the Independent is drawing attention to this project, as it should all city dealings.  But, even in the absence of other bids, I strongly think this project should move forward. 

The Strong School dominates this end of Grand Avenue, and it should be a neighborhood treasure.  Instead, it’s becoming a hazard.  It is a beautiful building, but after years of vacancy, it is starting to fall into disrepair.  Sidewalks don’t get shoveled in the winter, grass and weeds grow, and each week brings more broken windows and busted lighting.  I live at the end of the block, and I am scared to walk past at night.

The city has no other offer on the table, and this property’s value will not increase with time.  Even if the city could theoretically get more money from an investor—highly doubtful in this market—what would that proposal be?  Would it serve the wide array of wide array of community members through arts and other programs that this proposal does?  I strongly doubt it.

The coalition of artists, residents, and organizations have worked really hard to put this proposal together.  I am grateful for their efforts, and they have my full support.

posted by: Mark T on June 27, 2014  2:37pm

As a resident of Fair Haven, I would love to see this project happen. Yes, the city should act like any reasonable seller and try to get the best price it can. But more important are the long-term benefits for our neighborhood and the city, building a stronger economic base with the active partnership of mission-driven, socially responsible organizations.

Lee Cruz’s group has had a series of highly informative and transparent community information sessions about this. Those interested in more details should contact the Chatham Sq neighborhood association for upcoming meetings. The group has done an incredible amount of grass-roots organizing and planning to get to this stage. Just a ton of work. Kudos to them.

I share the concerns about the lack of affordable and quality housing for a city where the median income is 38K and 26% of its residents live in poverty. But I think this type of development has the right kind of larger perspective in which mixed-income neighborhoods can grow organically, purposefully—and be eclectic and inspiring places to call home.

C’mon New Haven. Be great. As the saying goes: Don’t talk about it. Be about it.

posted by: Nath on June 27, 2014  3:44pm

If you have no idea what the project is about or how much energy and hard work it has taken already, get informed.  The Quinnipiac river historic neighborhood is one of the most overlooked neighborhoods of New Haven. Together we can move our neighborhood forward and be a model for the city.

posted by: Fairhavener on June 27, 2014  6:05pm

This is not only the one, sole, proposal but it is the best one! It is community driven, and it will benefit the New Haven Community at large. I’ve spoken to neighbors who are already keen on signing their children up for arts classes of different kinds right in their *own* neighborhood—without resorting to having to venture in to downtown.

As far as the apartments, I firmly believe not every apartment should or could be subsidized. Market rate housing will continue to boost this already thriving—and inclusive—neighborhood.

posted by: fastdriver on June 27, 2014  8:03pm

I really like the concept of the building’s use, BUT are there really people who will pay $2,350 a month for an apartment on Grand Ave.? Personally, I don’t see it.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 28, 2014  12:16pm

posted by: fastdriver on June 27, 2014 8:03pm

I really like the concept of the building’s use, BUT are there really people who will pay $2,350 a month for an apartment on Grand Ave.? Personally, I don’t see it.

Do not worry.Those people will soon be gone.Look at what they are doing in West Haven.

West Haven PZC approves conversion of Carroll Cut-Rate to 30 apartments

Forest Manor will renovate the high-ceilinged, 44,458-square-foot building just down Boston Post Road from University of New Haven and convert it to 30 market-rate “loft-style” apartments.

The renovated building, between Aftwood Place and Taft Avenue, would have 7,420 square feet of retail on the first floor, which may include a restaurant, according to the plans.

Notice who the apartments are for.

All but three of the apartments will be two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot units. The remaining three would be one-bedroom units. They would be aimed at UNH professors and graduate students, along with employees of Yale and the West Haven VA hospital, officials have said.

The same thing will be done with these apartments.Like I said the gentrification vampires are here.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on June 29, 2014  6:23pm

It is well documented that artists create value in neighborhoods - to the point where they can’t afford to live there and leave the newly gentrified spaces to the more affluent.

Now is the time for the B of A to consider an affordable housing requirement in ALL new housing so that people with roots in a community are not forced out. Affordable does not mean Section 8, although I believe they also deserve decent housing. Affordable means the application of financial standards for a given area.

The Dwight/ Hill/ West River area, especially at Route 34, are in the midst of dealing with development pressures, as is Wooster Square. Fair Haven has enormous potential, so act now to protect the diversity and superb architecture, as well as access to the waterfront, before it is gone.

posted by: Bradley on June 30, 2014  6:56am

Fastdriver, I think the issue is one of scale. Are there hundreds of households able and willing to pay the rents in the proposal - no; are there six such households, probably yes, particularly given the site’s location near the river. You would need a household income of nearly $100,000 to afford these units. This is way above the average in the city, but there are thousands of such households in the regional housing market.

posted by: cttaxpayer on June 30, 2014  7:48am

If they can sell a bank on giving them money, more power to them, these projected rents are way off if you consider the current state of that area. The city won’t gain any tax revenue if a not for profit owns the building.

posted by: fastdriver on June 30, 2014  10:31pm

Bradley, I am sure there are plenty of people who can afford those rents. What I’m saying is WHY would anyone pay that price in that neighborhood? Would you be able to go out at night and come home late at night with no worries? I think there are safer places to live than Grand Ave. for that price. Water or no water!

posted by: Nath on July 1, 2014  9:29am

Fastdriver: You are totally entitled to your opinions.  Here is mine: 

Read below the latest comment one of my MANY AirBnB guests has written on my site: BTW, he was Swiss living in Canada….and feel free to find me on the Airbnb site, you’ll see how many people from all over the US and the world are seeing MY neighborhood.  Many of my neighbors ring the bell to say hi, bring fresh tomatoes or fresh eggs, ask for help and participate in the community garden I am helping managing, right down the street facing the Strong school building.  Some don’t speak English, but we still talk to each other, we live together.  We are people.

“Thomas: I enjoyed staying with N. in her beautiful house in New Haven. It is indeed a hidden gem, unassuming from the street, but filled with space and light from the inside, with a beautiful back garden and deck. N. was very welcoming and arranging, ready to share her insider experience of New Haven, but with great discretion and attention to my needs. The guest room faces the street, and I was a little bit concerned about the noise at first, but the windows are well insulated and the traffic quiets down dramatically during the night, and so I slept very well. Also, contrary to several comments I had heard about New Haven, I felt very safe during my entire visit, particularly when staying at N’s. Not to worry.
I enjoyed my conversations (in French :) with N, sharing a little bit about our experiences as European expats in North America. She gave me plenty of directions to best enjoy New Haven, and I ended up staying a second night so that I could better explore the area. Very warmly recommended! :)
June 2014

posted by: Mark T on July 1, 2014  10:57am

@fastdriver Plenty of families live safely and happily in Fair Haven.

Your comment that questions whether someone living in Fair Haven would “be able to go out at night and come home late at night with no worries” makes it clear that you lack a credible, empirical understanding of the neighborhood.

This doesn’t seem the appropriate forum to disassemble the myopic conflation of concentrated wealth and public safety (or public good, for that matter). New Haven certainly needs sustainable economic development and active engagement from the people who live here. Opinions that are just parroting suburban cliches are not part of the solution.