Strong School Vision 2.0: Arts & Apartments

David Blumenthal PhotoThree years after he missed a chance to convert a shuttered school into apartments, developer Fernando Pastor came back for a second look, armed with a new plan.

Pastor (at right in photo) was one of five participants in a Tuesday afternoon tour of the old Strong School, at 69 Grand Ave. The city is looking to sell the 32,998 square-foot school, which has been closed for several years. Tuesday’s tour was part of a Request For Proposals (RFP) process to solicit plans from potential developers. (Click here to read about the specifics of the RFP.)

Pastor is one such developer. While Pastor has worked for New Haven developers like Newman Architects and Pike International, on Tuesday afternoon he represented SEEDnh, his own New Haven-based development company.

Pastor previously put in a bid for the building in 2011, but came up empty—the city opted not to sell the building at that time. The city later entered into talks with an arts group led by Fair Haven activist Lee Cruz about converting the school into a community arts space. The plan never got off the ground. Click here and here to read more.

Pastor’s 2011 plan was to convert the school into apartments. His new idea, he said, is for a mixed-use building, incorporating a neighborhood vision to convert the building into an arts and culture center.

Cruz, who still wants to see the space used for the arts, led Tuesday’s tour, along with Helen Rosenberg of the city economic development office.

Other members of the tour included former Spanish-American Merchants Association head Frank Alvarado (at center in photo) and self-employed architect Paul Bailey (at right), who said he is “working with a client who is maybe interested in submitting a proposal” for a “mixed-use housing” development, but declined to comment further.

The building stands on the site where New Haven’s first-ever public school was constructed in 1808. The current iteration, constructed in the Collegiate Tudor style, was constructed in 1915 after a 1913 fire.

It still has vestiges of the era in which it was built, such as separate entrances for boys and girls…

... and, problematically, a lack of handicapped accessibility throughout the building.

Most recently, the building was the site of a “swing space” school for kindergarten and 1st grade that served 277 students. In 2011, the school was moved to its current 130 Orchard St. location. Since then, the building has remained unoccupied. Its first floor currently serves as a storage space for New Haven’s public schools.

Pastor said he has long been interested in the school, as it was always a “viable” project. Three years ago, however, his plan for the building was an entirely residential project. Now, he said, he sees the wisdom of a mixed-use development, the sort championed by Cruz.

Cruz has recruited a group of arts organizations known as SPACe to occupy the building. He led onlookers through the gymnasium, “the heart of the building.”

Cruz pointed out the extensive brickwork throughout the gymnasium and an adjacent hallway.

As Cruz led the group to the building’s basement, Pastor marveled at the basement’s “great temperature”—remarkably cool despite the day’s 80-degree heat. Cruz agreed: “I’ve been here in August and it remains cool!”

The tour moved up the roof, taking in views of East Rock as well as Yale’s Science Park and Kline Biology Tower.

Pastor said he envisions the building’s future as a “mixed-use project with very strong cultural and art component.”

After the tour, Pastor remained enthused about the project, which Cruz estimated would cost “somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million.” Pastor said the project is, for him, “in the pipeline.”

Cruz reemphasized “the theme of the building as arts.” New Haven has the most artists per capita among towns between New York and Boston, he said. He said housing would be an important component of an art center, providing rental income to help pay for overhead.

Pastor said talking with Cruz has made him more hopeful of the project’s potential. “Before,” he said, “[Cruz’s] concept was all cultural and my concept was all housing,” he said.

A compromise would mean that “the use of the building will be a lot more significant,” Pastor said. He said a mixed-use venture would bring greater interest than loft apartments alone. “A lot more people will take advantage of the building instead of 10 to 15 people.”

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posted by: HewNaven on June 4, 2014  7:10pm

I’m glad these 2 came to a compromise. Mixed-use is definitely the best choice for this building.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 4, 2014  8:26pm

If they do make t apartments for the art hubs.I wonder will it be only for the art hubs.

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posted by: Billy on June 4, 2014  9:50pm

Great compromise. And a great example of perseverance and community building prowess by Lee.

I hope the site will include a good number of units for low-income residents as well.

posted by: RhyminTyman on June 5, 2014  8:11am

This city needs more Lee Cruz’s.

posted by: Xavier on June 5, 2014  10:45pm

The city needs more jobs.

I am with 3/5’s on his warning on these gentrification vultures.

Nice to see Lee helping out, I just it wish it was for jobs.

We have over built the schools. I mean come on, right across the street practically the old middle school has a theater. We have erector square. How much more art can a poor neighborhood endure?

JOBS - JOBS, not some groovy artist colony.

Where is One City Henry on this? One City Henry, I know he would have plan for jobs.