Downtown neighbors and city officials don’t disapprove of the prisoner reentry work done by a state parole office that is slated to relocate to Grand Avenue in a few months. They’re just frustrated with the location chosen and the lack of communication between the state and the new site’s neighbors.
Neighbors and city employees expressed those frustrations on Tuesday night during the regular monthly meeting of the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT) on the second floor of City Hall. Around 30 community members came out to listen to representatives from the state Department of Correction (DOC) explain their plans to relocate the state’s New Haven-based parole office from its current location at 50 Fitch St. in Westville to 620 Grand Ave., an 11,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Grand and Wallace Street.
The state already has a clear path to move the parole office to the new Grand Avenue location as of right. The state has signed a 10-year lease with the property’s landlord, Christopher Syvertsen. Two months ago, the City Plan Commission (CPC) signed off on the state’s proposed renovations for the building, which is zoned as Industrial Light (IL) and therefore allows for office use as of right.
The office’s parole manager, Marvin Anderson, said the DOC hopes to relocate to the new Grand Avenue building sometime this fall.
Tuesday’s conversation was therefore less an opportunity for community members to formally oppose the imminent move, and more of a chance to reflect on how communication could have been clearer among the city, the state, and the community.
It also allowed city officials and management team leadership to express concern about how the parole office doesn’t exactly fit with the city’s or the community’s development goals for a formerly industrial part of town that is leaning towards a mix of residential, commercial, and social service uses.
That stretch of Grand Avenue between Downtown and the Mill River already contains a number of social service agencies, including the Emergency Shelter Management Services (ESMS) shelter at 644 Grand, and neighbors recently came out in droves to oppose the potential establishment of a youth homeless shelter just a few blocks away.
“The [parole office’s] goal is to promote public safety by reducing recidivism,” said Eric Ellison, the DOC’s deputy director for parole and community services.
He and Anderson said the building will provide office space for 10 full-time parole officers who oversee around 550 parolees who have been released from prison to live in New Haven and the surrounding area. They said that most of a parole officer’s work takes place “in the field,” visiting parolees where they live, checking on their employment, and coordinating a variety of services, from alternative housing help to behavioral health treatment to substance abuse treatment.
“You’re not going to know that we’re there,” Anderson said. He said the incoming and outgoing traffic at the building will be kept to a minimum.
He said the state needed to move its parole office after 17 years at the Fitch Street location in Westville because their current home is a “sick building” with a lot of maintenance issues, including problems with plumbing, flooding, collapsed ceilings, and rodents. He and Ellison said the state needed to find a new home with a better landlord so as to protect the wellness of the parole officers and to allow them to provide the necessary services for their parolees.
Attendees at the management team said that was a noble goal. But not necessarily the best fit for that stretch of Grand Avenue.
“It took me by surprise to learn that you were coming in,” said Carmen Mendez, Wooster Square’s neighborhood specialist for the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI). “A lot of people felt very slighted by the state because they failed to communicate with the residents about your facility and that it was coming here. I was wondering: what happened?”
Ellison said that he and Anderson had a lengthy conversation with the City Plan Commission a few months ago about their plans to move to 620 Grand. Anderson said that the city never specified that he needed to reach out to the community management team to the decision-making process, and that Tuesday evening’s communication wouldn’t even be taking place if he hadn’t first reached out to DWSCMT Chair Caroline Smith.
Steve Fontana, New Haven’s deputy director of economic development, said that the city had indeed recommended that the state reach out to community management teams as it was deciding on a new location for the parole office. He and City Economic Development Officer Carlos Eyzaguirre said they had met with representatives from DOC and the state Department of Administrative Services (DAS) as early as 2016 and had recommended alternative locations for the parole office relocation.
When they knew that the state had settled on 620 Grand, Fontana and Eyzaguirre said they had encouraged state officials to run the proposed location by the community management team. Fontana said that Anderson may not have been in those initial meetings, but his colleagues certainly were.
“So don’t say that people who were there didn’t say what they said to us,” Fontana said.
“That wasn’t relayed back to us,” Anderson replied. “Here we go again with the lack of communication … on our side.”
Wooster Square neighbor Peter Chapman said he disagrees with the DOC’s premise that it had to move the parole office out of 50 Fitch. He said the state should have done a better job of holding that Westville landlord accountable for the various maintenance problems the state encountered. “To let the place fall into disrepair while you folks had to operate in it,” Chapman said, “seems to me as if the state failed in their responsibilities to make sure the landlord lived up to providing you with basic conditions.”
Anstress Farwell, a DWSCMT executive board member and the president of the New Haven Urban Design League, said she was not opposed to the parole office’s mission of supporting ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
But, she said, she was disappointed with the lack of communication between the state and the community management team, and she thought turning 620 Grand into a parole office went against the mixed-use development mission of the city’s Mill River Plan. Adopted by the Board of Alders in 2014, the Mill River Plan lays out a vision for a mix of residential development and small businesses, shops and stormwater parks in the former industrial corridor.
“That’s what this group is here for,” she said, “and why you consult with the Housing Authority, the city, and the community, to make sure that you don’t disrupt things that have been in the making for 20 years to try to correct wrongs with and get it right.” She said the management team could have offered guidance, support, and suggestions as to alternate locations. Instead, neighbors are now stuck with a parole office next door for at least the next 10 years.
Mendez added that stretch of Grand Avenue is supposed to be a commercial strip. “And it’s been very highly impacted by homeless shelters and social service agencies,” she said. “People are overwhelmed and they’re tired of that.”
Mill River Still On Track
After the meeting, Fontana and Eyzaguirre said that, even though the relocated parole office is not an “ideal use” for 620 Grand, they are still confident that development in the Mill River district is moving that neighborhood closer to the vision outlined in the 2014 Mill River Plan.
Fontana pointed out that the Mill River walking and biking trail is now in development, and that there is new housing at the renovated Farnam Courts public housing complex on Grand, with more new housing expected at the old clock factory on Hamilton Street. He said his department has its eye on a number of other prospective residential development projects on Chapel Street.
The “home improvement and decoration cluster” in the Mill River District is going strong with Bender Plumbing’s recent expansion of its kitchen and bathroom supply showroom, along with the continued work of Tile America and Torrco Plumbing. On the manufacturing end, he noted that Luckey Climbers still has its 12,000-square-foot playground design and fabrication facility at 184 Chapel St.
“It’s just a real mixture of opportunities and uses,” Fontana said, “that we just want to make work well together and create a real fertile creative environment.”
“We try to get the right use in the right site,” he continued. “And often it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”