Chatham Square Wants Arts At Strong School Redo

Allan Appel PhotoIs this the site of a future Elm City version of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Or a Hygienic Arts of New London down by the Q River?

Or using a model closer to home, an artists’ loft and residence combo in the spirit of Westville’s ArLoW? Or all three?

Whatever the answer, the question has to do with the future of Strong School.

Chatham Square neighbors know for sure that they don’t want another day care or another social service agency operating out of the to-be-redeveloped school. And whatever is built should also be self-sustaining, and preferably arts-based, they said.

These key ideas for the future of the historic brick school at Grand between Clinton and Perkins emerged from a brainstorming community session of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association (CSNA) Saturday afternoon.

The ideas came in response to the city’s request for proposals (RFP) to sell the school to a developer to raise much-needed moolah for the city budget.

A dozen neighbors and local leaders gathered at the home of Lee Cruz, which is adjacent to the school.

The idea was to develop a community consensus to offer to the city as it weighs to whom to award the deal for re-use of the handsome and historic brick structure. For the last several years it has served as swing space for the school system.

Currently 300 kids from kindergarten to first grade attend the Strong School, which still has doors marked with two separate entrances for the two genders, a reminder of the old days.

The Strong School RFP is due by the end of the month.

Last Wednesday 20 developers led by city economic development officials walked through the building, taking in its wide corridors and Erector-set-style steel stairways.

Cruz (pictured at Saturday’s meeting), who accompanied them, said some builders expressed the opinion that the high ceilings and massive brick walls would not lend themselves to easy redevelopment as apartments. Others imagined a massive interior gutting.

Saturday, convened by Cruz, residents brainstormed and came to some of their own conclusions.

Neighbor Mary Ann Moran expressed one of them: “Many of us in the neighborhood see it as a theater and community space.”

Rafael Ramos of the Bregamos Theater Company concurred. He pointed out that the self-contained full kitchen, cafeteria/gym, and terrace all facing the avenue would be an excellent home for a theater company. (Note: A play written by this reporter, was recently performed there.) Also discussed: a restaurant for a post-theater chat with view of the river and the elegant Grand Avenue Bridge.

Crystal Manning, who lives near the school on Perkins, said that whatever goes in, it should not be a social service agency. “I’m uncomfortable with more social service. This area needs vibrancy, businesses,” she said.

Erected in 1916, after time and flames wiped out two previous versions, the aptly named fortress-style building has two faux medieval turrets. The land is arguably the site of the first public school in New Haven, erected in the early years of the 19th century.

Saturday’s neighborly session produced a consensus: that the re-use should reflect the historic and community importance of the building. It should also highlight activities that are part of “the creative economy.” That is, some combination of artist/living working arrangements; a space where performance as well as visual art can be built and rehearsed, as well as displayed and performed.

And perhaps professional offices, either for doctors and dentists or occupations that more directly serve the arts.

Above all, also, Manning added, the project should be economically self-sustaining.

The consensus differed from the city’s RFP suggestions in some respects. For example, per its document, the city’s focus is on residential condos or rental units. Manning suggested that if professional services, perhaps related to the arts, can work as offices, then residences might not be necessary.

GAVA’s Executive Director Gabriella Campos-Matteson emphasized the importance of an active street front, one with day and nighttime use.

If a kind of arts club or performance space moves in, “It has to be hip, cool, a new model,” she said.

She also said that if artist residence/lofts were ultimately offered, they would need to be affordable.

The area already has plenty of condos that have not sold, said Moran. These include those in the nearby historic Warner Building, redeveloped by David Vieau and artist studios being marketed out of the former Franks Hardware at Jefferson Street and Grand.

Cruz emphasized the community support for a flexible vision to be conveyed to the city, one that honors local history, the need for community access, and the understanding that the final product be economically viable.

Developers with an appreciation for local history and neighborhood, such as Neighborhood Housing, were suggested.

The next step: Cruz and CSNA planned to finalize a letter and seek the endorsing signatures of a wide range of groups, including but not limited to GAVA, the New Haven Preservation Trust, and Fair Haven’s three aldermen.

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posted by: Mary Rosario on March 15, 2010  7:01pm

Wow nice ideas.Performance space is a great idea for the community.

posted by: gabriela on March 15, 2010  10:06pm

Dear Neighbors having lived in an artist co-op and having participated in arts/social activism in CT over the past ten years I can tell you from experience the development opportunities it brings to those around the initial project. The key is that it has to be affordable…not million dollar condos…. but about 1K per month (more or less) lofts. That is what the market in this area can sustain.
The hygienic is the quintessential example. New London was in disrepair, and a few committed activist saved the Hygienic bldg from being torn down. They created artist space and gallery space… over the past decade or so those artists have moved on to open shop’s of their own around town, galleries, pubs, all within walking distance of their affordable, funky lofts…they are not alone. In Hartford, Arts Space artists/residents have opened successful yoga studios, dance studios, they teach classes, they help with public arts projects…

In short these types of developments give back to the community in ways that no other group can.

Most artist who are attracted to this type of living want to walk to work and to shop - things that they can do in Grand Ave,  or if they want they can participate in the many community events and in the large arts community in all of New Haven with a quick ride on their bike or the bus.

I hope that whatever developer takes this on will consider what the community has found to date - look at this proven model for success - Art work/live spaces help to keep dollars in the community and a special vibrancy that is not achieved otherwise.