“Strong School District” Plan Evolves

Convert a funky parking lot into a local market that remains open at night.

How about another coffee shop?

Pick up the trash in the park more regularly.

Turn a long-vacant but historic school building into a model for inclusionary housing. 

And don’t forget to launch that oyster boat business—a a local tourism-oriented vessel that echoes the oystering history of the area that would offer sunset cruises of the river and local historic locales.

Allan Appel PhotoThose and other ideas — some practical and specfic, some dream-like — emerged from a brainstorming session on next “action steps” to improve the gateway stretch of Fair Haven running from Quinnipiac Avenue, across the river, and up Grand Avenue to Atwater Street.

Thursday night 40 people gathered at the Atwater Senior Center in the second meeting convened by a grassroots group that for a year and a half has been in the process of “visioning”  a better future for this key stretch of Fair Haven.

The effort has grown out of the group’s involvement with city economic officials to find a developer for an adaptive re-use plan for the long-vacant Strong School.

The group’s own plan to convert the Strong School into a kind of non-profit-based arts center with live/work apartments was rejected by the city. Then a Milford-based developer’s proposed 32 “micro apartrments” plan gained no local traction and was rejected.

So the neighbors have returned to envision the future of not just the school but the surrounding “Strong School District,” according to Clinton Street resident Sarah Miller, one of the orgainzers.

At an earlier meeting in the spring, 100 Fair Haveners had gathered under the volunteer leadership of of Michelle Stronz of a consulting group called the Formata  to assess the community’s strengths, resources, and challenges, and to develop priorities.

On Thursday night Stronz presented four agreed-upon foci: neighborhood communication, Fair Haven’s relationship to city officials, responsible development with a focus on the Strong School, and area infrastructure and safety.

Divided into four brainstorming groups, and bearing long sheets of paper, magic markers, and square slices of pizza, neighbors set to work to come up with specifics in answer to Stronz’s key question: What would you do on this stretch of Fair Haven if you had the power to take action in the immediate future?

Over at the neighborhood/communication brainstorming group, led by Fair Haven School teacher David Weinreb, Lynn Bibber said she has unfortunately come to know few people during her four years in the neighborhood. There was talk about welcome wagons and how to greet newcomers. Weinreb said one of the big take-aways is to build on the community management team “to push out communications better.”

At the infrastructure/safety committee, Beth Pellegrino bemoaned the trash in Quinnipiac River Park. She called for more bins as well as signs to promote less littering and community pride.

In the break-out discussion pondering Fair Haven’s relationship with City Hall, State Rep. Al Paolillo, Jr. offered a touch of inside baseball.

It is important, he said, for the community to identify a designated official downtown with whom to communicate. “You need to have one person in the city’s economic development who is a point of contact,” he said.

At the responsible development group, chaired by local developer Fereshteh Bekhrad, Helene Sapadin offered that one of her favorite walks in the area is to the coffee shop in the Fair Haven Marina. She’d like to see another place like that.

Another participant in the group bemoaned the loss of the Little Theater on Lincoln Street. She sees an opening for economic development in using one of the area’s building — perhaps a part of the Strong School — to become a theater to show interesting films.

The heart of the discussion here was the future of the Strong School building itself, because time is a factor, said Sarah Miller. Since the $16.7 million proposal for micro-apartments fell apart under community scrutiny and pressure, no other developers have appeared to offer a plan more in keeping with the needs of the community.

“The Strong School is in bad shape,” Miller said. “We’ve seen evidence of people living in there. We’ve got to get the city to get going. There needs to be a resolution.”

Ian Christmann proposed luring the “night market,” a food store to replace one of the parking lots and to sell the goods of local entrepreneurs.

“All this,” he said, “should be happening naturally.”  That is, the historic district, the bridge, park, and the beautiful river are such assets, that they should be able to sell themselves, he argued. “Let’s focus on removing the obstacles.

New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell offered that whatever development occurs, “it has to enhance the park.”

And Sierra-Marie Gerfao, returning to the Strong School itself, offered that it “could be a leader in adapting inclusionary housing policy.”

Stronz and the conveners said the evening’s work will be assessed and priority items to begin working on will be presented at the next meeting, date to be determined.

Based on that an action plan will emerge. Sarah Miller said, she expects that to be in hand by the end of the year.

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posted by: Matthew Nemerson on October 1, 2018  4:09pm

Ironically or propitiously, I am right now at a conference on inclusionary economic development featuring community development concepts In Atlanta.

These are exciting suggestions from the Strong School/ Chatham Square / eastern Grand Avenue community.

The city economic development departments would be very open to proposals based on any of the suggestions made here concerning the future of the Strong school.

While we always have to follow the court imposed guidelines on school disposal (the Gan rules) there is nothing that says we can’t again entertain ideas specifically generated and led by a community group.

To Representative Paolillo, jr’s advice about a point person, we have a project manager assigned and we are always prepared to meet quickly in the community or at City Hall when the community has a preferred direction for the City-owned Strong School that they feel is viable both commercially and from the neighborhood’s own planning perspective.

We look forward to meeting with folks soon, either before or after the next planning session.

We have offered to attend these sessions, but certainly, respect the community’s desire to work these issues out without the city involvement for now.

posted by: Matthew Nemerson on October 1, 2018  4:23pm

I think the word I was looking for is:
Propitious - can you change oh great copy editor in the cloud!
(I think it’s corrected. Take a look. - MR)

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 1, 2018  4:40pm

Unrelated to Fair Haven, but I find it ironic that the sentence bemoaning the “loss” of the Little Theatre is linked to an NHI story entitled “Little Theatre Lives.” That 2014 story describes how the theatre was “brought back to life” as part of the Educational Center for the Arts.

posted by: deathandtaxes on October 1, 2018  5:37pm

Hey Nemerson - how much is this Atlanta trip going to cost taxpayer?  The REAL cost!

posted by: Esbey on October 1, 2018  6:08pm

It is good to brainstorm without knocking down ideas too quickly, it is good to involve local residents and it is good to carefully listen to those residents.

However, I still think it is misleading and almost cruel to run this sort of event without emphasizing at some point that, outside of the brainstorming room, the regular harsh rules of the world still hold. One can envision truly inclusive housing all one wants, but unless someone has a lot of money it isn’t going to happen. The neighborhood killed the one proposal for the school site that had any (even alleged) funding, partly because they were given the impression that they had the ability or right to design the project they “wanted,” without regard to actual resources being available. Anstress Farwell encourages this kind of magical thinking via her patented lectures on the characteristics that future development “has to” possess, without any notion of the economic feasibility of any project of any sort.   

The school is most likely going to collapse, with the demolition bill paid mostly by city residents who were given no seat at the table when the last proposal was declined. That is the image that we need to envision: brainstorming our way into expensive collapse.

posted by: Matthew Nemerson on October 1, 2018  6:19pm

Fair question - I will calculate the amount and report it out here when I return on Wednesday.

posted by: Dennis Serf on October 1, 2018  11:15pm

Matthew Nemerson: “I am right now at a conference on inclusionary economic development featuring community development concepts In Atlanta”. Here’s a link to the conference:

https://www.iedcevents.org/Atlanta/Registration.html

I have one request for Mr. Nemerson with respect to ‘inclusionary economic development’: please start including the concerns of the heavily burdened taxpayers and not just the local community activists when making decisions. This means things like supporting market rate apartments at 9th Square and the Church Street South site, and eliminating the 100-year tax abatement doled out to developers.

Dennis Serfilippi
https://newhaven.nationbuilder.com/

posted by: Gimp on October 1, 2018  11:47pm

I can brainstorm in my shower first thing in the morning for free. Why does Nemmerson have to go to Atlanta to do it at tax payers expense? I guess the Mayor recommended a steakhouse there. This building will be demolished as all the available cash has been squandered on freebies for Harp administration flunkies. Don’t tell me the spin when the city goes into bankruptcy. I already know. We did a much better job of it than Detroit, and we lost even more money than they did. Biggest bankruptcy in American history. You should all be proud you are paying the biggest tax burden in the world. Bring in the FBI now.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 2, 2018  7:04am

Following Esbey’s comment, we need to think about the on-going as well as initial costs of any proposal for this site. There is a real need for affordable housing in New Haven. But even if a person is making $15/hour, i.e., is moderate income rather than poor, they will need a Section 8 certificate in order to afford a newly-built unit. Using the 30% of income rule, such a person can only afford to pay about $800 per month, which is well below market rate for new construction. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe the federal government is going to increase the number of Section 8 certificates.

posted by: westvilledad on October 2, 2018  10:21am

these are all good ideas. but remember you’re going to need someone to invest capital into the projects and who expects to make money. so the ideas need to profitable.  hopefully a good developer can find something that’s a win-win for them and for community.

also, while nemerson is in ATL he should check out these restaurants with city credit card: https://hauteliving.com/2017/02/haute-top-5-most-expensive-restaurants-atlanta-2017/629899/

posted by: Patricia Kane on October 8, 2018  5:30pm

What kind of support would the City give to the creation of an antiques and design center? It’s not my idea, but on hearing it, I thought it was a good one.
  A lot of high end antiques dealers “retired” after the last economic collapse and space in a decent location can be hard to find.
  Antique centers that sublet spaces from 8 X 10 and up can be affordable and create a destination. Their success is not based on local patronage alone.
  Space for local artists and crafts people to exhibit and sell would also be good choices.