December 7, 2022

Hamden eyes abandoned school site for new community center

Weeds began to engulf the brick facade, crawling along a set of gray double doors at the front of the building. Torn screens and shattered glass carved dark, jagged holes in its windows.

But in the city’s government hub, a new plan is taking shape that aims to lift the property from its seemingly endless limbo.

For Mayor Lauren Garrett, the picture becomes clear. The existing structures on the site are demolished. An arts and culture center replaces the old gymnasium, while a community center occupies the high perch where the main academic building now stands.

Her administration presented the idea to the Legislative Council on Monday, and she said American Rescue Plan Act funds and state grants could help fund the project.

The concept marks a break from previous plans for the property, which for years were to be developed by Mutual Housing, a non-profit organization that was to build affordable housing on the city-owned site.

But partly because of an ongoing remediation effort – the school and surrounding neighborhood were built on soil contaminated by an industrial landfill – development has stalled, and the 2015 contract between the city and Mutual Housing has expired.

After granting several extensions, the Legislative Council opted in April not to go ahead with the deal, opening the door to new possibilities for the property.

Keefe Center 2.0

The idea of ​​using the site as the headquarters of a community center has come up in earlier discussions of the college’s fate.

In 2007, a report commissioned by the city suggested that neighbors preferred to use the site to build a community center. And Legislative Council Member Justin Farmer, D-5, said he had already floated the idea of ​​a “Keefe Center 2.0,” as he called it.

In fact, Mutual Housing attempted to accommodate these requests, offering to build and operate a small community center on the site of the former gymnasium or build a larger center with financial assistance from the city.

But some council members felt the plans would not benefit the community enough. With mutual housing now irrelevant, Garrett proposed using American Rescue Plan Act funds for a “Keefe Center 2.0”.

It would house all of the services currently offered at the Keefe Community Center and would include a library branch, a senior center branch and a health center, Garrett said. The city would seek a partner to operate health services there, she said.

The administration is also considering moving the school district’s central offices from 60 Putnam Ave. to the new “community campus,” Sean Grace, the mayor’s chief of staff, told council at Monday’s meeting.

With the sale of the Wintergreen School, the Hamden Collaborative Learning Center also needs a new home. Garrett’s administration has proposed moving the district’s Alternative Learning Program classrooms to the Newhall site.

Such changes would allow the city to reallocate or sell municipal assets like the Keefe Center, 60 Putnam Ave. and secondary libraries, Grace said at the meeting.

Of the $24 million the city receives in ARPA funds, $6 million was spent by the previous administration, he said, acknowledging that the price of the new community center could exceed the remaining funds.

But having a diverse range of services housed there would allow the city to seek additional funding sources, he said.

Arts district

The second element of the administration’s proposal is to build an arts and culture center in place of the old gymnasium.

“This idea was presented to us last week and I think it’s amazing,” Garrett said.

The arts center would include a stage for performances, an art gallery and an art history area where visitors could learn about the neighborhood, according to Garrett. It would also be part of an “arts district”.

“(The center) would be the hub that would then branch out into the Farmington Canal where there would be art installations,” Garrett said.

To pay for the project, the mayor asked the council to allow the city to apply for $7.2 million from the Connecticut Community Investment Fund, which the city also plans to help redo Newhall’s drainage system.

The council’s recreation and culture committee approved the arts center’s application on Monday, which has yet to go to the full council for approval.

Meanwhile, the administration has asked its state delegation to file a request for money to demolish existing buildings on the college’s old campus, Garrett said.

It remains to be seen whether the plan will gain the momentum it needs to move forward.

Farmer, the council member representing the district where the site is located, expressed enthusiasm for the plan but also stressed the need to have community conversations before moving forward.

As for the prospect of selling the city’s assets, he said he would oppose any sale, at least until the new services are up and running.

But in terms of using ARPA funds, time is running out. Hamden needs to spend the money by 2026, Grace told the council, and he needs to have a plan in place for how to do it by the end of 2024.

“We think the location on the site of the old college is an ideal location for this (community center), so we’re asking that we start the discussion,” Grace said.