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CT Construction Digest Wednesday January 12, 2022

Some Danbury Democrats ‘open minded’ about charter school after new, CT operator named

Julia Perkins

DANBURY — Some local state legislators say they may be willing to consider supporting a charter school for the city now that a Connecticut-based operator has been put in charge of the project.

Supporters are still likely to face a fierce battle for state funding and approval, but some Democrats are more receptive to the idea after the announcement that John Taylor, the head of a New Haven charter school, would replace Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Prospect Charter Schools.

“Mr. Taylor has a very reputable reputation in Connecticut,” state Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, said. “I think it’s a better option that it’s a Connecticut-based organization now. I think we we should keep an open mind. I look forward to meeting with Mr. Taylor and hearing his thoughts and what he thinks he could potentially bring to Danbury.”

The Danbury Democratic delegation has previously opposed the project, preventing it from earning state funding in the more than three years since the Connecticut Board of Education approved a charter school for the city. Some legislators couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.

The Danbury Charter School Planning Team switched operators to have someone who was well known in Connecticut and who could champion funding for the school.

“He’s (Taylor) literally what we needed in Danbury,” said Jose Lucas Pimentel, a member of the planning team and head of Latinos for Educational Advocacy in Diversity, which has advocated heavily for the charter school.

Supporters plan to push the governor to include funding for the charter school in his proposed budget. Pimentel said they may see a “breakthrough” thanks to legislators indicating they may drop their opposition.

However, state Rep. Ken Gucker, D-Danbury, said he remains firmly against the charter school, largely because he argues state funding should go toward the “underfunded” public schools in Danbury.

State money for charter schools comes from a different funding stream than the one for public schools, “but it all comes out of the state budget,” he said.

“It does indeed take away from our students,” Gucker said.

State Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, said he has similar concerns, but he’s “open minded” and looks forward to hearing the details, ramifications and consequences of the plan.

“It’s certainly better than one from New York City,” he said of the operator.

He said he wouldn’t advocate for funding the school until he’s talked to stakeholders and had his questions answered about what the public schools would need to pay toward transportation, among other concerns.

“I’m not inclined to take money away from Danbury Public Schools to give to another operator, even if it’s a nonprofit,” Godfrey said. “I need to see those numbers and see exactly how it works and see the other costs involved.”

He and Arconti said Taylor’s accomplishments and relationships in Connecticut have led them to take a second look at the project.

“Being a Connecticut operator is, I think, an important step,” Arconti said.

State Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, said he wants to give parents more options for schools and that the new operator could be promising.

“When we had conversations with Prospect, I did have concerns that what may work for Brooklyn may not work in Connecticut,” he said. “Sometimes I felt like there wasn’t a lot of transparency in the questions I was asking. An agency that’s asking for state dollars, there has to be accountability.”

Booker T. Washington, the New Haven charter school that Taylor runs, was named a “School of Distinction” by the state in 2018. Taylor and the Danbury Charter School Planning Team cited other academic accomplishments his students had at charter schools in New York.

State Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, called the plan for the school “impressive.” He’s visited the building where the school would be constructed and spoken with Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity.

“I’m completely in favor of it,” Callahan said. “It gives people a choice and there’s a ton of private funding put into it, as well.”

Concerns about the school

In 2018, the state Board of Education OK’d Prospect Charter Schools specifically to operate the school in Danbury, so the revised plans with the new operator need to go back to the state for approval.

Stephen Tracy, chairman of the planning team, said the group will need to bring a “formal written statement” to the state indicating what changes would be made.

“We’re optimistic that they will (approve it), but I’m sure they’ll have their questions,” he said.

Gucker said it would be “premature”to fund the school because the new operator hasn’t been approved.

“How do you ask for money if you’re not approved?” he asked. “This is like me saying I want money to build my house but I’m not building my house yet.”

Gucker argued the charter school wouldn’t adequately address the public school district’s overcrowding problem, but building additional public schools would.

The charter school would begin by serving 110 students, adding a grade each year to reach 770 students.

“The money and the numbers don’t line up,” Gucker said.

Gucker questioned how the school could open as planned at the 358 Main St. building that the Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity has made its home.

City zoning regulations require schools to sit on a minimum of two acres, but city property records show the lot is 0.02 acres.

A philanthropist has donated $25 million toward construction of the school, but Gucker noted that’s far less than the $99 million Danbury has committed to its career academy, the $84.2 million cost of New Fairfield’s new high school and the $29.2 million cost of the renovations to one of New Fairfield’s elementary schools.

Pimentel said he expects the group will seek further donations. Taylor’s New Haven school is supported by several philanthropic groups, Pimentel said.

Arconti said he and the delegation are looking out for what’s best for students.

“We want, I want our kids to have the best educational experience they can have, which prepares them for their lives, for their adult lives,” Arconti said. “So if Mr. Taylor and his organization thinks they can provide a solution or be part of that, then I welcome getting to know them and hearing what they have to bring.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated with the correct political party for State Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield.

New Haven apartment project to boost affordable housing

Mark Zaretsky

NEW HAVEN — An empty lot on 1.78 acres that is part of Science Park straddling the city’s Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods is slated to become a five-story apartment building with 176 apartments — 58 classified as “affordable” — and 88 parking spaces.

The project along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail has been bouncing around City Hall for a few years. It can move forward following the unanimous approval of the full Board of Alders, which approved the zoning ordinance text and map amendment after the joint Community Development and Legislation Committee did so in December.

The change in zoning expanded the site to include all of 291 Ashmun St., 309 Ashmun St. and 178-186 Canal St. The site is bounded by Ashmun, Canal and Henry streets. The additional land will allow the developer to build an additional 26 units.

The developer is RJ Development & Advisors LLC, which is controlled by developer Yves-Georges Joseph and Jason Rudnick.

Aldermanic Majority Leader Richard Furlow, D-27, presented the item to the board, with alders Brian Wingate, D-29, and Jeanette Morrison, D-22, speaking in favor of it.

“I stand in support of this item” as “basically the last piece of our puzzle in Ward 22,” said Morrison, the aldermanic president pro tem. She praised it for the affordable housing it will provide — 33 percent of the total units.

“This is a project that we’ve been working on for quite some time,” Morrison said. She said it will “enhance the Dixwell community” as well as the city at large.

Wingate also urged his colleagues to support the measure because of the affordable housing it will provide.

The alders approved the changes in a Jan. 3 meeting.

The alders more than a year ago approved a development and land disposition agreement to sell the property to RJ for $500,000. It also agreed to provide tax incentives, agreeing to limit taxes to $400 on each affordable unit for 20 years, with the rest of the complex being taxed at market rates.

The developer, in turn, agreed to make at least 25 units available to renters who earn no greater than 80 percent of area median income, as well as 15 units at no more than 60 percent of AMI and at least 10 units for Section 8 vouchers.

The developer still must return to the City Plan Commission for site plan approval.

The proposed five-story complex will have 88 ground-level structured parking spaces and a mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Spinnaker outlines plans to add three buildings, 166 additional apartments to downtown Hartford development plan

Michael Puffer

Spinnaker Real Estate Partners’ plans for a dense redevelopment of a former state office property at 55 Elm Street in Hartford is advancing with praise from city staff.

A master plan heading before the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission Tuesday details the size of residential buildings Spinnaker plans to add to the 3.2-acre property.

The plan comes with the blessing of city planning staff, who said the project meets Hartford zoning rules and “would greatly advance” the city’s development goals, according to a report accompanying Spinnaker’s application.

The Norwalk-based developer bought the 200,000-square-foot office complex in Jan. 2020 for $6.8 million. It also purchased a trio of nearby parking lots at 71 Elm St., 94 Hudson St. and 108-110 Capitol Ave. Spinnaker has previously announced plans for 160 apartments at the historic office building and its annex. This first phase is estimated at about $63 million and, according to Spinnaker co-partner Matthew Edvardsen, is anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2022.

Spinnaker’s plans for additional buildings on parking areas of 55 Elm St. is fleshed out in its master plan request.

There are two buildings currently on-site. The largest, a seven-story building completed in 1926, is to be converted from office into apartments and hotel suites, with ground floor retail. A four-story annex is to be converted into apartments with ground-floor retail.

The staff report noted Spinnaker’s intent to drop plans for hotel space, but no written change in plans has yet been submitted.

A second phase of construction would add a new five-story, 81-unit apartment building facing West Street, with 2,410-square feet of ground floor retail space and 22 basement parking spaces. The plans include outdoor space marked as a “beer garden.”

Next, phase three would see the addition of a five-story, 85-unit apartment building facing Capitol Avenue, with two retail spaces with a combined total of 1,930 square feet.

A fourth phase would see a new 1.5-story building with retail and amenity space between the two new buildings, connected to each via breezeways.

Edvardsen, on Tuesday, said he anticipates launching renovations to the existing buildings at 55 Elm St. this quarter and wrapping up within two years. Spinnaker tentatively plans to begin work building the 81-unit building as the first leg of the project winds down.

The timing of the second phase, however, depends on securing a tax agreement with the city and financing from the Capitol Region Development Authority, Edvardsen cautioned. Once launched, construction is anticipated to take up to 15 months.

Construction of the 85-unit building would begin as the second phase of construction winds down, Edvardsen said.

Edvardsen said the project’s launch has been slowed by COVID-19 related delays but said progress will soon be visible on the ground.

“We feel this is one of the last steps to get this project going, this hearing tonight,” Edvardsen said. “And we are looking forward to getting it going.”