Vacant schools’ future before planning panel

By KAITLYN NAPLES
STAFF WRITER
The fate of the three vacant schools in Bristol is still to be determined, but the wheels are in motion for the Planning Commission and the city’s Planning Department.
City Planner Alan Weiner suggested the members of the city’s Planning Commission read the Space Needs Analysis that was prepared nearly two years ago on several city buildings, including the former Bingham, O’Connell, and Memorial Boulevard schools, before beginning work sessions and hearing from the public.
“It’s a starting point,” Weiner said at last week’s Planning Commission meeting, adding that it will allow the commissioners to be up-to-date on the mechanics of the buildings, the details of the structures, and recommended uses that were presented by the study, which is available on the city’s website.
At its December meeting, the commission plans to have Public Works Director Walter Veselka attend to discuss the current conditions of each school, since that department is responsible for maintaining them right now. Weiner also suggested looking at what the Real Estate Committee has discussed regarding Memorial Boulevard School, since it has been put out to bid twice in the last year or so. He said it also would be beneficial if the commission came up with agreements on what they want to hear from the public, that it wouldn’t be a spectrum of random comments and suggestions from the public, but would seek comments and suggestions that focused around specific areas.
Once the commission reads the reports and hears from Public Works, it is expected to schedule some work sessions in January for each school and will welcome comments from the public.
The Space Needs Analysis that was released in May of 2012 focused on several properties and buildings throughout the city.
Bingham School, a 50,000 square foot structure, was built in 1916 and underwent renovations in 1981. It is a three-floor building, and the school closed in 2010 and has been sitting vacant ever since. It has been out for a request for proposals, however nothing has come to fruition yet. The study states that the building is in need of “significant upgrades” in order to bring it to an acceptable level. For example, the roof leaks and has caused deterioration to plaster and wood floors. There are fire codes issues that need to be brought up-to-date. There are other deficiencies that would need to be corrected such as some of the systems that have exceeded their life expectancy. One of the highest recommendation for use of the building, according to the report, is conversion to senior rental housing. Barring that, another option would be artist housing. Another recommendation, which wasn’t high on the list, was market rate rental housing. There were also recommendations that if the building were to be torn down, the space could be replaced by a fire department headquarters, police department, or superior court.
The report concluded that Bingham presents a strong market for a variety of potential uses, especially because of its proximity to Route 6 (Farmington Avenue) and the downtown area.
O’Connell School, a 50,500 square foot structure built in 1954, closed its doors at the end of the school year in 2012. O’Connell has one major problem due to its location: flooding. It has suffered damage to its basement and auditorium areas. In the report, it says the best uses for O’Connell would be senior or affordable housing because it is located in a predominantly residential area. Barring those uses, it could be a community or recreation area in the the gym-auditorium section of the school.
Memorial Boulevard is the most complex school to find a use for, Weiner said to the commission. It has a theater that the community and government officials have expressed a strong desire to keep in tact. The entire building is 105,970 square feet and was constructed in 1921. The school closed at the end of the school year in 2012.
The analysis reported the building could potentially be used for city hall, as a residential structure, or for educational instruction.
Earlier this year, a development group expressed interest in turning Memorial Boulevard School into a residential housing facility, while keeping the theater functioning. In September, the council at the time was unable to unanimously agree on selling the building, and sent the matter to the City Planner’s office. When the proposal to approve selling the building came to the Planning Commission last year, it denied it. Last year, the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce made a proposal to lease the building as an incubator space for start-up companies, however that proposal was denied by city councilors who sat on the Real Estate Committee at the time.
The next meeting of the Planning Commission is slated for Wednesday, Dec. 18.
To read the Space Needs Analysis, visit the city’s website at www.bristolct.gov and go to the “Your Government” tab to find “studies and reports.”
Comments? Email knaples@BristolObserver. com.