Alumni and friends of New Britain's St. Thomas Aquinas high school will gather for a reunion on May 19th at New Britain Stadium. The pre-game picnic is a fundraiser for a Noah's Ark of Hope, a Meriden playground named for a child of an Aquinas alumna.
Participants will bring many good memories of the hallways, classrooms and gymnasium of the parochial school at East and Kelsey streets.
But memories are all that is left now because the century-old school house attached to an addition and gymnasium built during the school's 1960s heydays is an eyesore. Over the last year the building's deterioration has accelerated. Its hulking presence hurts property values and the neighorhood's quality of life.
A Herald story by Francine Maglione last January described just how bad things have gotten at the former parochial high school site:
The St. Thomas Aquinas school, which closed in the 1990s, remains abandoned and somewhat open for vagrants or even school children to enter and wander around. Though many of the doors are boarded up, a few of them are open and easily accessible. Inside the building, broken glass and garbage litters the floor, and books and furniture are scattered about. Graffiti covers the walls outside as well as walls and chalkboards inside the classrooms. Next to the school in the former nun's quarters, boxes of old financial records still sit in the hallways and canceled checks lay all over the floor. The school building is currently for sale and remains boarded up.
The situation finally prompted the city Building Department to condemn the property, posting signs that the structure is a public safety hazard. Aquinas'deterioration is a main topic of concern for members of the East Side NRZ which regularly meets with city officials about blight and other issues.
For a time following the close of the parochial school there was talk the facility could have been turned over to the public schools -- giving the city an adaptable place to add classrooms for once and future needs. It would have been appropriate for the Archdiocese of Hartford to turn the parcel back to the city, having obtained it for $1 when the municipality could afford to give that kind of space away. Instead, the building housed a now defunct charter school and became a source of income for the church. Eventually the Aquinas property was sold off to an absentee realty interest. The result -- so common in urban properties acquired for speculation -- has been a quick decline into blight for the once proud secondary school whose graduates include city leaders such as State Senator Don DeFronzo and State Rep. John Geragosian.
The Aquinas property demonstrates the limits city government faces in dealing with abandoned, absentee-owned buildings. The federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program has guaranteed funds to New Britain for a generation now. CDBG, which emerged in the 1970s, is supposed to address blight issues with funds for the acquisition of property and the rehabilitation of residential and non-residential buildings. Through the years federal appropriations have precipitously declined, however. According to an estimate by the Northeast-Midwest Coalition federal money for CDBG dropped 51% from 1981 to 2006. Twenty five years ago New Britain possessed more than double the CDBG funds it has today -- less than $2 million. When inflation is taken into account the city has no more than a third of the resources it once had to address blight and community development issues. Of CDBG dollars currently available, much of current funding is dispersed to human and social service agencies because the federal and state pipeline for their services has been cut to the bone as well.
Despite the absence of federal dollars for interventions and no apparent bidders to purchase the property from out of state owners, the city needs to adopt a more aggressive approach to revitalize the Aquinas parcel. It's too large a piece of property and too important a space on the East Side to ignore on the list of abandoned buildings in New Britain.
What should be done?
Talks should open or re-open with the owner on marketing and finding a re-use of the property.
The feasibility of tearing down the facility should be explored. Its age and deterioration would seem to make rehabilitation and costs such as asbestos removal prohibitive at this juncture. An open parcel would accelerate the process of restoration and identifying a good use of the land.
The city on its own should contact developers interested in moderate income housing or similar appropriate uses (There have been no shortage of them inquiring about the Pinnacle Heights public housing site).
Officials should pursue any opportunities for competitive community development grant funding, including a University partnership program from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that could involve Central CT State University's construction studies programs.
(Photo courtesy of East Side Community Action)