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Waterford still hopes school site can be developed

Waterford - The 90-year-old Cohanzie School, which sits on 9 acres of land on Dayton Road, has long been viewed as a site for potential redevelopment, despite objections from some who attended the former elementary school.

And now, with an environmental cleanup of the site underway, town officials hope a development plan is not far behind.

"They're just getting started," town Planning Director Dennis G. Goderre said of consultants from Tighe & Bond of Middletown, whom the town hired to plan the cleanup. "They started with testing for hazardous materials, so they are taking samples and sending them off to a lab so we will have a sense of what types of items are in the building or around the building and to what extent they exist."

The consultants began their work at the former school Nov. 22, though initial reports of their findings are not expected to be ready until January, Goderre said.

In April, the Representative Town Meeting approved the appropriation of $463,100 for the cleanup and demolition of the school, which has been eyed as a site for redevelopment for a number of years.

Cohanzie School was left vacant in 2008 as part of a building project approved at a 2002 referendum that consolidated the town's five elementary schools into three because of declining enrollment and increased operational costs.

In 2006, the town formed a committee to determine what type of development would best suit the property. The committee determined that any retail proposal would not be suitable. A later proposal to combine two synagogues at the site never came to fruition. Another proposal to open a 55-unit low-income housing project for the elderly also fell through.

Some residents have pushed back against the town's plans, including an effort started in the spring to save the school from demolition.

"We understand why people are sensitive about the building and the past history of the site and its sentimental value; it is a community asset," Goderre said. "Any type of development would have to reflect that."

Goderre said that a potential developer would "have to work closely with (the town) and the neighborhood to come up with a compatible design."

Although a developer would make most decisions about what a redeveloped Cohanzie School site would look like, the town made some of its desires known in a request for qualifications (RFQ) document in July.

"The town's vision of the parcel is to be a neighborhood scale, residential village, with outdoor passive amenities open to the public," the town said in the RFQ. "Small scale business space ... and boutique specialty retail/deli/coffee shop type uses would be entertained."

The town said it would consider "live/work" developments consisting of residential and small-scale commercial space in a single unit. Regardless of the type of development, Goderre said the town's priority is to ensure that it would be compatible with the neighborhood.

"The development must contribute to the neighborhood visually and economically, enhancing it through quality construction, materials selection and the design of buildings, site and streetscape," the RFQ said. "Solely commercial developments will not be entertained."

The town also made clear its desire to raze at least two sections of the derelict school.

"The intent is to demolish portions or all of the buildings, dependent on remaining funds and reuse potentials," the town wrote in the RFQ. "At minimum redevelopment and remediation of the site will include the demolition of the 1956 and 1972 additions as well as miscellaneous site improvements."

But the original school building, built in 1923, could be spared from the wrecking ball if a developer were to identify a way to use the building.

"Because of the historic nature of the 1923 structure ... it is the intent of the town to evaluate it for potential adaptive reuse," according to the RFQ. "If no adaptive reuse of the 1923 building is feasible the structure will be demolished."


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