Waterford officials to consider zoning change, new proposal for Cohanzie School

Waterford — Town planning officials are considering a zoning change to allow a multifamily housing complex on the site of the closed Cohanzie School and a Georgia developer's new offer for the site after a proposal from the failed developer of the Hartford Yard Goats’ baseball stadium fizzled.

The school building has been vacant since 2008, when the district consolidated its five elementary schools into three because of declining enrollment and increased operational costs.

The town’s Board of Selectmen extended an option to buy the property to Middletown-based Centerplan Companies in 2014. Centerplan proposed a market-rate multifamily rental development that would have included 154 new apartments, a swimming pool and children's play area, and a private clubhouse for residents in the original 1923 school building.

But the firm’s interest in the property lagged and the development never moved forward, Abby Piersall said Tuesday.

“There were a lot of conversations but never a lot of action,” Piersall said.

The firm changed its proposal multiple times, moving cost estimates for the project around and failing to return phone calls and emails, First Selectman Daniel Steward said.

“Every time they’d come back, something changed,” Steward said.

In June, the firm faced troubles in Hartford when the city’s Stadium Authority terminated Centerplan’s contract to develop a $63 million minor league baseball stadium in the city in June after it missed several deadlines for completion of the 6,000-seat stadium.

Steward said Waterford and the firm agreed to part ways this summer.

Now Atlanta, Ga.-based HF3 Group has made a $1 million preliminary offer on the property, he said. The firm has requested a zone change that would allow it to apply for state tax credits to build affordable housing in new buildings and the original 1923 school structure, he said.

The proposed Cohanzie Redevelopment District, which the Planning and Zoning Commission will consider at two public hearing sessions on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, would allow for up to 80 low-cost housing units, with no more than 12 multifamily units per building.

Only low-density residential buildings, or bigger single-family houses, are allowed under current zoning rules for the site.

The town's Planning & Development Department will host an information session on the proposed zoning change at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Waterford Town Hall.

The new offer and zoning proposal could re-ignite debate over the best use of the building between neighbors and historical preservationists. Before Centerplan proposed its development, town officials were prepared to demolish the Cohanzie School if a developer said renovating it was impossible. Residents nostalgic for the school’s history formed an organization called Save Our Cohanzie School and spoke out against razing the building.

Since then, the town demolished two newer additions built onto the original 1923 structure and used grant funding to complete extensive site remediation and remove contamination on the property.

Centerplan initially promised the 1923 structure could stay standing as part of its development, but later told town officials it wouldn't be possible, Steward said.

HF3 Group’s preliminary proposal would keep the original Cohanzie School structure standing and possibly renovate it as a communal space, HF3 president Harold Foley said Tuesday. Foley said his preliminary plan is to build 50-60 apartment units, which is less than half the number Centerplan had proposed.

HF3 Group just completed the renovation and development of a decrepit building in Waterbury, turning it into affordable housing using federal and state tax credits, Foley said.

"It was on the verge of collapse," he said. "We were able to restore it and bring new life to that old lady."

Waterford isn't alone in Connecticut among communities that have struggled to find new uses for school buildings now redundant in the face of a declining school-age population.

Abandoned schools across the region have been adapted to house a small business incubator, an assisted-living facility, condominiums, a community garden and administrative offices. Others have been demolished, though Steward said as long as a developer says it can renovate the Cohanzie School, the building will remain standing.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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