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Norwich officials want defunct YMCA to become a development priority

Norwich — The recent arson fire and arrest of four boys in the crime have put the vacant, defunct former YMCA building back on the active agenda for city officials, including one committee that recommends the city take over the building for the ballooning amount of back taxes owed.

The YMCA, currently owned by the defunct YMCA of Southeastern Conn. Inc., owes the city more than $600,000 in back property taxes assessed since the building closed in 2009.

Two days after the Oct. 24 arson fire, the Board of Review of Dangerous Buildings discussed whether to keep the YMCA on its regular watch list of blighted buildings. After a brief discussion, the board voted unanimously to recommend that the city take the building for the back taxes owed, appoint a committee of sale — as has been done several times in recent years for foreclosed properties — and seek requests for proposals for redevelopment.

On Tuesday, Alderman H. Tucker Braddock, a member of the dangerous buildings board, led a group, including City Planner Deanna Rhodes, a city fire marshal and a potential private “partner” Braddock declined to identify, on a tour of the fire-damaged, dilapidated building. The group inspected the two swimming pools city leaders hope to see renovated as the possible central focus of a recreational center, basketball courts, handball courts and exercise rooms.

In an ideal world, Braddock said, the city would find a private partner to take what he estimated could be a $2 million project to renovate usable areas, partially demolish portions that are obsolete to make room for more parking and re-open the YMCA.

The pools would be the key, Braddock said, as one could be rented to the Norwich Free Academy swim team and the other used for community swimming lessons, health and exercise programs.

While the group looked to the future during Tuesday's tour, participants also were alarmed that just three weeks after the Oct. 24 arson fire set in the second story former boarding room area, the building's upper story windows remained as gaping holes. Old, rotted plywood that covered one large lower-level rear opening had been pried loose. A hole in the wall, where both siding and insulation had been ripped away, allowed easy entry for vagrants.

“It was wide open,” Braddock said. “Everything was there. I went to the city manager and said we can't have our firefighters running in there, and having kids in there. I've been in that building a number of times, and there's always been signs of someone in there.”

Also Tuesday, police arrested four juveniles ages 12 and 13 on arson, burglary and criminal mischief charges in the YMCA fire. Two of those boys, along with another 13-year-old boy, also were charged with setting an Oct. 23 fire at a vacant, giant mill complex on Chestnut Street.

On Wednesday, the Public Works Department responded to the new call to board up the rear areas open to both weather and trespassers. But before they drilled the new large sheets of plywood to the gaping holes, Public Works Director Ryan Thompson called Norwich police to enter the building and make sure no one was inside.

Officers Chase Chiangi and Rod Cappiello re-emerged from the hole in the rear wall after about 20 minutes of touring the interior of the building, finding no occupants — “It's a mess in there,” one of them said. The Public Works crew then went to work with drills, hammers and plywood to secure the building.

The crew left untouched the litter and debris — including broken glass and building pieces likely ripped from the building during the firefighting effort — strewn across the rear property. Thompson said the boarding up effort was being done for health and safety reasons, and the city has no authority to address blight problems on the property.

“The city doesn't own it,” Thompson said. “We're doing this because it poses an imminent safety danger.”

Whether the city should take over ownership will be up to the City Council at a future date. Mayor Deberey Hinchey is not in favor of such a move.

Hinchey said Wednesday that securing the building from illegal entry was vital, but taking ownership would be unnecessary. She said the city would not have to own the building to lead an effort to see it redeveloped.

“If we could find a developer, we could give (the building) to them for nothing,” Hinchey said. “I have had people express interest in the pools, but they don't have the money. How do we as a city say, 'Let's take it on, let's get the pools open'?”

c.bessette@theday.com

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