Planning the Future of Memorial Boulevard School
A lot has been said recently about the City’s handling of Memorial Boulevard School. To this point, it has been handled the same way all surplus property has been handled by the Real Estate Committee, per the guidelines set forth years ago.
However, I believe that due to the school’s historic nature and its visibility to the public, a few additional steps should be taken by the City before any final decision is made. This is not meant to stall the process, but rather, to make sure the right decision is made. We have only one chance to get this right if the building is sold.
My recommendation aligns with that of Councilors Mills and Martin in that I believe the public needs to be involved, along with the Council and the Planning Commission, to develop a shared vision for the building. The Real Estate Committee set parameters, which included preserving the exterior of the building, theater, grounds, and a mixed-use function. This is a good start, but not a full plan. Again, that is not a knock on the Real Estate Committee but a realization that this building is a unique circumstance.
How we can create this plan, or vision, is to hold a series of planning sessions over the course of a week, facilitated by the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Authority (CCRPA) and attended by the Council, City Planner, Planning Commission, and interested citizens of Bristol. The CCRPA would not tell us, the community stakeholders what to do, but would foster an environment where collaboration and ideas can be organized. Because of our membership with the CCRPA, there wouldn't be additional expense for utilizing their services. The planning sessions would review the recommendations from the Space Needs Study, completed in 2012, as well as the Route 72 Corridor Study and the current zoning regulations in the area. Ideas would then be vetted by the planning session groups and prioritized.
The outcome would be a thorough, community-backed plan for the future of Memorial Boulevard School. From this plan, the City would then be able to solicit proposals that include as many of the components we are looking for as possible.
Many citizens have contacted me with their ideas for the building. The suggestions have included moving the Army Strong Community Center to the school, along with a visitor’s center. Many have pitched the idea of a performing arts and cultural academy, local branches of our state universities and community colleges, and business space. Some want residential aspects in the building, while others want to see it converted into City Hall. Some want it sold, while others don’t.
All of these thoughts, ideas, and beliefs have merit and need to be fully vetted. The Space Needs Study recommended a $2 million renovation to the theater, and a $20 million conversion of the building into City Hall. Although that would be nice, I don’t think it is essential and we certainly do not possess the funding to tackle a project of that size at this time.
However, I feel that a mixed-use solution could be created for the building that would mitigate taxpayer concerns over subsidizing the building, while simultaneously ensuring the longevity of the historic structure.
I would like to see a branch of one of our state universities or community colleges located in the building. The City has previously held informal talks with CCSU, UConn, Tunxis Community College and others regarding this idea. Although we were not able to secure an arrangement, there was interest in the space and I’m not ready to give up on that option.
I’d also like to see certain City departments relocate to the building, as well as the Army Strong Community Center. It would be my preference to see the Chamber of Commerce relocate to the building as well, and to operate a visitors center in the former school library. Finally, I would like to see a performing arts studio and a non-profit management group created to oversee the scheduling of activities in the theater.
Through theater rentals and ticket sale surcharges, as well as lease revenue from the occupants (the Chamber of Commerce, arts school, college branch, and start-up businesses) I believe we can fund the yearly maintenance costs. Furthermore, I strongly believe the City can acquire grant funding to renovate the theater, and to implement a number of the proposed relocations without bonding or tapping taxpayers for renovation funds. This reuse plan would ensure a plethora of activities, both day and night, that would create an attraction and the vibrancy our downtown needs in order to ensure the downtown revitalization project is a success.