April 24, 2014 12:39PM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — The Connecticut Judicial Branch is planning a $25 million juvenile courthouse on the state-owned Undercliff campus off Chamberlain Highway, the former site of a tuberculosis sanatorium.
Plans for the juvenile court call for a 55,000 square-foot building where the existing juvenile court in Middletown would be relocated. The regional court, which serves Meriden, had been moved into the Middletown Superior Court building, but the space is too small for continued occupancy, according to Thomas Siconolfi, executive director for administrative services for the Office of the Chief Court Administrator.
“There have been many efforts undertaken and dead-end leads and literally after a dozen years of failed attempts to lease a new facility, we decided to build one instead,” he said.
Meriden officials were not informed about the project and work to demolish outdated buildings on the restricted-access site has been progressing with little notice. The project was approved by the legislature as part of the state’s capital budget and the Judicial Branch is still awaiting approval from the State Bond Commission. Of the $25 million, $3 million is needed for demolition of the vacant Kimball Hall on the Undercliff property, in addition to contamination cleanup and site layout improvements.
“We hope it will be approved relatively soon by the Bond Commission,” Siconolfi said, noting it would be a five-year project. “This just seemed like a smarter move in the long run.”
The Undercliff property has been quietly getting a makeover with demolition of some of the largest buildings on the campus already well underway. Split into an upper and lower campus and two separate parcels, according to city records, the property on Undercliff Road is situated between Interstate 691, a Target store, South Mountain and Chamberlain Highway. Built up since it was established as the Meriden Sanatorium in 1910, the area includes at least 17 buildings on 96 acres.
The site had a number of medical-related uses over the years, including the treatment of tuberculosis in children, a rehabilitation facility, a mental health hospital and later the Henry D. Altobello Children and Youth Center. Today, some buildings on the lower campus, closer to Chamberlain Highway, are used by the Department of Developmental Services, while other buildings are used for storage by various state departments.
The upper campus is also home to a secure DSS facility known as Gray Cottage, which housed 25 clients as recently as 2007 when city officials tried to convince the state to transfer the Undercliff property to Meriden for economic development purposes. State officials declined the city’s request, not wanting to disrupt those clients and others who attended day programs and families who used the respite center. The clients living at Gray Cottage have aggressive behaviors and multiple illnesses requiring specialized care. The two-story, colonial-style house, named for its color, is set back far from the road, with a gated entrance and a 12-foot fence, floodlights, padded walls and security cameras. It is staffed around the clock.
There are no plans to remove the Gray Cottage, but most of the buildings on the upper campus, which are the largest on the Undercliff site, are in various stages of demolition. Much of the largest building on the campus, the former Undercliff Hospital also known as the Gibson Building, has already been removed. Named after former superintendent of the facility, Cole B. Gibson, the 126,254-square-foot building has been whittled down with just the north wing standing and some of the central section of the building. The hospital was shut down in 1976.
“The state has been demolishing some of the older buildings on the upper campus due to safety concerns,” Jeffrey Beckham, director of communications for the Department of Administrative Services, said in an email.
In addition to the Gibson Building, the nearby White Hall, Cliff House and Kimball Hall are all slated for demolition, said state Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden. According to a listing of state-occupied buildings from the Bureau of Properties and Facilities Management, White, Gibson and Kimball are all vacant. White is 33,340 square feet, while Kimball is 25,000. Cliff House was not on the list. A handful of smaller facilities were also on the list including a 14,409 square-foot building occupied by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Kimball will likely be the last that is demolished to make way for the new juvenile court, Siconolfi said.
Earlier this week, Bartolomeo inquired about the status of Undercliff and was pleased to learn that the large, vacant buildings were being demolished after evidence of vandalism over the years.
“I’m very pleased this is happening because, continued over the years, you hear of anecdotal stories of children or people breaking in and it’s unsafe,” Bartolomeo said. “There are also hazardous materials, so I’m really pleased it’s being taken down and it’s a welcome development.”
Beckham said he does not “have a precise inventory of the buildings being removed,” but is “aware of about four older abandoned buildings on the upper campus that are structurally compromised.
“There may also be a couple of smaller associated structures also being taken out,” he added.
There is no record of a contract being awarded for the demolition on the state’s online web portal and dating back to 1985 no money was bonded for the project, according to state records. It was not clear if the demolition is being done by the state Public Works Department, which falls under the Department of Administrative Services, or if the work was being performed under contract.
When asked by a reporter, city Development and Enforcement Director Dominick Caruso said he had no knowledge of demolition earlier this week. Because it is state-owned, no city approvals are needed. Caruso received confirmation of demolition later that day, however.
“They do not need any local permits and obviously (the state) chose not to tell us,” Caruso said. “It looks like there are three buildings coming down (now) in all different phases of demolition.”
City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior also wasn’t aware of any activity, noting that there had not been much discussion about the property in the “last couple of years.”
“The state has maintained that it is still an active facility up there, not the (buildings) they are knocking down obviously, but the ones closer to Chamberlain Highway,” he said.
Kendzior added it is still the city’s desire to one day gain ownership of the property.
“We would love to have it transferred back to the city,” he said. “It’s a great site for new development and it would economically benefit both the city and state. It is an underutilized property.”
While on the City Council, Bartolomeo said she was part of discussions about turning over some buildings to the city.
“With the buildings they were willing to give up, it wouldn’t have worked out,” she said, noting the state was only willing to turn over buildings on the northern side of the lower campus that were vacant. “The city felt there wouldn’t have been exposure from the road and it wouldn’t be suitable...Without frontage, developers probably wouldn’t be interesting in the property.”
Beckham said there “are no plans to offer part of the campus to the town,” adding that it is “actively occupied and is required for the operation of a number of state agencies.”