WALLINGFORD — On the heels of its Inland Wetlands Commission approval, Choate Rosemary Hall officials made their case to the Planning and Zoning Commission as to why it too should approve a special permit for its plans to construct a new admissions building and underground garage at the intersection of North Elm and Christian streets.
The school is proposing the construction of a 14,000-square-foot, two-story building with an underground 70-space parking garage underneath, which officials say is vital for the school's continued success.
"As a school, educating students is our core mission, and attracting those students to Choate and welcoming their families to campus and to Wallingford is a mission that is a critical function for us," said Patrick Durbin, Choate's chief financial officer.
"Across our industry, projections have proven true. Decreased enrollments, paired with inflation and COVID, are just some of the factors that have forced the closing of at least six boarding schools in recent years," he said. "To best welcome our applicants and their families and to show them the campus, we are planning a building centrally located at the core of our campus accessible for those with disabilities and equipped with an underground parking lot."
Officials have spent years deciding where best to place the building, he said.
"It was obvious that this admission building, which will also serve as a welcome center for our guests, should be easy to find and should be in the center of our campus," he said. "As boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada face growing enrollment changes, and some of them close, we need to stay competitive and look to the future. Facilities like this welcome center are not only essential to our success, but fundamental to our continued existence. Our plan is to not just survive, but to be the very best boarding school out there. We want folks to recognize Choate as a place that offers transformative experiences for young people and prepares them to thrive in a world after high school."
As with many applications that go before the zoning board, one of the main concerns is traffic, and specifically at the intersection of North Elm and Christian streets, already a very busy intersection.
The new building would not add to that traffic, according to David Sullivan, traffic engineer with SLR Consulting.
"The first thing that's important to understand is the location of this building compared to where this function takes place now. It's essentially across the street, so travel patterns associated with this use are really not going to change," he said. "There's no change in staff, there's no change in services, no change in enrollment, so there won't be an increase associated with this building. Essentially what we have out there today in terms of traffic patterns will exist in the future and there will be no traffic impact associated with this."
That didn't soothe the concerns of some living in the area.
"I go through that intersection multiple times a day," said North Elm Street resident Robert Avery, "and I can't believe that you're telling us that people from out of town, who have never been here before, trying to find that parking garage, is not going to back up traffic and cause problems because then they're smarter than I am. I can't see that happening. I see that causing a problem at that intersection. If they're doing that and there's a class changing, it's going to back up for miles."
It's especially a concern for the time period when construction is going on, said Richard Krombel of North Main Street.
"The increased traffic during construction is going to exacerbate congestion at that intersection," he said, adding that he is surprised that there is no crossing guard stationed there.
"You're going to need one, especially during construction," he said. "Having some sort of crossing guard there would be wise in terms of safety of students and drivers getting through there in a reasonable time frame."
But not all who spoke were critical of the proposal.
"When we talk about traffic in this town, the problem with traffic could be from the growth we have experienced, so it's not only Choate, it's the public traffic," said Joseph Mirra, chairman of the town's Economic Development Commission.
"Choate has been in town for 130 years. They have been a really good neighbor. Everything they've done has been a balance for the school and for the town," he said. "They do attract a lot of visitors to the town, which enhances our economy dramatically."
Years ago, when the former Oakdale Theater was remodeled, he supported the project because he believed it would benefit the town, Mirra said.
"At the time, I was driving with my wife in the traffic, and she said, 'you were in favor of this,'" Mirra said. "I had to explain it was for the good of the community. We can't all be selfish about what we wanted 10 years ago. The community is growing and the traffic is there. I think Choate has gone out of its way to minimize the impact of this building. I don't see any problem."
Former Town Councilor Stephen Knight said the commission should approve the application because while it benefits the school, it benefits the town as well.
"I had a lot of contact with Choate as a town councilor, as a Choate parent, as a member of Wallingford Center's board, as a member of HUBCAPs board, and I have nothing but the highest regard for everything they do in this community," he said.
"God forbid that (closing) should ever happen to Choate Rosemary Hall. God forbid the impact on this town," he said. "I urge you to keep in mind that this is one of the largest businesses in the community, a large employer. They bring in millions of dollars of economic benefit from out of town."
He has every confidence that Choate will take steps to assure pedestrian safety at that location, Knight said.
"I can't think of a higher priority for these schools than a child's safety. They have taken on a tremendous responsibility," he said. "I have a lot of confidence that Choate is doing every single thing possible to maintain the safety of every single student."
The commission continued the public hearing to its next meeting on April 10 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall council chambers.