WALLINGFORD — After a recent presentation of plans to restore the old train station in the town's center, Town Council members lauded the project and authorized Mayor William Dickinson Jr. to apply for a state grant that would pay half of the $3.5 million price.
But others in the audience questioned the wisdom of renovating the space for a yet unknown use in such an important town property. One resident questioned why the town isn't looking into selling the building which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
"If it's so valuable, why not sell it?" Broad View Drive resident Bill Comerford asked. "Did we entertain selling the building?"
No, said Dickinson. "It's a historic structure. It's very symbolic of Wallingford and we are not at this point interested in selling the building."
"We are asking for money from the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut, $3.5 million for a building, and we are going to throw darts at it and maybe someone will come,” Comerford said. “We have no idea what it's going to be."
Local realtor Lucille Casagrande told the council that they were making a mistake moving forward with the project.
"Why are we doing this? I'd like to know the ultimate goal, besides the immediate goal of having this great looking entity downtown," she said. "I’ve been concerned for so many years with the vibrancy of the downtown as a whole. The ultimate goal was to get permanent residents downtown — that is the primary goal if you want a successful downtown, bringing people in.
“Businesses are not what creates a vibrant successful downtown,” she said. “What creates a long lasting, vibrant successful downtown is a lot of permanent residents who frequent the same places over and over again. They will determine their needs, they will determine what kind of businesses that should come into that downtown based on the things they want."
Council members disagreed.
"I like what I see and I like what I've heard," said Town Councilor Craig Fishbein. The first floor of the building could be home to numerous booths similar to Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, though on a smaller scale, he suggested.
"This is a magnet, people will come because it will be new, it will be fresh," said Councilor Jason Zandri. "I really think it could be an add on to the whole area. I think this adds a lot of positives, and to me there are zero negatives because we have to put money into this anyway."
"We feel this is a good move for the community and the economic solvency of the entire area," Economic Development Commission member Anthony Bracale told the council.
The building is going to need repairs and upgrades regardless of whether this particular project is approved, he said.
"We have an opportunity now with the Challenge grant to upgrade it and to make something special that will have a deep and lasting impact,” Brancale said. “Like everything, there is a cost to rehabilitate it into something that is business ready. The restoration of the historic train station will become the anchor that connects upper and lower sections of Wallingford Town Center and will help every business in between them and every business in the area. It's a walkable, vibrant town center accessible by foot, bus and train.
"The renovated train station in and of itself will be a billboard to people driving by, it will be a gateway to our community," he said. "Our town center is just the tip of the iceberg as to what our town has to offer. It will become a major hub of activity and have an economic impact on the community for years to come."
Bill Silver, the president of Silver Petrucelli and Associates architects of Hamden, said the town has done a good job preserving the building, which was built in 1871.
"Really there isn't much that has changed from the 1920s and 30s to the exterior of the building," he said. "You have been good stewards of the historic building." Adult education program
In 1973, Yale University students reconfigured the interior of the building which eventually became home to the town's adult education program. If the project moves forward, that program will have to find new space. There has been talk that it could move to the old armory building once the police department moves to a former office building that will be renovated to give the department more space.
But there is a question of whether the timelines on the police department building project and the train station project will align. The police station project is still in the planning phase and is a much larger undertaking than the train station renovation, so the armory building likely won't be available soon enough for the adult ed program to move in. That would mean the Board of Education would have to find transitional space to use until the police department moves out of the armory building.
"We can't talk about specific buildings that we have been looking at throughout the community," Board of Education Chairwoman Tammy Raccio told the council. But, she said, "we would like to point out that if this grant is awarded to the town, if we are going to move to a town building such as the armory if it meets our needs, that we would be able to accomplish that. In the event that we have to vacate sooner, we have talked about other options, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it."
Council member Vincent Testa said both the train station project and the police station project should not be done in a bubble. "I'm concerned about the time frame," he said.
"We find ourselves in a situation where we are contemplating this, and we also will be faced with decisions about the armory. It's very important to me that as we make these decisions, we are doing them as part of a comprehensive look at the whole infrastructure because we certainly have primary concerns like what are we going to do with adult education. The faster we move on the train station the faster they have to move out.
"If it is, in fact, their desire that the Board of Education eventually take over the armory building, what a great idea it is to have that there,” he said. “The worst case scenario is that it takes a while and they are forced to find temporary space. It might be better to take this slow and make a better decision."