Future use of former Wallingford armory unclear after police department leaves

Future use of former Wallingford armory unclear after police department leaves

WALLINGFORD — The police department is planning to vacate its current location for a new facility, which leaves the question of how to reuse the current building up to town officials.

Last week, the Town Council approved spending $3.3 million to purchase 100 Barnes Road for a new police headquarters and a design study. The entire project is estimated to cost about $24 million.

Police Chief William Wright said that operations have outgrown the facility, as the nature of police work has changed over time. Police moved into the building 35 years ago.

Wright said Friday police will likely remain at the 135 N. Main St. building — a century-old former state armory — for at least the next two years.

The building itself is “rock solid,” he said. There’s a masonry brick exterior and massive square timber support beams.

The 28,000-square-foot interior of the armory has three usable floors — a finished basement and two stories — with a large unfinished area above.

It holds numerous rooms — some big, many small — including offices and meeting rooms, storage areas for police gear, evidence and computer servers, men’s and women’s locker rooms, a booking and detention cell area, a public lobby and front desk area.

The armory was built in 1920. Town historian Bob Beaumont said that there was originally a house on the property, which was moved one block over to 24 Academy St. It was owned by Dr. Albert B. Sturgis, an osteopathic physician who worked out of the house.

The armory was built to provide a place for National Guard Company J, Beaumont said, replacing the old armory which had been behind the now-demolished Caplan building, behind where Archie Moore’s stands today.

He recalled time spent there in the 1950s when the building was still an armory — watching Lyman Hall High School basketball games, helping with disaster relief efforts as a Boy Scout, going to dances.

The town purchased the armory in September 1983. In 1984, the town began building renovations for police use, and the department moved into the facility in early 1986.

Many 1980s features remain, some of which are now outdated and unsafe, including jail cells that have bar doors rather than solid steel doors.

When the building was renovated in the 1980s, there were plans for a three-lane indoor firearms training range in the basement, Wright said. It became apparent that the original, 48-square-foot evidence storage room wasn’t going to be enough space, so the firearms range was nixed and the long, narrow space was turned into an evidence facility, which today is full.

The original evidence storage room now stores body-worn cameras, which were rolled out department-wide about three weeks ago.

Seven patrol sergeants and three patrol lieutenants currently work out of one office, three or four at a time. The sergeants each have a file cabinet and the lieutenants have a drawer at the front desk to store their work.

The cramped office becomes more of an issue when people need to make statements or complaints to police.

“It’s just not conducive to privacy,” Wright said. “And so we’re always hunting around for an office that might be vacant to interview somebody.”

As policing continues to evolve as a profession, it requires dedicated spaces where once they weren’t needed, and appropriately sized facilities as operations grow.

“We could truly use here a computer lab,” Wright said, “to do computer-based crime, computer-based fraud, and that takes up a lot of space.”

Outside, the back parking lot presents its own issues beyond just being cramped. When 18-wheel fuel trucks make gasoline deliveries, officers have to move cars around to get out of the way so the tanker can get in, Wright said.

Future use

As for future use of the building, which is listed on the National Historic Building Registry, Beaumont said commercial use could bring people into the center of town to shop or dine.

“It will certainly take some work to renovate for that, but that would be a nice use for it,” he said. “If there were a number of shops in there, that would make the center of town more appealing.”

There are limitations on how the property can be reused.

Considerations include the Company 1 fire station located next door — where Engine 1 and Rescue 3 are housed — the parking situation in the back of the building, the 120-foot radio tower which might stay put on top of the building, and the issues with noise and light for the abutting residents on Academy Street.

Thinking ahead and coming up with ideas for what to do with the Wallingford armory could avoid a situation similar to what happened in Meriden.

The Meriden armory, 241 E. Main St., sat empty for 15 years after the National Guard vacated the circa 1908 building. Wayne Barneschi, owner of the Trail of Terror in Wallingford, acquired the building in 2013, planning to turn it into another haunted attraction.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. did not return calls for comment.

Town Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said via email that while he doesn’t have in-depth information about the condition of the armory building, “my suspicion is that the structure is sturdy.”

“Based upon the age of the building, I have concerns about environmental issues, like asbestos, requiring some form of remediation,” he said. “I would hope that most of that was taken care of in the ’80s when the building was repurposed for its current use.”

If the radio tower must stay there, selling the property would be a “significant challenge,” he said.

“I suspect that if the wiser move is to sell the building, the antenna could be moved to the adjacent fire station property,” he said.

Town Councilor Chris Shortell spoke at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting about the armory’s deficiencies — the cramped women’s locker room in particular — and floated the idea of moving Wallingford Adult Education to the armory, which would make room for commercial use of the town’s historic train station.

“Moving Adult Ed to that location seems like a win-win,” Shortell said, an idea Cervoni also expressed interest in.

“It frees up the old train station for development, similar to what we’ve seen in other old train stations, like Pizza Works in Old Saybrook,” Shortell said. “And it still provides Adult Ed with a central location for those students.”

He said via email that he’s against the idea of simply selling the property, which is appraised at $3.5 million, without taking a long, strategic look at how the town could use it.

“I would hope the fact that the police are continuing to use the facility means that another use of the building could be accommodated in the future.”

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

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