What’s the better use for Wallingford's historic train station: Adult Ed or businesses?

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WALLINGFORD — Town officials may soon have to decide whether to keep the town’s historic train station as the home of Wallingford Adult Education or turn the building into commercial space.

The building has a desirable location for both the educational programs of Adult Ed and economic development opportunities, situated between Quinnipiac Street and Hall Avenue and bordered by Johanna Manfreda Fishbein Park and the railroad tracks.

The 13,480-square-foot building was built in Late Victorian/Second Empire architectural style in 1871.

The stone foundation, brick walls and slate roof house indoor cathedral ceilings, a finished upper story with a mezzanine and an unfinished basement — home of the New Haven Model Railroading Society. Members have built a large model railroad on waist-high tables reaching nearly to the ceiling, crowded in most of the space.

Changing the historic building’s use could spark investment in, and eventual patronage of, the lower downtown, a longtime goal of the Economic Development Commission.

Relocating the programs of Adult Ed, located in the train station since 1988, wouldn’t be easy. Every space in the historic building is taken up with classrooms, study spaces, child care and offices, though nothing is fastened to the brick walls. Trains speed by more than 20 times a day and shake the building.

Sashi Govin, Wallingford Adult Education director for the past four years, said enrollment would plummet if the program were forced to move.

Adult Ed wouldn’t be able to share a space with other Board of Education programs, she said. Classes run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon Friday. All that activity would clash with other school programs.

Some students who have withdrawn from high school due to social or emotional issues would not want to be around their peers, she said, so relocating to a high school campus would be detrimental to the mental well-being of those students.

“Classes in another, neutral location gives them a mental peace of mind,” Govin said.

Having a conveniently and centrally located space helps attendance because, she said, half of the students walk to class. Their spouse may need the family car for work or, in the case of teenage students, they don’t own a car or may not even drive yet.

“Even in the snow, they still walk over here,” she said.

‘They love coming here’

Adult Ed began in 1971 offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. In 1977, Wallingford High School was established and has since helped more than 1,620 people to earn a high school diploma. A GED test preparation class also is offered.

In addition to basic education, Adult Ed offers programs including Workforce Readiness, Family Literacy and Integrated Language and Civics Education, which are funded by grants.

The programs attract a diverse group of students, who hold an International Dinner every spring to share dishes from their native countries.

This year, students from 36 countries have enrolled in programs, including Ecuador, Hungary, Turkey, China, Bangladesh, Jordan and Nigeria. They range in age from 17 to 75.

Govin said Adult Ed programs are an investment in the community, since most programs are open only to Wallingford residents.

After Adult Ed, many students go to college or pursue internships. Adult Ed alumni include lawyers, medical interpreters, computer scientists, long haul truckers, trade apprentices and veterinarians.

Barbara Comstock, currently an Adult Ed secretary who’s been with the program for 43 years, said the students are “so appreciative” of the staff and building space.

“They love coming here,” she said, “the adults and the little munchkins. Oh God, do they love coming, too.”

The town provides the train station to Adult Ed, which is a self-supporting program through grants and other funding. They buy their own computers, including Chromebooks for students who are doing distance learning, and facility upkeep work, including painting and carpeting.

The Board of Education receives four federal grants for Adult Ed, including a Comprehensive PIP grant of $120,000 in the current budget and an English Literature grant of $38,000, as well as a state grant for Adult Basic Education, at $233,531.

Last year, the Board of Education undertook a school facilities reconfiguration project that sought to determine if declining enrollment and other factors could justify consolidation of space.

School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said that the facility study and associated planning have been put on hold until the spring of 2022, based on conversations with the mayor.

“As for the relocation of Adult Education,” Menzo said via email. “I understand the Town Council desire to recapture that space. At this time, we do not have space within our buildings; however, depending on the outcomes of the facility study, it may be able to be incorporated through renovations or building projects.”

‘Leverage the asset’

The train station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. All properties listed in the National Register are also listed in the State Register of Historic Places.

Historic registry properties are eligible for federal and state grants for preservation activities and tax incentives to encourage the rehabilitation of historic properties to income-producing status.

Designation as a registered historic property alone does not prevent alteration of a building.

The designation does provide protection from unreasonable destruction under state law. Notably, it allows for fire and safety code compliance alternatives when rehabilitating historic buildings. This generally means that if a building that’s been “grandfathered in” is renovated, it must be brought up to code, which sometimes is not feasible to do without drastic structural changes.

The idea of revamping old buildings into commercial space is not an unprecedented one in town.

Other historic buildings have been turned into successful restaurants, such as J. Christian’s at 9 N. Main St. and The Library Wine Bar and Bistro at 60 N. Main St. A future wellness center is in the works at the century-old bank building at 100 Center St.

“We have, what I refer to, as a New England-esque town center,” said Tim Ryan, the town’s economic development specialist. “It’s walkable, and to take historic buildings and repurpose them through some level for modern market opportunities, is what can potentially keep town centers alive and thriving.”

Vibrant town centers need people, which is “the fundamental economic premise,” he said.

“You need feet on the street,” he said. “We would like the lower part of the hill to be as active as the upper part of the hill. The lead by example model says if we own an asset, let’s leverage the asset and the premise.”

He also believes the people, the feet on the street, are there. Ryan said that the Parker Place apartment complex, about 300 studios and one-bedrooms, is a five-minute walk from lower downtown.

“That speaks to a demographic that maybe would enjoy a nice walk from their place to the town center,” he said. “It kind of frames the idea.”

Any commercial space would be leased. He said he would never recommend that the town sell the building, which he called “a beautifully historic structure the town happens to own in the heart of the lower part of our town center, that we have been working diligently to try to take and increase activity.”

However, it’s not the town’s job to find tenants, he said, although he’s already spoken to some potential clients with ideas for the space.

He said he could envision a couple of small, complementary businesses, such as a coffee shop that’s active in the morning and a wine bar open in the evening.

“We floated any number of scenarios … but it needs to be as available for creative people, entrepreneurs who say I want to do this or that with it,” he said.

A timeline for pursuing a repurposing is not in place. Ryan said he would be “pleased” to get a sense of the Town Council’s response by the end of the first business quarter of 2021. Any renovation would be “a year project minimum,” he said.

It’s unclear how much income for the town leasing the train station could bring in, and whether renting a space for Adult Ed would negate that income.

Ryan has not considered where Adult Ed or the model railroad group could be relocated. He also hasn’t done research on whether the building could become ADA-compliant with elevators or bathrooms or satisfy modern fire codes.

He called these concerns “premature.”

“We’re still on concept and local buy-in,” he said. “Town leadership has to agree that this is something worth pursuing and then we can start getting more serious about it.”

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

A view of the interior of Wallingford Adult Education.
An Amtrak train passes the former Wallingford train station.

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