Following a presentation by City Planner Bill Warner and architect Tom Arcari, most of the council members expressed their support for seniors and veterans, and some raised questions about the timing and cost of the purchase and renovations, and the method of financing.
The Eckersley Hall Building As a Senior Center
What is now known as the St. Sebastian’s School building was actually built as a neighborhood school in the 1870s to serve the children of the Durant neighborhood. It was named Eckersley Hall after World War I, to honor two Middletown residents who died in that war. In the 1970s it was purchased by the St. Sebastian church, but the city retained the right (“of first refusal”) to purchase the two story brick building if it were ever to be used for non-educational purposes.
When the diocese closed the school in 2009, the Finance and Government Operations Committee decided against recommending the purchase of the school at its then list price of $1.3M. However, at its June 1st meeting, the Senior Service Commission initiated a discussion of using the school for the senior center. At a special meeting on July 14th, the Commission reported that most of its members had toured the Eckersley Hall Building with architect Thomas Arcari. From the minutes:
The general consensus is that the building is good and solid but will require renovations. Estimated cost for purchase and renovations is $4 Million.The Senior Services Commission voted at that meeting to move forward with this new site for a Senior Center.
After a preliminary evaluations indicated that the school might be suitable, the Common Council authorized Warner to spend money on “Due Diligence” to more thoroughly evaluate the building and to determine the potential renovation costs. After a title search, an environmental assessment, a commercial building inspection, a roof evaluation, a hazardous building materials investigation, and an appraisal, Warner said that the only things that would absolutely have to be done to the building were to make the bathrooms and the second floor accessible to the handicapped.
Warner said that the building was appraised at $980,000 on November 19th, considerably more than the $800,000 which the diocese is asking from the City. He reported to the Council that with minimal effort and an already available $240,000, the first level could be renovated for a senior center, “It’s essentially almost move-in ready.”
Warner introduced Arcari, whose architectural firm Quisenberry Arcari has designed Senior Centers in several different municipalities. Arcari presented to the Council a “Ideal Plan” to illustrate how the building might be more extensively renovated to provide an ideal Senior Center and Municipal Office building. Arcari said this “Ideal Plan” would have a total cost of about $1.7M for renovations, with $1.4M of this coming from the hard costs of adding an elevator, replacing heating and air conditioning, and extensive renovations. The image below shows a concept plan, which is simply a tentative sketch of one possible design.
Warner argued that the actual cost of the “Ideal Plan” could be about 25% lower than Arcari was projecting, because the heating system did not need to be replaced, the elevator could be more modest, and the bids would likely be very competitive in today’s economy. He estimated the actual cost to be about $1.2M.
He proposed financing these renovations primarily with three sources of funding: LOCIP, CDBG, and a general obligation bond. LOCIP and CDBG are state and federal grant programs which the city has in past years used to fund municipal projects such as fire station roofs and low income housing. Warner argued that it was appropriate for a Senior Center to “receive priority” for a couple years of LOCIP and CDBG funds, much as other city projects have also received such priority in other years.
Warner told the Council that the $800,000 purchase price could come from an advance payment on recently negotiated bonds for other municipal work. Finance Director Carl Erlacher and Mayor Sebastian Giuliano elaborated on this, saying that this was money that is set aside for use in reducing the cost of a future bond issuance, but in essence could be used instead of issuing a bond for this purchase.
Warner closed by saying that the key to the success of the project was to “Build excitement about a project that is providing for those who so richly deserve it, our seniors and our veterans.” He suggested that a Building Committee be established, “with strong Council leadership.”
The Council Questions.
Councilmembers Phil Pessina, Jim Streeto, and Ron Klattenberg praised Warner and offered him and architect Arcari opportunities to further promote the plan. Councilwoman Hope Kasper raised questions about the cost of heating and cooling the building, whether the building was on a list of EPA mandated clean-up sites, and the potential cost of lead and asbestos removal (Warner said he would soon have answers to those questions).
Councilman Tom Serra, echoed by Vinnie Loffredo and Grady Faulkner, expressed concern over the plan for financing the purchase and renovations. Serra said he was leery of adding to the budgetary pressures by spending the money that was already available, “I’m not comfortable with this.” He expressed his desire to issue new bonds to cover the costs of the project. When reminded that any bond issuance greater than $750,000 required a referendum and voter approval, Serra indicated that there were ways around this, “I’m suggesting creative bonding, we’ve done it before.”
The Finance and Government Operations Commission will discuss the purchase at their meeting this evening (5:30, Room 208). The full council could consider the purchase at its meeting on Monday (December 6th, 7PM), or postpone consideration until their January 3rd meeting. Both the F&G and the Council meetings set aside time for public comments.
If the Council approves the purchase, the owner of the property (the Diocese) would then apply to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a permit for the use of the building by the government, a use which is only allowed in residential zones by special exception. Warner told me he would propose applying under the historic adaptive re-use provision of the zoning code, which would make approval easier to obtain.