Planning and Zoning Approves Arts Center at Wesleyan

The Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved Wesleyan University's plan renovate and expand a former manufacturing building into an arts center. (CT Examiner)


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MIDDLETOWN — The Planning and Zoning Commission approved a plan 6-1 last week allowing Wesleyan University to renovate and expand a former manufacturing building into an arts center

The plan received both praise and pushback from local residents. Those in favor said they hoped the new space would create a lively gathering place and make the university more connected to the town, while those opposed cited concerns about noise and pollution, as well as questions about how far Wesleyan would expand its campus. 

The building, which is located on four lots on Hamlin Street, between College St. and Williams Street, about a block from campus, has belonged to Wesleyan since the 1950s, although the college has not made use of the property. Before that, it was the site of the Mohawk Manufacturing Company, a metal stamper. 

Roger Grant, dean of arts and humanities at Wesleyan, said during a public meeting on July 12 that the current arts building is too small to accommodate the number of students who are interested — particularly since the student population has more than doubled since the current arts facilities were designed. He said that about ⅓ of Wesleyan’s 3,000 students focus their studies in the arts, and a majority of students take at least one art course. 

“The students need space to get their hands dirty, to assemble their materials, for rehearsal, in order to bring people together and try things out and experiment, and this building is in part meant to give the students some space to do that kind of experimentation,” said Grant. 

The building design includes  a drawing studio, design studio, faculty offices, space for visiting guest artists and a performance space for dance or theater. Grant said the building would be used mainly for classes, with possible performances or art exhibitions on weekends, and as a place for guest artists to perform in the summer. 

Local residents, most of whom lived or owned property on College Street near the building, expressed mixed feelings, saying they saw the benefits of the new building but were concerned about the disruption that the construction and the ensuing use of the building might bring.

“There’s going to be a lot of chaos, there’s going to be a lot of noise, there’s going to be a lot of commotion — I believe — to the area, with the project,” said resident Lauren Pyers, who said she appreciated the peace and quiet of the area. 

Scott Kessel, who lives on Pearl Street and owns 180 College Street, said he was excited about the new center. He said he had lived 18 years in the area and had watched the property “decay” over that time. 

“I’m actually really excited and looking forward to the potential of a neighbor that will take care of the place — I hope — better than they have,” he said.  

Eric Assadourian, who lives on College Street, said he thought it would be difficult to keep student gatherings at the building within set hours. He also said he was concerned about the construction noise, since he and his wife work from home and his son is homeschooled. 

“We’re all home regularly and 18 months of construction — I would hope that there is significant restraint on what kind of noises are allowed,” he said.

Although the building would mean the loss of 58 parking spaces — and a number of residents said there was already a shortage of parking — Joe Banks, the project’s architect, said the school anticipated the building would draw mostly foot traffic from students walking from campus. 

Two Wesleyan students also spoke at the hearing, echoing Grant’s comments about being short on space for the arts. Student Mo Andres said she hoped the new facility could make it easier for Wesleyan students to interact with the local community. 

Resident Rani Arbo, who co-owns 180 College Street, echoed those hopes. 

“Wesleyan has in the last 15 years really pulled away from its holdings in the community” she said. “I think students don’t feel connected to Middletown. They don’t go downtown. And everyone loses.” 

Some residents also questioned Wesleyan’s record within the community. Janice Chieretto, who lives part-time at the Hamlin Condominiums at 201 College Street, said she was concerned about the balance of power between Wesleyan University and the residents of the area, many of whom, she said, were low-income. She said she felt there had not been enough input from the community. 

“Not unlike a lot of campus locations, you’ve got low income people living amongst … the academic elite,” she said. “These people live here. They don’t have the influence, they don’t have the monetary power, and they don’t have the kind of clout — but they should, if the elected representatives listen to them, and take this to heart.”  

The lone opposing vote, Commissioner Catherine Johnson, said at a July 26 meeting that she believed the building didn’t fit in with the requirements of the local zoning district. She also questioned Wesleyan’s past record of purchasing buildings within the community, referencing the closure of the Wesleyan-owned Green Street Arts Center in 2018 and the sale of the former Liberty Bank building, which Wesleyan purchased in 2019 and sold earlier this year. 

“I’m looking at a map thinking, ‘you’re going to march down the street.’ Are all those houses going to go? What’s the plan? Where does the edge of campus stop?” she asked.  

She also disagreed that it would be possible to keep the noise below a certain level.

“To say that you’re going to control this — it cannot be controlled. You cannot control the people who are walking up the street at 1:30 in the morning,” she said. 

But Planning and Zoning commissioners were overall in favor of the proposal, saying they viewed it as a way of revitalizing a building that would otherwise be falling into decay.

“It’s going to take a piece of property that has been neglected for a long time- – by its owner, admittedly — and improve it, and turn it into something that is an asset for the neighborhood when all is said and done. So I see no reason to oppose it,” said commissioner Sebastian Giuliano. 

Alternate commissioner Tyler Eckstrom agreed, adding that he found the building design to be “quite aesthetically pleasing.” 

“Wesleyan does have a great track record for preserving and using historic buildings,” he said. 

Commissioner Shanay Fulton said she felt Wesleyan had addressed some of the concerns people raised about noise and pollution. 

“Was I concerned about the people in that community? Absolutely. But I think the applicant has presented to us a well thought out application, and I really think that they tried to meet with the community and expand communication,” she said. 

According to the current plan, the building is scheduled for completion by the fall of 2024. 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.