Bridgeport changes course on joint Fairfield U and Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport college project in North End

BRIDGEPORT — An effort by Fairfield University and the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation to locate a small college on the North End property, Jewett Avenue, appeared to fall apart Friday night.

Just after 5 p.m., Mayor Joe Ganim’s office announced that the city’s legal department had concluded that “a college is not a lawful use” in that particular residential area, reversing an earlier decision from nearly a year ago. a month that was disputed by other elected leaders and activists. .

The opinion the mayor revealed on Friday came from R. Christopher Meyer, the city’s lead attorney. Ganim, in an accompanying statement, said he had asked his economic development staff to work with the Diocese and the University of Fairfield “on other possible locations in the city,” such as the campus of the University of Bridgeport in the South End.

The mayor’s statement was released as Hearst Connecticut Media was set to release a report in which another city attorney, Russell Liskov, whose March 29 notice cleared the way for the college project to proceed without a public hearing nor approval from the zoning commission, acknowledged that more research was needed. done to strengthen his conclusion.

“What you see is that it’s a more complex question than what we were asked originally,” Liskov, who works for Meyer, said Thursday.

Liskov’s original March 29 opinion had been questioned by North End Councilwoman Michelle Lyons, retired Superior Court Justice Carmen Lopez and former State Representative Christopher Caruso. And Lopez, a possible candidate for mayor of Ganim in 2023, filed a formal appeal with the zoning office earlier this week.

Meanwhile, the diocese’s request for a special permit was also due to be heard at Monday night’s zoning commission meeting. And the diocese and the University of Fairfield had scheduled community meetings next Thursday to try to better explain their vision and win over skeptics.

Reached by phone Friday evening Ray Rizio, the diocesan lawyer, was not aware of Ganim’s announcement.

“The only notice I saw was that it was for proper use in the area and we are extremely disappointed with the new notice,” Rizio said. “(We) believe that Bridgeport conveys a unique opportunity to help residents. We will discuss with customers the paths we will take in the future.

As previously reported, the diocese has partnered with Fairfield University on a proposal that the latter establish a 2-year associate degree program in the underutilized sections of the diocese headquarters at 238 Jewett Ave. in a mainly residential area of ​​the city.

The new college, which the parties say will require interior but not exterior changes, would accommodate a maximum of 200 students from “underrepresented communities… for whom a Fairfield education has not been accessible.” Participants would commute and not live there.

The diocese late last year submitted an application to the zoning department for a special permit. The plan has been met with stiff opposition from some North End residents who, already struggling with the gradual encroachment of Sacred Heart University just across the border in Fairfield, believe that it will generate too much traffic and reduce property values.

But in a March 29 legal opinion, Liskov concluded that because the building on Jewett Avenue, which opened in the early 1900s as a hospital, had housed Notre Dame Girls Catholic High School in the 1960s, the property remained “an educational site” for the Diocese and Fairfield University’s purposes.

Subsequently, Zoning Director Dennis Buckley, in a March 30 email to City Councilwoman Michelle Lyons, who opposes the new college, informed her of Liskov’s decision. He said that meant the diocese’s application “will be taken out of the planning and zoning program,” leaving the diocese and university to proceed without the need for a public hearing or special permit.

“I know this is not the outcome you were hoping for,” Buckley wrote to Lyons. “But we have to follow the instructions of the city attorney’s office.”

But on Thursday, Liskov acknowledged that Bridgeport was still looking for evidence to bolster that position.

“We are gathering as much material and historical information as possible to be able to clarify the earlier decision,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rizio, who earlier this month confirmed his intention to withdraw the special permit application based on Liskov’s initial finding, said earlier Friday he was ready to move forward. with a presentation at Monday’s planning and zoning meeting. But, Rizio added, he hoped the commission would open the hearing and then grant an extension to accommodate the diocese’s ongoing efforts to reach out to neighbors.

“The university and the diocese think it’s a big project and don’t want politics to spoil it,” he said.

Lyons, Lopez and Caruso punched holes in Liskov’s March 29 statement and filed an appeal this week to overturn it. Lopez in particular argued that using Notre Dame School is different from a college and shouldn’t automatically give the diocese and Fairfield University a free pass to avoid the zoning commission and l public scrutiny.

Lopez also questioned the lack of publicly available land records that would prove, as Liskov wrote in his March 29 opinion, that in the 1960s and 1970s the planning and zoning commission granted ” prior approvals” and “several special exceptions” at 238 Jewett Ave. .. including for “an educational site”. She, Lyons, and Caruso requested and did not receive this documentation from the city.

Liskov had told Hearst Connecticut Media that Buckley had that paperwork. Buckley did not return a request for comment this week, and a request sent to Ganim’s communications staff to try to obtain prior approvals and exceptions cited by Liskov from the zoning department was referred to Liskov after consulting with the department. municipal legal.

Liskov said Thursday he had a few zoning sheets from the 1960s and early 1970s with “manual notations” allowing the high school, an auditorium and a gymnasium. He also said the city was continuing to research whether the permitted use of 238 Jewett Avenue for a high school could be applied to what the diocese and Fairfield University wanted to do.

When asked if his March 29 notice was premature, Liskov said no. He said city zoning and economic development officials asked him to determine if the site was approved for educational purposes.

“I was not asked whether or not a university was allowed to go there,” Liskov said. “Educational purposes are permitted. So I think people have jumped to conclusions as to what is permitted. My opinion does not say that a university was allowed to go there.

But, Lopez said, the diocese’s request made it clear that a college was planned, and Liskov went ahead and issued his March 29 opinion without enough information to substantiate it in court if an action in justice was brought to stop the project.

“I don’t care about your ‘plugs,'” she said earlier Friday ahead of Ganim’s announcement.

Lopez also cited a January memorandum on the Diocese and University of Fairfield proposal from the Bridgeport Office of Economic Development which stated, “Upon review, it does not appear that there are any pre-existing approvals specifically relating to a use school.”

As these questions continued to swirl, the diocese had scheduled a pair of “open house” meetings with representatives from that organization and Fairfield University for April 28 — one at 10:30 a.m., the second at 6:30 p.m. — at 238 Jewett Ave. . .to explain their vision to the community and answer questions.

“They will be open to anyone who is interested, and we hope our neighbors in particular will come to inquire about the plans,” Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the diocese, said earlier this week.

Lyons complained that she was never properly informed about the new college and did not attend the open house. And Caruso had said, “If they really wanted the neighborhood’s opinion, they would have invited them months and months ago.” They are worried now.

Rizio pointed out that of the possible developments allowed at 238 Jewett Ave., a 200-student non-residential college would have had the least impact. The land is zoned as “mixed-use residential”, which city bylaws define as “intended for…a wide range of multi-unit residential types, including multi-unit homes, townhouses, small apartment buildings and larger apartment buildings”.

Lyons recently succeeded in pushing back the development of the North End.

Five years ago she fought off a city effort to buy the same Jewett Avenue site to move the Magnet School of the Classical Studies Academy there.

And she also helped convince the zoning commission in early 2019 to reject a private Florida developer’s plan to buy another prime North End property – the Monticello Gardens apartment complex on Park Avenue – for a 600-bed, privately owned and operated dormitory. for the students of the Sacred Heart.

Last year, Sacred Heart quietly purchased Monticello Gardens. The university recently said, “At this time, there are no specific plans for the property.”

Concluding his statement on Friday, Ganim said: “While I really like the concept of Fairfield University and the positive impact it will have on the lives of young people in Bridgeport, I believe we should protect our neighborhoods from such heavy use.”

Denise W. Whigham