Danbury moves ahead with ‘very exciting’ career academy after buying, rezoning west side hilltop

DANBURY — The city has acquired a 24-acre hilltop on the west side, moving forward its ambitious plans to open the first career academy of its kind in Connecticut by 2024, and provide badly needed classrooms for a student enrollment that has outpaced projections.

“The city of Danbury — I don’t want to use the desperate, but I am going to — desperately needs more schools,” said Paul Rotello, the City Council’s Democratic Minority Leader, during a meeting earlier this month. “I have high hopes for this.”

Danbury closed on the Apple Ridge Road property formerly used by Cartus Corp. on Tuesday afternoon and rezoned the light industrial campus into residential zoning on Tuesday night, clearing the way for the city to take the next step for the $164 million project.

“We are moving ahead with the rest of our approvals,” said Antonio Iadarola, Danbury’s engineer and public works director, during a Zoning Commission meeting earlier this month. “We are in the middle of seeking several approvals from the state for this project … to facilitate a well-developed, well-designed school that meets all the needs of the Board of Education and the state.”

Details about Tuesday’s closing were not immediately available on Wednesday, except that the city took ownership of the property shortly before 3 p.m., Iadarola said.

The closing is the latest development in the city’s emergency plan to catch up with runaway enrollment by converting the 270,000-square-foot office complex into a high school and middle school for 1,400 students. The new west side high school in conjunction with Danbury High School would incorporate Connecticut’s first “wall-to-wall” academy to provide career and college training for every high school student.

The career academy, which would be adjacent to the Wooster School to the south, is part of a larger $208 million spending plan approved by voters in June to build more classrooms across the city — including $27 million for a 16-classroom early childhood education center at Great Plain Elementary School.

The state has agreed to reimburse Danbury for 80 percent of its classroom construction costs.  

“This is a very exciting project for the city of Danbury and the Board of Education,” Iadarola said.

The city’s land purchase clears an ownership hurdle that was a key obstacle with Danbury’s previous plan to build its west side academy in three pods of the sprawling Summit office building development near the New York border. Although the city initially thought it would work to have a condominium-style arrangement with the owners of the Summit, that agreement fell apart in February, forcing the city to switch gears.

The new career academy would overlook a west side that continues to lead Danbury’s economy with large-scale residential development and new business activity. To get the academy plans off the ground, the city needed to revert to the zoning that was in place 40 years ago when the biggest thing on the west side was the Danbury Fair.

The 24 acres bought by the city, which was zoned light industrial, needed to revert to its 1979 status when the land was zoned residential, like the surrounding neighborhood.

“The zone change is a slight shift in the zone line that exists between the (residential) and the (light industrial) district that is to the east,” Iadarola said during a Nov. 10 Zoning Commission meeting. “This is not an isolation of a segregated zone, this is actually a shift of the existing zone line that exists.”

Rotello agreed.

“This is not spot zoning — it’s contiguous with other zones of a similar nature,” Rotello said. “As good as Cartus and Hologic were as neighbors, there is no crystal ball for determining what the future use of this parcel could be, and turning it into residential zoning and putting a school there is probably a much better fit and certainly for the existing school that is there at Wooster, which has been in Danbury for 100 years.”

Reach Rob Ryser at rryser@newstimes.com or 203-731-3342