Hartford Courant

College Expanding Into Former Sears In Bridgeport

Special To The Courant

February 13 2007

BRIDGEPORT -- For years, the old Sears, Roebuck and Co. building stood abandoned on Lafayette Boulevard near I-95, a highly visible symbol of how department stores fled cities for suburban malls.

But the once-decaying building is now the center of an ambitious expansion by Housatonic Community College, space that will allow the college to double its size and provide another boost for renewal in the heart of Connecticut's most populous city.

Ten years ago, Housatonic spent $40 million converting the main building of the old Hi-Ho mall, next door to the Sears building, into its main campus. Now the new state-funded $55 million expansion could become a visual gateway to the city because I-95 passes close by.

The college's expansion comes as the city hums with other redevelopment projects, including the rehabilitation of 20 downtown historic buildings. Among those are the Arcade Mall and Hotel and the art-deco City Trust building, both being converted into housing and retail space.

All told, renewal projects costing $800 million throughout the city are projected to add 2,100 housing units, 220,000 square feet of retail space and 128,000 square feet of office space in the coming years.

In addition, a $1 billion plan for a development at Steel Point Peninsula could add 2,000 apartments and condominiums and about 1 million square feet of retail and office space.

The college's expansion in the city signals confidence in prospects for an area that was once ridden with blight and crime.

"This building can become another beacon within Bridgeport," said Danile DeBoo, project manager and senior associate of Perkins Eastman, the Stamford-based firm providing full design services for the project. "It's a prime location, maybe 150 feet from the highway."

With its 10-year-old downtown campus already busy seven days a week, HCC has already helped to transform downtown Bridgeport. The campus enrolls as many as 4,700 students a year, bringing life to an area where "12 years ago was a part of town you would not want to go," according to Paul McNamara, dean of administration at the college.

The college's use of an existing building mirrors other similar efforts by institutions of higher education, both in Connecticut and elsewhere in the country.

The state-subsidized Capital Community College in Hartford and the University of Connecticut's Stamford campus both used former department stores in building plans.

Housatonic's expansion will add 190,000 square feet of space for classrooms, computer labs, a student lounge, an expanded bookstore and a new student wellness center. The existing Performing Arts Center will also be renovated, McNamara said.

Demolition and reconstruction of the former Sears, a deep, box-shaped structure about the length and width of a football field, into a contemporary building has been designed to appeal to a modern "hip culture," according to DeBoo.

The design includes an "academic arc" to project outward to the east and west, and uses mainly glass and metal for the southern exposure, facing Long Island Sound. The combination of brick, metal and glass will agree with the "more conservative" design of the main campus building, DeBoo added. Three new additions are "sprinkled" into the design to help provide shape and form, along with an intimate, landscaped courtyard, DeBoo said.

"Bridgeport's changed," DeBoo said. "We're capturing a younger, technologically savvy group."

Newfield Construction, of Hartford, will construct the building, estimated for completion by the fall of 2008. Fusco Corp., a New Haven-based development company, will oversee the project for the state. Fusco has a long history with the property, dating from the 1960s, when it built the original retail mall, called Lafayette Plaza, said Patricia Bilotto, a company spokeswoman.

Lafayette Plaza was eventually renamed the Hi-Ho Mall, and its general decline follows the economic decline of the city. When Sears closed in 1993, the demise of the mall soon followed. In the past, a rash of crime in the area has long altered perceptions, creating image problems that the city continues to battle today.

But where many still see problems, Housatonic sees change - and opportunity.

"We are saturated with applicants," said McNamara, who pointed to other creative ways that the school has tried to cope with space deficiencies, including an extended seven-day-a-week schedule, operating from remote (Milford and Ansonia high schools) locations, and offering a distance-learning curriculum online.

The school's large sculpture garden and $5 million art gallery, with pieces from Connecticut artists, as well as Picasso, Chagall and Renoir, will also be enhanced by the expansion through numerous additional displays - from nearly 4,000 works in the collection - to be incorporated throughout the new building.

"All corridors and public spaces will be used to hang artwork, to display art, literally, everywhere," said McNamara, who described Housatonic's contemporary art collection as "the largest of any two-year college in the world."

"It's a tremendous thing to do," said Brian Calvert, a vice president and project executive for Fusco. "Is there a better way to bring life back to a city than to bring in young people and add all their energy into a downtown center?"

Copyright 2007, Hartford Courant