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Vacant No More: How Connecticut Is Investing in Abandoned Properties

The Hockanum Mill in Vernon, Connecticut.
"These are sites that really embody and represent Connecticut's industrial heritage."<br><em>Tim Sullivan</em>

Across Connecticut, abandoned sites are being built back up. It’s complicated and expensive work, but in recent years, the state has put millions of dollars towards breathing new life into the long-forgotten spaces of the industrial era.

To a driver on the road, the Hockanum Mill in Vernon is an imposing structure. Set only a few dozen feet back from West Main Street, the building rises four stories high and stretches on for several hundred feet, a tall brick smoke stack towering behind it.

From the inside, the building comes to life with a history that can quite literally be seen.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
A note on one of the ceiling beams in the Hockanum Mill in Vernon, dated December 11, 1936.


On one of the exposed wood beams in the ceiling of the mill, there are two names scrawled in pencil, dated December 11, 1936. In the center of the room, two small round dents worn into the floor mark the place a mill worker stood at a fabric processing machine some hundred years ago -- perhaps manufacturing one of the four presidential suits to come out of the mill.

“It’s been here 200 years,” said owner and developer Ken Kaplan. “It’s the oldest mill building still standing in Rockville.”  

But until recently, it wasn’t those 200 years of history that defined the building -- it was the last 60.

The mill was shut down in 1951, and the building quickly fell into disrepair. Windows were smashed out, vines overtook the property, and the walls were plastered with graffiti. The roof began to rot, and decades of rainwater dripped into the building. It's what's known as a brownfield site -- an abandoned property where redevelopment is complicated by a variety of factors.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
The recently renovated interior of the Hockanum Mill in Vernon.

Asbestos, lead, and PCBs are all common in buildings that date back to an era of fierce industrialism and minimal regulation.

Two years ago, Kaplan purchased the property and embarked on a massive renovation to convert the abandoned space into a motorcycle museum. The quantity of work has been tremendous -- Kaplan said that 50 man-years of labor have gone into the project. He explained that at one point, the entire building had to be hydraulically lifted off the ground in order to replace a foundation that had sunk 14 inches into the earth.

“These brownfield projects are notoriously complicated,” Kaplan said.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
Some buildings at the Hockanum Mill in Vernon still have not seen renovation. Just several years ago, all of the buildings on the site looked like this.

“Complicated” is likely an understatement for the scope of many brownfield restoration projects. Brownfield sites are typically contaminated with environmental pollutants and other toxic materials. Asbestos, lead, and PCBs are all common in buildings that date back to an era of fierce industrialism and, by today’s standards, minimal regulation.

“We’ve spent close to a million dollars on just lead paint abatement, and asbestos, and arsenic, and underground oil tanks,” Kaplan explained.

Such problems are by no means unique to the Hockanum Mill. Just ask George Benson, director of the Planning and Land Use Agency of Newtown, Connecticut.

Near the center of Newtown lies the largely abandoned campus of Fairfield Hills Psychiatric Hospital, where dozens of beautifully ornamented colonial buildings sprawl across 185 acres of property. Since the hospital’s closure in 1995, most have rapidly degraded.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
An abandoned building on the Fairfield Hills campus in Newtown.

The Fairfield Hills Psychiatric Hospital campus in Newtown closed in 1995, with its dozens of beautifully ornamented colonial buildings on 185 acres of property.

“They’re starting to crumble, basically, so you have a problem with debris, and they just get worse and worse,” said Benson. “Every year, there’s something else we have to abate or take care of.”

Several buildings have been restored -- the Newtown municipal center currently resides in what was once the hospital cafeteria -- but the renovation has seen a host of issues. 

“I think we pretty much hit every road block you could hit,” Benson said. “You never know. You just don’t. Whenever we take a wall down, or a roof off, or whatever, it seems like there’s always something you find.”

Benson explained that renovation and preservation of the buildings has been the town’s primary goal. But, he bemoaned, due to the high cost of environmental cleanup, restoration is becoming increasingly less of a possibility.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
Many buildings on the Fairfield Hills campus in Newtown remain abandoned.

“It’s more money to take care of the environmental work than to knock the whole building down,” Benson said. “We’ve always tried to save as many as we can, but it seems like with the environmental issues and the aging of the buildings… we’re pretty much resigning to the fact that the buildings will have to come down.”

Considering this immense difficulty, it may come as a surprise that since 2012, the state of Connecticut has invested $138 million in the redevelopment of brownfield sites.

According to data from the Department of Economic and Community Development, the state has funded 198 such projects since 2005, and doesn’t show any indication of slowing. Just two weeks ago, the DECD awarded $7 million in grants to 12 brownfield sites.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
According to George Benson, Newtown Director of Planning and Land Use, many of the larger buildings at Fairfield Hills will have to be demolished.

“The drawbacks and hurdles [of brownfield renovation] have been cost. Cost and uncertainty,” said DECD Deputy Commissioner Tim Sullivan. “The state has invested in brownfield redevelopment to address some of those costs.”

But what does the state expect in return? Why bother investing so much in such “notoriously complicated” projects?

One might look to the city of Hartford for an explanation. Just last week, Governor Dannel Malloy joined several other city and state leaders for a groundbreaking ceremony at the Capewell Horse Nail Factory.

The factory is, at the moment, a literal shell of its former self. Once a prolific manufacturer of the nails that fasten metal shoes to horses’ hooves -- so much so that Hartford was once known as the “Horse Nail Capital of the World” -- the factory now sits empty, nothing but a hollow chamber of brick and concrete.

Soon though, the factory will see new life in the form of 72 residential apartments.

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
Construction workers inside the Capewell Horse Nail Factory in Hartford.
Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
Construction equipment outside the horse nail factory in Hartford.

  Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony, Malloy expressed hope that the newly renovated apartments will attract more workers to live in the city. “We’ve been hard at work making sure we that we have the kinds of housing that will attract the kinds of work force to live in Hartford that we so desperately want to see,” he said.

There is an added benefit to renovating abandoned spaces. Though a precise count is difficult to obtain, Sullivan of the DECD said his office estimates there are over 1,000 brownfield sites throughout Connecticut.

“If you care about maintaining Connecicut’s balance between developed space and open space,” said Sullivan, “and you care about economic development and growing the state’s job base, you gotta care about brownfield redevelopment, because these are the sites where we can accomplish both of those things.”

Credit Charlie Smart / WNPR
A worker chips away at crumbling brick inside the Horse Nail Factory in Hartford.

For many, the true value of brownfield restoration lies not in the money, but in the history. “These are sites that in many cases were built decades or a hundred years ago that really embody and represent Connecticut’s industrial heritage,” Sullivan said.

That heritage seems to be a point of pride for many of the developers who take on these projects. Many sites, like the Hockanum Mill, are on the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s a legacy, a gift to the state and the town,” said Kaplan.

Kent Schwendy, President and CEO of the Corporation for Independent Living -- the group overseeing the horse hail factory renovation -- agreed. “A building like this connects people to the past,” he said. “And so I think it kind of gives hope to people in the neighborhood to see something like this revitalized and come back. It’s an enduring monument.”

Throughout the state, dozens of these projects are underway, each with their own challenges, and each with their own history. Hover over the dots below to see more information about each project.

Schwendy said CIL hopes to finish the Capewell factory renovation by December 2016.

At the Hockanum Mill in Vernon, much work still remains, but one of the buildings has already been converted into a motorcycle restoration shop, and the main building is nearing completion. 

Graphic by Charlie Smart for WNPR.

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