NEW HAVEN -- More than three decades after workers doused the last of the boilers supplying power from English Station, a simmering debate over what to do with the rusting carcass of the old power plant is threatening to once again delay a long-awaited redevelopment of the property.
Efforts to repurpose the aging brick structures have repeatedly fallen through over the years, while the nearly nine acres of property on Ball Island surrounding the power plant has passed through a string of owners, none of whom have gotten past the early planning stages of development.
The island is riddled with contaminants such as asbestos and PCBs, which are left over from the years when it was used to store and burn coal -- later oil -- in order to generate power for United Illuminating, which is now on the hook for $30 million to clean up the property.
In an interview late last month, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker referred to a plan by the current owners to build housing for city residents on the property, which would require an intensive remediation that would likely take years and come at cost well beyond what the utility has already agreed to spend.
"In general, my concern is that -- maybe I'll say our concern, me and the city's -- is that the private property owner's interest in residential development is challenging because of the pollutants on the site," Elicker said.
Ownership of the site is currently split between two New York-based limited liability companies, Haven River Properties and Paramount View Millennium, which do not appear to have any relevant experience in large-scale redevelopment projects.
Representatives for both companies did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment in recent weeks.
Under the terms of a 2015 consent order with UI brokered by then-Attorney General George Jepsen, the utility agreed to clean up the site so that it could be developed under its "current zoned use," which property records identify as heavy industry. That effort was supposed to be completed within three years, a deadline that passed in 2019.
Earlier this summer, state regulators accused UI of failing to live up to the terms of that agreement and delivered a $2 million fine as part of a larger decision denying the utility's request for a rate hike. Officials with the company responded by filing a lawsuit claiming that the state was forcing them to operate at a loss.
In a statement to CT Insider, a company spokeswoman said that UI has already spent $19 million toward the cleanup of English Station, including the removal of asbestos, thousands of tons of contaminated soil and the demolition of a building on the property that the city deemed to be at risk of "imminent collapse."
"UI is not only meeting its obligations under existing agreements, but is going above and beyond to perform additional cleanup measures that were neither required nor budgeted," the spokeswoman, Sarah Wall, said in a statement.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which is overseeing the cleanup, has two sets of standards to determine what types of activities are permitted on remediated properties. The stricter of the two standards permits residential uses such as housing, schools and hospitals, while the lower standard allows for a broader range of "industrial/commercial" projects. In a statement, a spokesman for the agency said that DEEP will require UI's cleanup of English Station to meet the "industrial/commercial" standard.
The area around English Station contains a mix of apartments, single family homes, abandoned factories, warehouses and salt piles that today are the last vestiges of the once-booming industrial area along the banks of the Mill River. Directly across the water, a magnet school for STEM-interested students sits in the shadows of the station's towering smoke stacks.
For those living nearby, the idea of returning the site to an industrial use is widely seen as a missed opportunity.
"That's not as aggressive as the community wanted," said Aaron Goode, a local activist from the Fair Haven Heights section of New Haven. "The problem with that is it provides much less flexibility in terms of the reuse."
Advocates for preservation of the aging, brick building have pointed to a string of successful projects in Baltimore, Savannah and London that transformed power plants from a similar era into hubs for shopping, restaurants and hotels.
In Providence, the city's long-shuttered South Street Power Plant was redeveloped into a nursing school and offices for Brown University, a member of the Ivy League.
"What I've always hoped is that there would be a reuse for the building, because it's really a New Haven icon," said Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League. "You see it from the highway, you see it from East Rock, you can even see it from the state parkway out in Meriden. It would be a shame to lose it."
Since the power plant closed in 1992, proposals for the site have included returning it to service as a backup in times of peak power demand, building residential towers or even turning the plant structure into a museum focused on the region's industrial heyday, according Eliezer Lee Cruz, a Fair Haven resident and outreach coordinator for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
"No one really had the gravitas to pull that together," he added of the museum plan.
Cruz said that while an effort to preserve English Station's historic brick facade could prove too costly due to the state of disrepair, any attempt to demolish the structure would come with its own set of challenges due to the potential to spread contaminants into the air and nearby waterways.
"We're not the experts in the community, they're the experts," Cruz said, referring to UI's commitment to remediate the site. "All we can do is demand what is right since millions of dollars were made over many, many decades producing electricity there ... It's time for them to do the right thing and clean it up."
Despite state regulators' criticism over the pace of the cleanup, Elicker said that UI had been "productive partners" with both the city and the state's efforts to determine a future use of the site. Conversations between those three entities have been "ongoing" for more than two years, Elicker said.
The mayor added that it was his "preference," that the site be used for something other than an industrial purpose, noting its location along the river and adjacent to a planned bus rapid-transit system the city hopes to launch by 2029.
"What I would like to see done with the property is that it has a significant positive use for the community," Elicker said. "I think we have to be practical in our expectation for the site and work with all parties to find a pathway to ensure the site doesn't lay fallow for many years."
Farwell, the preservation advocate, said potential for adaptive reuse of the property will likely hinge on the condition of the former power plant after years of neglect and scavenging by those in search of scrap parts and metals. She said that advocates have pushed -- with little success so far -- to have an independent assessment done on the building's structural integrity.
The current owners, she said, appear mostly interested in hanging on to the property until the clean-up is completed by UI, at which point they can seek to flip it for a profit.
"It's obviously built like a mountain," Farwell said. "But even mountains can get blown up."