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Stamford Looks To Buy Former Catholic School Campus On Strawberry Hill

Uncut grass grows tall in front of The Stanwich School at 200 Strawberry Hill Ave. on Thursday. The city has reached an agreement with the owners to buy the 10.8-acre site. Stanwich School had been leasing it but will move its students to Greenwich. Photo Credit: Frank MacEachern
Stamford Mayor David Martin speaks after a press conference announcing that the city has reached agreement to buy the 10.8-acre site of the former Sacred Heart Academy at 200 Strawberry Hill Ave. Photo Credit: Frank MacEachern

STAMFORD, Conn. -- Geoff Alswanger was worrying about the overcrowding in the Stamford Public Schools one day in the fall when the answer appeared right before him as he drove on Strawberry Hill Avenue.

“I said, 'I wonder when the Stanwich School would be vacating,'” the Board of Education president said about the private school. With some Internet sleuthing that night, Alswanger discovered that Stanwich, which was leasing a campus at 200 Strawberry Ave., was planning to move its upper school students to its Greenwich campus.

That started the ball rolling and led to Thursday’s announcement that the city of Stamford had reached an agreement to buy the 10.8-acre site from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery.

The Sisters had operated the all-girls Sacred Heart Academy on the site until its closing in 2006.

“We believe this property is a gem,” Mayor David Martin told a crowd of about 40 people gathered in the Government Center lobby Thursday afternoon as he announced the purchase.

The deal has to still be approved by the Board of Finance, Planning Board and Board of Representatives. The city’s lawyers are reviewing the contract, Martin said.

The Board of Education began discussions with former Mayor Michael Pavia about the site, Alswanger said. The day after Martin was elected in November, the school board briefed him on the idea and gave him a tour of the three-story school building that night, Alswanger said.

Martin favors continuing to use the site as a school, although he said discussions will be held on the site’s future.

“It is clear we have an overcrowding challenge in our schools right now,” Martin said.

In 2012, the property was assessed at $10.27 million, which is 70 percent of the estimated market value. Martin didn’t give an estimate of the purchase price. The campus also includes the C.J. Starr Barn and Carriage House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Randy Skigen, president of the Board of Representatives, called the proposed purchase “the most significant real estate acquisition since the city’s purchase of the building that we are in today, the Government Center, that was nearly 30 years ago.”

He also compared it with the purchase of Cove Island, which the city initially decided to pass on before civic leaders changed their minds.

“Stamford would be a tremendously different city if we didn’t have Cove Island,” Skigen said.

Martin said he hopes the city will finalize the purchase this summer. If the site is kept as a school, Martin said the building would be renovated, not razed.

A decision would have to be made whether it would be a school just for residents or whether it would be an interdistrict school, which could see up to 25 percent of the students coming from outside Stamford.

There is a significant dollar figure attached to that decision: The state would fund up to 28 percent of the cost of the building and land acquisition compared with the much higher amount of 80 percent for an interdistrict school, Alswanger said.

The purchase of the property will be funded through municipal bonds.

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