New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
City mulls growing lettuce in a former school
WEST HAVEN — City officials are entertaining a proposal that the city grow its own lettuce or microgreens in a hydroponic operation inside the old Stiles School building to generate revenue.
After receiving a state grant to fund the assessment of toxin removal from the former Thompson, Stiles and Blake schools, city officials are beginning to review development plans for the sites to promote economic development and get the buildings on the tax rolls.
Although the city is seeking zoning approvals to sell Thompson School to one of three developers for
roughly 50 units of market-rate housing, Corporation Counsel
Lee Tiernan believes the city has more latitude with the Stiles building.
“There’s a strong interest in hydroponics,” Tiernan informed the City Council.
Tiernan has retained Hunter Naizby, a consultant with Shoreline Supply Chain Consulting LLC, to advise about the possibility of adding a hydroponics space to West Haven.
Stiles, because of its large acreage and location on wetlands, is an ideal spot, Tiernan said.
“When it’s done right, hydroponic development can be a cornerstone of a city’s larger efforts to increase sustainability, create employment opportunities and generate community wealth,” Naizby said.
Hydroponics is a type of agriculture that can be practiced year-round, according to Dan Lubkeman, president of the Hydroponic Society of America, a nonprofit based in California.
“Basically, if plants are grown in anything besides soil, it’s hydroponics. I always say it means ‘more food in less space with less water in less time,’” Lubkeman said.
“Hydroponics can be used 365 days a year in the right environment,” he said. “Popular crops include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, berries, cannabis and many others.”
Naizby, who presented the council with a proposal based on an existing development in Maine, said the main focus of a proposed West Haven hydroponics
development would be lettuce.
“Around 90 percent of lettuce produced in the country is coming from massive farms in western states like California and Arizona that continue to get hotter and drier. In many cases, these operations rely on high chemical inputs, high water inputs, and exploited migrant labor,” Naizby said.
“Hydroponic production gives New England cities the ability to source their food more locally, thus supporting local jobs,” Naizby said.
Greg Day, principal of The Day Brothers LLC, which developed the Maine site in conjunction with a hydroponics nonprofit, said there are environmental benefits to growing produce that can be grown year-round in any climate without using farming space and does not need to be transported long distances.
But there are economic benefits, as well, Day said.
“Our business model for a vertical farm would not only grow food in the heart of West Haven’s downtown district,” he said. “It would create meaningful jobs, grow futures and provide housing as part of a master plan development program which we feel would become an essential community asset.”
The mixed-use proposal for Stiles would include 8,000 square feet of retail space at ground level, where a nonprofit operating the space could sell lettuce grown within the building within 24 hours of harvest, as well as 60 modern residential units.
Tiernan added that the benefit of adding local produce is that there is potential for local food service contracts, such as the University of New Haven, the
city public schools and Notre Dame High School.
Naizby said lettuce is optimal for growing because of the additional space a crop like tomatoes would require and the difficulty level required for growing herbs.
He said a separate contractor than the one he proposed would be interested in bringing hydroponic production of microgreens — such as baby kale and baby bok choy — to the Stiles building. Those crops would have a smaller yield but could sell for up to $45 per pound, he said.
Tiernan said there are also opportunities to offer summer employment for high school students in growing lettuce at the location as well as opportunities for students of all ages to learn about agricultural production locally.
Councilwoman Robbin Watt Hamilton, D-5, said she wondered whether agricultural activity
might be taxed differently from other types of development. Tiernan said it would be taxed at a lower rate, but he believes there are upsides to the development beyond tax revenue and that the site currently is nonproductive.
Councilwoman Bridgette Hoskie, D-1, said she had encountered hydroponics at Disney World’s Epcot Center, which she visits for national cheer competitions with a youth cheerleading team.
Hoskie said Naizby is “very impressive.”
Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, said Tiernan had “(whetted) our palates” with the proposal.
Tiernan said he expects to bring a more formal presentation before the council in a month. He said other opportunities for the space would include self-storage and more residential units from the developers interested in the Thompson site.
Mayor Nancy Rossi said she believes the interest in the former school buildings have to do with the city’s improved bargaining position after receiving the state funding to deal with contamination at the sites. She said she believes there are many good development proposals for the city to consider, including the hydroponics idea.
“It’s something I think we really should explore. It’s a new idea, it’s something different, something we don’t have in West Haven,” she said. “It would be nice to be the first to do a new innovation like this.”
Alan Olenick, director of the West Haven Chamber of Commerce, said he supports getting the property on the city’s tax rolls.
“It’s a strange proposal for that school, but I guess it’s better than nothing,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve ever heard of before, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a viable proposal, either.”
Although Olenick said his position may not be supported by the entire chamber, he supports adding more mixed-use developments to the city.
According to Lubkeman, the hydroponics industry is growing rapidly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also says it is an expanding field.
“The vertical farming market, which is a variation of hydroponics, in the U.S. is estimated at around $2.5 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to about $5.5 billion by 2026,” Lubkeman said.
The Stiles School’s 575 Main
St. location closed in 2004.