This rendering depicts the Naugatuck Valley Development Corp.’s vision for a newly renovated Palace Theater in downtown Waterbury.

The city of Waterbury is undergoing a renaissance with the help of its local nonprofit economic development corporation.

The Naugatuck Valley Development Corp., which was started in 1969, has been hard at work keeping downtown Waterbury a vibrant place. Its most recent venture is the Downtown Development Project. Now into Phase II of the state-funded, $190 million project, the NVDC is currently building two educational facilities and two parking garages and renovating a theater, all within one city block.

“The essence of the Downtown Development Project is an arts and education district,” said Michael O’Connor, NVDC executive director.

The first part of the project involves the University of Connecticut’s new Waterbury campus. The 97,000-square-foot building is being finished on East Main Street. Waterbury has always been a part of UConn’s branching program; previously, students would spend two years at the existing Waterbury campus and the remainder at the main campus in Storrs. With the new campus facility, not only will four-year degrees be available but a master’s degree program as well. Torrington-based O&G is the project manager and Hartford-based Jeter, Cook and Jepson designed the building, which is scheduled to open for this year’s fall semester.

Included in the UConn project is a 265-car, three-deck parking garage that will serve UConn students and faculty. Eventually, patrons of the nearby and soon-to-be-reopened Palace Theater will use the garage on weekends and evenings if needed. The garage will be accessed from North Elm Street and will open, along with the new campus, in the fall.

The third project is the Arts Magnet School.

“This is going to be a [grades] six-through-12 school, with a 220,000-square-foot building,” said O’Connor. He explained that the building would have two main components: a traditional school area to house the basic curriculum and a pure performance building with recital halls that connect to the Palace Theater.

The two areas will be connected by a skywalk. According to O’Connor, the Arts Magnet performance building will include a 229-seat apron stage theater, a stage for smaller performances, a 109-seat recital hall, an 84-seat dance studio and various practice rooms. There also will be a television studio where students will learn about live television performances and productions. Additionally, an innovative audio/visual system will enable guest speakers to conduct interactive presentations with the entire school.

‘A Stronger City’

The renovation of the Palace Theater, which comes with a $30 million price tag, is the fourth part of the development project. The historic landmark, which is currently vacant, was erected in 1920 and is located at 100 East Main St. According to O’Connor, the renovation is set to transform the aging building into a state-of-the-art facility with a 5,000-square-foot stage, a 2,700-seat main hall and a VIP suite large enough for 80 people.

The Great Brook, which used to flow directly under the orchestra floor and stage area, has been diverted to allow for the construction of an orchestra pit large enough to accommodate a full complement of musicians. New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Assoc. and New York City-based Sachs Morgan Studio designed the renovations and TBI Construction Co., a New Britain firm, is the project manager.

An executive director of the independently operated theater already has been hired to plan a solid reopening in 2004.

The fifth and final project is an 880-car parking garage adjacent to the theater. The Scovill Street Garage will be constructed on the site of the former Spring Street Garage, which will be demolished because of age, limited capacity and high rehabilitation costs. The new garage will consist of six parking decks and will service the Arts Magnet School, Palace Theater and surrounding offices and businesses. Farmington-based Desman Assoc. designed the garage and TBI Construction is the project manager. The city will own and operate the new garage, which is scheduled to open in the spring of next year.

“Downtown used to have a lot of theaters stores, and jobs in the banking industry. Because of mergers, acquisitions and failures, those jobs have all diminished and the area really became underutilized,” said O’Connor, adding that the development project should create about 1,000 new jobs for Waterbury.

The one area of opposition the project ran up against was the use of the existing UConn facility, which is being replaced by the new campus.

“There was a big fear that the building would be handed over to the city and mismanaged,” said O’Connor. “We were looking for a vibrant group to come in and take over, and eventually we found a group from Brooklyn looking to establish a Jewish school,” he said. The Yeshiva Gedolah School struck a 99-year lease deal with the city of Waterbury for the campus on Hillside Avenue, and under the terms of the lease must purchase 100 homes in the city.

The project also has resulted in the downtown area being hardwired with a high-speed, fiber-optic loop for Internet and phone access.

“We’re building a stronger city, and this development project is just a small piece of the puzzle,” said O’Connor, adding that eventually, the NVDC hopes to connect the downtown to the Brass Mills Mall and Shopping Center nearby.

In order to provide employment opportunities on local projects to Waterbury residents, the Good Jobs! Ordinance was adopted by the city in March 2000. That ordinance is being tracked and enforced by the project’s construction manager, TBI Construction, and each subcontractor provides its certified payroll on a monthly basis, allowing TBI to monitor ordinance compliance. Monthly meetings are held with subcontractors to discuss their status regarding compliance, and each subcontractor must attempt to have its staff include 30 percent Waterbury residents and 10 percent minorities.

The NVDC already is looking ahead to the future and is close to inking a deal for an industrial park that would bring in an 800,000-square-foot facility and more than 1,000 jobs. There are also plans for an inter-mobile transportation center for Waterbury.