In Science Park’s Shadow, City Tackles Blight
by Paul Bass | Jul 13, 2012 2:03 pm
Less than a block from where millions of dollars are pouring into high-tech offices and new homes, New Haven seeks to untangle a legal mess that has kept empty a trashed three-story wreck—and to convince a 74-year-old carpenter to paint his house.
Those are the latest developments—a mixture of legal negotiation and shoe-leather persuasion—at one of the city’s starkest contrasts of progress and stubborn blight.
The progress has been on relentless display at the entrance to the old Winchester rifle complex at the juncture of Munson and Henry streets, Winchester Avenue and Hillside Place, the crossroads of the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods.
That complex of once-rotting industrial carcasses is now called Science Park, a high-tech incubator Yale hatched 30 years ago. That complex has taken off as of late. Developer Carter Winstanley has turned the 25 Science Park building on the corner into a thriving office complex. HigherOne, the city’s top new-economy job-creating success story, in March moved into a gleaming new 150,000 square-foot headquarters inside a once-decrepit former factory building across the street. Next door Winstanley and New York-based Forest City Enterprises claim to be embarking on another transformation of an old factory, into stores, offices and apartments.
The world looks far gloomier a half block east on Winchester Avenue.
Three-story 235 Winchester remains boarded up, battered, chipped, stripped of paint, surrounded by an overgrown lot, its 18 apartments empty, uninhabitable.
It has looked that way for at least seven years thanks to an acrimonious dispute between city officials and the building’s owner, a former NFL cornerback-turned developer named Kenny Hill. The dispute has included allegations of political interference and misuse of public money, a federal housing investigation, lawsuit threats, and a threatened demolition. Meanwhile the imposing eyesore has been left to rot.
Now both Hill and the city Livable City Initiative (LCI) Director Erik Johnson say they put the dispute aside and are on the brink of signing an agreement that will enable the developer to renovate the building. The deal would include a $150,000 city loan to fix the outside and perhaps clean remaining asbestos. (More about that later in this story.)
Sam Kelly, who owns the three-story home (pictured) next door to 235 Winchester, has grown accustomed to the neighboring neglect. “Nobody goes over there but the raccoons,” he said with a shrug.
Kelly, a 74-year-old carpenter, bought his circa 1920 house in 1981 with his wife Barbara. It’s not blighted, but the property could use some sprucing up. LCI has been after him informally to pull out the paintbrush.
“I’m getting ready to fix up my house,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Hopefully by September I’ll have it done.” He said it was “too hot” Wednesday to get started.
The house bordering the other side of Kelly’s property (pictured behind Kelly at the top of the story) is also abandoned and blighted. A church called the Upper Room Prayer Mission bought it in 1995. After the church’s spiritual leader passed away, the property became largely abandoned. No longer housing a congregation, it lost its tax-exempt status. And it has amassed a back-taxes bill of $52,229.07.
Meanwhile, LCI has struggled to find a responsible party connected to the property with whom to deal, according to Erik Johnson. Johnson said “word” reached someone who did finally cut the grass. He said a potential buyer has expressed interest in the property.
Finally, the next Winchester Avenue property, across Tilton Street, is a once-majestic three-story apartment building that Kenny Hill’s company did restore and rent out—until a Saturday in April when it erupted into flames. It’s now empty, charred, and awaiting repairs (pictured).
Johnson said LCI is not taking action to force repairs because Hill has proved that the property was insured, and he’s just waiting for the check to get work started. A fire inspection found that the fire started after a tenant’s visitor had flicked a cigarette butt over a balcony.
“I’m going to gut it and rebuild it,” Hill said in a conversation Thursday,” “I’m going to have two not good, but great heart properties right in the heart of Science Park at Yale.”
Acrimony Set Aside
Hill has been hoping to turn 235 Winchester into one of those “great” properties since he and a partner Daphne Benas, bought the declining circa 1900 hulk in 2003. Hill had been a star Yale football player before joining the New York Giants. He returned to New Haven to plunge into rehabbing buildings, which he has done in Wooster Square.
They qualified for a federal grant, distributed by the city, to get rid of lead paint. Work stopped after Hill accused the city of forcing him to hire a contractor who messed up the work. The city denied the charge and argued that Hill’s own crew had created a lead problem. Click here to read about how the dispute spiraled and stalemated.
It remained in stalemate in 2007. The city proceeded with an order to demolish the building. (Read about that here.) Hill responded with a lawsuit threat.
And nothing has happened on the property since.
Hill filed a formal complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over claims that the city misused the $150,000 lead abatement grant it spent on 235 Winchester by, in part, improperly choosing the contractor and avoiding “safe work practices.”
HUD’s Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control investigated. Deputy Director Matthew Ammon reported on the results in a March 11, 2010 letter to the city. HUD found Hill’s allegations to be “unsubstantiated,” Ammon wrote. But it also found that the city did “err” in “reporting” the apartments as “cleared” when the lead-abatement work hadn’t been completed. It ordered the city to reimburse HUD $2,800 for for “final clearance sampling” at the property.
“It is unfortunate that lead hazard control work at the property was not completed, as this would have benefited low-income residents of New Haven,” Ammon wrote.
Around the same time, a new boss, Johnson, was taking over LCI, City Hall’s neighborhood anti-blight agency. By both Johnson’s and Hill’s accounts, the tenor of negotiations abruptly changed. Both sides decided to “put aside” the past differences and try to hammer out a solution.
This week lawyers on both sides were discussing the details of what that proposed solution. LCI would give Hill a $150,000 low-interest loan. That would pay for fixing the huge building’s exterior. Up to $25,000 of the the money could go toward remediating any lead found in the building; that $25,000 would be converted into a grant.
And Hill would proceed with fixing up the inside on his own dime, and putting 18 apartments back on line in the shadow of the Science Park-Yale-Winstanley progress machine.
“We’re suspending all the acrimony,” Hill said. “If we can get this deal finalized, it could be a matter of weeks” before work starts in earnest at 235 Winchester with a goal of finishing some time next year.
Then his own monetary bleeding could stop. By his own account, his company has lost over $1 million in lost rents and other costs since 235 Winchester has sat idle. Thanks to the Science Park-driven neighborhood improvement, the property could prove more valuable than ever if fixed back up.
Hill said he has heard some “rumblings” in the neighborhood not about the abandoned eyesore, but about how much rent he might have to charge to make back his money if he does proceed with repairs.
“I don’t want to be the agent of gentrification. But I want it to be nice,” he said. “Here’s the problem with a lot of well-intentioned socially driven initiatives. I think sometimes they have the opposite effect of the intended effects. If you create a situation that limits the attractiveness of the property, then you’re not going to allow people from the community who want to enjoy some of the same things that others areas have. You almost say: ‘If you live in this neighborhood, you can’t have this, you can’t have that.’ People in every community should have choice.”
Before confronting that dilemma, the legal negotiations on the loan have to be completed. Despite the good will on both sides now, the history of contentious dealings leaves no one ready to celebrate until the parties sign their names on the documents.
Meanwhile Erik Johnson noted that property owners have been investing in upgrades not just at Science Park but on the other side of the row of rundown Winchester properties.
“People see that change is coming,” Johnson said. “This is the last bastion of need-to-figure-something-out.”
Tags: Kenny Hill, 235 Winchester Ave., Livable City Initiative, Carter Winstanley, Forest City Ratner
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This area would turn around faster if Winchester became a corridor with some retail, like it used to be.
Currently there isn’t really any retail whatsoever in the vast area between Whitney and Dixwell, other than a huge cluster of food carts. Winchester could be a great location for it, similar to how Orange Street is a good location for retail between Whitney and State.
Unfortunately, Yale’s current strategy is to promote parking lots.
It is a shame that the City allowed these conditions to persist for so many years. I wonder how much investment would have taken place by now if we had had a more aggressive anti-blight strategy.
For the love of god, foreclose on these hideous properties with outstanding back taxes! Rip them down and make a park or sell them off at auction. Either way, start acting, not just talking!
It gets worse, anonymous. We are about to lose our really good (Singapore style) Chinese restaurant.
well something needs to happen, do anyone have any good ideas except fo what needs to be done?
Sounds like Erik Johnson has a good sense of reality and knows that diplomacy and compromise is needed to get $;!? done and improve the city; one step at a time. Nice to see this factory housing preserved also. It’s a big part of our history.
Personally, I am amazed that the best use the City can think of for the valuable land of the former Coliseum is a parking lot. Yale and New Haven are of one mind: What’s good for Yale; New Haven will do, no matter what the consequence. Sad.
But never fear… when Yale decides it want the Winchester/Dixwell corridor, it will be reborn as another tax-exempt development!
The coliseum parking lot is a place holder. I believe the City is working on a development for it.
AMDC, Stephen Harris is right, and as place holders go, I find it very helpful. I can always find a parking space there, and then it is a short walk to the train station. It used to be, I would find the station lot full as often as not, and then would have to drive to another garage to find a space. Add the extra walk, and I often found myself on the next train.
I have read in the comment section for another NHI article that the FBI may build a new building at this location. I don’t think that is a very good use of such a good location.
I know a number of Yale officers would would be very surprised to hear “Yale and New Haven are of one mind: What’s good for Yale; New Haven will do, no matter what the consequence.” Their experience would suggest otherwise. I guess it is a matter of perspective.
As for ideas to make Winchester thrive, I think their are a number of issues to consider.
Safety: Crime deters investment in this area, but also road safety.
Blight: blight feds blight, just as development can feed development. Sometimes, one’s building (house or rental) is only as valuable as the buildings that surround it.
Opportunities: Newhallville was a thriving area so long as Winchester was employing thousands of people. There were many small business that met the needs of that work force (cruel irony, only the Taurus Cafe survives). Unfortunately, we are not going to get an old school manufacturing plant.
So I think the way forward is tricky and requires a parallel approach. The city and private land owners appear to be moving forward. Lt Howell is continuing the work of then Lt Reddish. There is employment coming to the area, but unfortunately, the work does not seam suited to the largely blue collar residents of Newhallville. Another shortcoming is that Carter Winstanley did not support Ivy Bistro (I would have made their rent $1 per month for two years, and utilities included, as a loss leader to spur development.).
Winstanley is in New Haven to make money not lose it. Yale University Properties has been supporting the Ivy Bistro because it is her landlord, keep in mind it took well over a year to open. Coreen will tell you that the Bistro was a guinea pig to see if any retail or eatery would survive in a place where the sidewalk rolls up at 5:30 pm.
The3rdHorseman, I do not expect Winstanley to be relief agency, unlike many of my neighbors. However, if one is spending a hundred million, give or take, chasing tactical money while losing sight of strategy is ill-advised. Toys R Us/Babies R Us sell diapers at or below cost. The company is not trying to help cash strapped families with babies. So these diapers are located at the rear of the store. Toys R Us knows that accompanying children will point out toys they wish to have.
In order to attract tenants (residents and businesses), is not having one or more good eateries across the street a good idea?
If there were street trees in surrounding areas, people might have walked there to shop.
People plan their walking routes based on where there is shade. Without street trees, city streets are baked in the summer, and are not walkable.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 17, 2012 8:40pm
The city and Yale have done a reasonably good job of attracting start-up businesses to Science Park, as well as retaining growing businesses. However, a daytime population of employees can really only support small cafe-type establishments. For instance, in the new Higher One complex, there is a small cafe in the main artium space that sells coffee and sandwiches and the like.
Similarly, a large population of underemployed full-time residents can really only support bodega-type establishments, like convenience and package stores, which is what we see in neighborhoods like Dixwell and Newhallville (over-generalization, but the point remains).
In order to support a dense, solid network of commercial establishments similar to what we see in the Westville Village, Upper State Street or Grand Avenue, there needs to be both a daytime population of employees and a full-time population of working residents nearby.
Therefore, the next important step after attracting employment centers to an area is to attract employees to live nearby and encourage existing residents to find employment and remain in the neighborhood. A jobs pipeline can perhaps help with this, but it’s really ineffective without homebuyers programs, facade restoration grants, and public infrastructure maintenance projects.