After thwarting other developers’ plans for years with ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits, a Philadelphia-based landlord criticized for not maintaining a Wooster Square apartment complex has gone to court yet again to try to stop a competitor from building on vacant property across Chapel Street.
Through an affiliated company, the Philadelphia-based PMC Property Group, which owns the renovated Strouse-Adler Smoothie Garment Factory apartment complex at 78 Olive St., has initiated a second round of litigation against a potential competitor across the street, this time against the local government, the City Plan Commission and rival developer Spinnaker Residential, LLC.
The lawsuit, filed in New Haven’s Superior Court on July 17, seeks injunctive relief to prevent any permits from being issued to Spinnaker to redevelop the former Comcast service center 630 Chapel St. into an upscale housing development with 200 luxury apartments and ground-floor storefronts.
Last time around, with three separate lawsuits, PMC tried to find fault in city planners’ approval of zoning changes that would allow taller buildings on the corner. A Superior Court judge, Thomas J. Corrandino, disagreed with PMC’s contention that the change constituted “illegal spot zoning,” writing that it instead seemed in keeping with the city’s intent to locate denser “transit-oriented development” near downtown. The lawsuits slowed down plans to build two separate developments that would bring hundreds of new apartments and new life to a no-man’s land between Wooster Square and downtown.
This time, PMC argues that Spinnaker’s development will damage the environment.
The reason? A strip of grass is set to be replaced with porous pavement.
PMC’s lawsuit argues that “flawed” design won’t drain stormwater runoff as effectively and could negatively impact the water quality in Long Island Sound and risk flooding in New Haven.
“The Modified Site Plan and any development consistent with [it] involves conduct which is reasonably likely to have the effect of unreasonably polluting, impairing or destroying the public trust in the air, water or other natural resources of the State within the jurisdiction of the [City Plan] Commission,” argues the complaint that attorney Jeffrey Mirman prepared for 78 Olive Street Partners, LLC.
Mirman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Spinnaker and the city’s top economic development official both called the suit a ruse.
“This is the latest attempt by our neighbors, 78 Olive Street Partners, to file lawsuits to thwart this transformational development,” Spinnaker said in a statement. “We successfully defended [PMC’s] opposition to a zone change, two site plan approvals, and most recently, an environment action.”
Spinnaker pointed out that Superior Court and Appellate Court judges have rejected all PMC’s previous arguments. “This latest lawsuit filed is similar to the most recent one that was dismissed, and we believe the result will be similar,” the statement read.
In this case, PMC’s lawyer argues that the porous pavement that’s slated to be installed in the back driveway won’t work. Ideally, rainwater would drain to the flowing groundwater underneath, but the lawsuit argues that a subsurface stormwater detention in the middle will get in the way.
“Rather than soak into the underlying soils as presumed in the design of the Modified Site Plan, the water that infiltrates into the porous pavement has a preferred pathway to the stormwater pipes and manholes and will infiltrate into those,” the complaint reads.
Because New Haven’s zoning code strictly requires no net increase in stormwater runoff and the state laws prohibit unreasonable pollution, PMC argues it has a case of environmental degradation.
(Giovanni Zinn, the city’s engineer who advises the City Plan Commission, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Matthew Nemerson, the city’s economic development chief, said he believes PMC wants to keep competition away from the area — a prime spot within walking distance of State Street Station — to put off much-needed repairs at the Strouse-Adler.
“it’s clearly just a stall tactic,” Nemerson said at an economic development meeting at City Hall on Tuesday morning. “It’s very, very disappointing to have somebody who’s a major landowner in town, PMC, suing another developer. It’s unbelievable. It’s not the rules of engagement. I mean, developers are supposed to be working together to make a city better.” He added, “We really need people who believe in the future of New Haven and are going to be working with us to invest and improve the town. Lawsuits are not the way to do that.”
To speed the process, Nemerson said, he personally tried to buy out PMC from the Strouse-Adler — a standing offer, he reiterated Tuesday — and other developers are rumored to have done so as well. (Spinnaker laywer Jim Perito would not confirm whether the company also put in a bid.) PMC turned him down, leaving Nemerson without other options to speed the process, he said.
“America is a country of laws, and people can use the court as a first resort or a last resort to get what they want,” Nemerson said. “We’re holding the hands of the developer and saying, ‘We are so sorry. Please don’t leave: It’s not our fault.”
In late 2013, when Spinnaker shopped proposals to the local community management team, the company predicted it could complete the project within 18 months. Yet four years later, without a groundbreaking scheduled, the company still says it has no intention of giving up.
“We are fully committed to our apartment community, which will be transformative to the Wooster section of New Haven. We are just as excited and determined to see this community come to fruition as we were in 2013,” Spinnaker’s statement said. “Our development will not only bring much needed housing, jobs, and pedestrian activity to the immediate area, but will increase the tax base of the City.
“To the City of New Haven and especially to the citizens of Wooster Square,” the statement concluded, “the Lofts at Wooster maybe temporarily delayed, but we are undeterred.”
In the meantime, the corner is largely empty, the alcoves along Chapel Street serving as canvases for taggers and resting spots for the homeless. Aside from the Italian food on Wooster Street, the rest of the area lacks retail, especially now that Fuel Coffee Shop is gone, Nemerson pointed out. “It needs to be more of a neighborhood,” Nemerson said. “People want places to hang out.”
A separate development at 87 Union St., which PMC also tried to sue out of existence, is not subject to the latest round of litigation. “We’re moving forward” on the 299-unit, market-rate apartment complex, Noel Petra said in a phone interview Tuesday.
A judge is scheduled to hear arguments on PMC’s motion for a temporary injunction on Aug. 28.