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A Son Of Urban Renewal Returns, To Rebuild

by Paul Bass | Mar 12, 2014 3:31 pm

(24) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development

Paul Bass Photos Robert Landino’s dad’s gang helped tear down New Haven. Now it’s the son’s turn to reshape his hometown’s landscape.

Landino (pictured at left), who runs Centerplan Development Company, is behind two $50 million building projects in town right now, neither of which is receiving public subsidies:

• His $50 million “College & Crown” project has broken ground and will fill the block of College Street across from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Its five-story buildings will house 160 luxury studio and one- and two-bedroom rental apartments as well as 20,000 square feet of street-level retail. A Stamford Wrecking crew the other day finished demolishing (pictured above) the one-story College Plaza storefronts that occupied a corner of the block surrounded by surface parking lots.

• His $50 million plan for building on a 5.39-acre surface lot on Legion Avenue is currently the subject of public hearings and approvals. (Click here for the latest meeting; another takes place Thursday night at 7 p.m. in City Hall’s Board of Alders chambers.) The block-long lot would house a new headquarters for the not-for-profit Continuum of Care mental-health agency, a pharmacy, a medical office building or hotel, and a parking garage.

The latter project is the first part of a broader effort by the city to bring new life to 16.2 fallow acres along Route 34/Legion Avenue. The idea is to fix a mistake from a half-century ago, when government razed a neighborhood there during the bulldozer-happy “slum clearance” days of urban renewal. In the name of eradicating poverty, New Haven spent more money per capita than any other American city tearing down buildings and demolishing neighborhoods.

Landino knows about those days. His dad, the late Al Landino, served as City Hall’s development chief during much of that time under then-Mayor Dick Lee. He started in 1963, after the leveling of Route 34, but continued shepherding projects through.

His dad stuck with Lee through Lee’s 1969 retirement. Robert, born in 1960, received an early education in urban planning.

“My dad was part of the Great Society. Oakland and New Haven were the laboratories for urban renewal,” Landino recalled in an interview in the Independent’s offices along with his development partner in the current New Haven projects, Yves George-Joseph.  “We heard about it at the dinner table.”

Eventually Al Landino heard about it, too. From his son.

A Not-So-Prodigal Path After All

Robert Landino, who’s 53, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in New Haven’s middle-class Beaver Hills neighborhood. He walked to school at St. Bernadette’s. His father Al came to New Haven with his family from Italy, originally settling in a rundown building on Grand Avenue. That building met the wrecking ball as part of urban renewal—and Al was glad, according to his son. That meant progress.

Young Robert had a hard time understanding that. “I argued with my dad throughout my adolescent life about urban renewal,” he recalled. He criticized the crowded new public-housing projects that his father helped get built around town to house families displaced by urban renewal. “You didn’t grow up where I did, which had no running water, horrible conditions,” Robert remembered his father responded. His father argued that the dense new projects “got the most bang for the buck,” creating lots of clean apartments to give poor families a better chance in life.

Robert didn’t plan to follow in his father’s urban-development footsteps. “I was an English major heading for a journalism major,” he recalled, “when I decided to switch to engineering.” He became a civil engineer, built a successful career while also serving time as a state legislator from the Essex area. He no longer lived in New Haven. His work did bring him back: He worked for the developers of the Ninth Square revival in the 1990s, for instance.

Eventually he decided to become a developer himself, founding Middletown-based Centerplan Companies. He has overseen the building of more than a million square feet of offices, stores, and housing over the past four years.

Along the way, he kept an eye on the new wave of urban renewal taking place in New Haven, where planners claimed to have learned from the mistakes of Al Landino’s era: They now sought walkable, human-scale projects that mixed fun and work and living, rather than mammoth unfriendly single-use car-oriented projects such as the Chapel Square Mall, Knights of Columbus Museum (formerly a “human services” building, believe it or not), the New Haven Coliseum.

Seven years ago he bought the block on College Street for about $7 million. He wanted to build a $140 million 19-story tower with 272 high-priced residential condos. He won necessary approvals from the city. He cleared out tenants from the small commercial plaza.

Then the recession hit. Banks were reluctant to finance luxury condos. Landino decided to sit on the property until the market changed.

Meanwhile, he looked west, to the cleared land on Legion Avenue. Three years ago he approached then-Mayor John DeStefano with a plan to start building there. The mayor said no thanks.

Chris Bockstael, Svigals Partners architects

Then Landino heard that Continuum of Care was looking to build a new headquarters to consolidate its fast-growing offices. City Hall wanted to keep Continuum in town. Landino’s Centerplan formed a partnership with Continuum. They negotiated a deal with the city to buy the 5.65-acre lot across from Career High School to build the office-retail project.

Matthew Nemerson, who today holds Landino’s father’s old job as top City Hall development official, applauded the younger Landino’s work in New Haven.

“As a planner, engineer, politician and developer how could we ever find someone who better understands the intersection of public and private needs, history and the future and the necessary compromises of planning, design and ROI [return on investment]?  We need to celebrate and embrace people who can make money while making the city a better place,” Nemerson said.

Landino said he sees his mission as building back up an area destroyed by his father’s generation in city government.

Robert said he grew up critical as well about the strategy behind the destruction of neighborhoods, though he didn’t remember Route 34 in particular coming up during his arguments with his dad, who died in 1995. “We never talked about the fact that it split the neighborhood. Oh, we’d have some good conversations if he were around today.”

While he still sees the clearing of all that land as a mistake and the construction of projects like the original Quinnipiac Terrace and Farnam Courts as mistakes, he said, he came to understand why his father felt differently.

“I thought about my father’s life experiences,” Landino said. “He thought he was doing something great. So did every academic.”

Some suggested the plan repeats mistakes of the urban renewal period by not including housing, and by including parking. In a community meeting Sunday, Landino’s team and city officials made promises to put more greenery on the block; include solar panels (he has a company that does that); and limit the amount of parking as much as feasible. Mayor Toni Harp promised that the other 16.2 acres of fallow Route 34 land stretching to the Boulevard will include plenty of housing, with the public involved in drawing up the plan. Meanwhile, other citizens have repeatedly applauded the project for beginning to bring activity back to the area, not to mention jobs and a projected $950,000 in annual tax revenues.

Landino and Joseph (pictured) said they appreciated the criticisms as part of a healthy democratic process. “We’re the transition site from a dense commercial neighborhood to a residential neighborhood,” Landino said.

“He’d Be Thrilled”

Centerplan

Meanwhile, the real-estate market picked up. It would still prove tough to obtain financing to build condos on the College Street lot, which borders Crown, High, and George Streets. But New Haven’s downtown rental market was hot, as evidence by the success of the 360 State tower blocks away.

The College Street block lay waiting, leased to a private parking-lot operator.

Eighteen months ago Landino and Joseph returned to New Haven with a revised, scaled-down plan for market-rate rental apartments with ground-floor retail on the block, at about a third of the height of the previous version.

This one provoked little to no opposition. The main help the builders needed from the city was permission to have less parking than allowed by law, just one space per apartment. And the builders decided to put almost all the parking spaces underground. Two pluses in New Haven’s current new urbanist, urban renewal-weary political landscape. College & Crown won easy zoning relief. Work has begun; Landino aims for a late-summer of fall 2015 opening.

Landino’s father’s legacy hovers over this project too: The Lee administration brought market-rate apartment buildings to the land it cleared in that area: University Towers, Madison Towers, and Crown Towers.

“He’d be thrilled” with the College & Crown project, Landino said of his dad.

Landino said he hopes to lure young professionals, hospital workers, Yale-related renters to his new project. He just might lure some of them from the towers built a block or two away in his father’s day.

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posted by: Threefifths on March 12, 2014  6:26pm

People when are you going to wake up.It is in front of you.You will be gone.While they are all dining out at fancy restaurants,Most over you will be struggling to find a cheap meal and a cheap place to live.When the wealthy newcomers completely transform lower-income urban neighborhood into hipster haven,You all will be priced out and pushing out. corner stores turn into expensive organic markets, their apartment buildings become “quaint”, “vintage” and more expensive, and their Asian grocery stores become froyo joints.

Gentrification animated.


http://youtu.be/WavTSjJkL0U

posted by: NYC Croc on March 12, 2014  6:52pm

I greatly applaud Robert Landino and his company Centerplan for their deep understanding of the Urban Renewal short comings and mistakes of the past. I appreciate his desire to correct the development of these valuable lands in such a well thought out modern, not solely self-serving way unlike that of other developers who have been in town over the years.  It would of course take a man who was so close to the actions of the Lee administration to correct that course set back a half-century ago.  I believe his new developments would truly make his dad proud and the new community that they will build will create a vibrancy so long awaited by all citizens of New Haven.  I am also very satisfied knowing that he understands the illustrious spirit filled history of the land on College St that they purchased not but 25 yards from the actual location in which the first settlers landed in the Hector back in 1638.  His Centerplan group are the new caretakers of 376 years of developed history in that space and I am sure that those new professional settlers that will come there when its finished will enjoy greatly his vision of the mix use green future. Thanks Bob, Its about time.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 12, 2014  8:09pm

It’s really too bad the condominium tower didn’t happen, as downtown New Haven is in need of more condos, particularly ones that aren’t townhouse-style, with stairs that aren’t senior friendly.

As to the apartment building, thank god it’s getting built! So much better than the surface parking lot and blighted corner office building that sat fallow for far too many years. Absorbing those 160 units should be nothing more than a blip in a robust downtown housing market.

Maybe Landino will have the juice to do something about downtown’s club related violence?

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 12, 2014  8:20pm

PS—It’s wrong to refer to the 5.39 acre, Route 34 parcel as simply a block, when in fact it’s equivalent to two, or even three city blocks. So call it a mega-block, super-block or whatever, and shame on the powers that be that it’s not slated to be divided down to a more human scale.

So far, Karen Gilvarg has completely failed the City on the entire western corridor.

PPS—Do we have any idea of what’s going to appear on the parcel? Continuum of Care will take up a half-acre, the newRite-Aid another acre, but what about the remaining four acres? Will it be more big box retail? An Applebee’s or some other destination restaurant? A new chain hotel? A TD Bank? Are the developers even committed to building anything in the near future?

posted by: 14yearsinNHandgone on March 13, 2014  7:21am

Wait, so we get a balanced piece about the public meeting over this parcel that shows both sides, and most commenters express indignation at the lack of RFP and how it’s going to a former Harp ally and state politician.

Then days later we get this huge puff piece about how great Landino is that literally could not mention his political career any less than it did.

This is fair and balanced in the great Fox News tradition.  What strings did Nemerson have to pull to get this article written?

posted by: shadesofzero on March 13, 2014  8:37am

Threefifths rallies hard against gentrification. Great. It’s easy to be against gentrification. But if property values and taxes and the neighborhood don’t go up, then where do they go? Keeping neighborhoods poor might be more “authentic”, but who does it help? The people who live there? Does it help crime? Does it make the neighborhoods more attractive?

Does anybody look at New York City now and miss the days when people were afraid to ride the subway?

posted by: robn on March 13, 2014  8:42am

I’m surprised at the lack of RFP for such a large parcel. This is the first I’ve heard about it. An RFP would indicate what private sector development thinks is the highest and best use of the parcel.

posted by: romby on March 13, 2014  8:46am

I am no urban planner but it appears that the College Crown Project, with its location so close to the new Alexion headquarters is the sort of smart development strategy that will begin to fix what ails New Haven.

The value added to this area of the city is apparent to me: a spectrum of high-quality jobs, substancial property taxes, pedestrians on the street at all hours improving public safety. This is accomplished without increasing commuter car traffic, nor proliferating surface parking spaces and without public subsidies.

(BTW I don’t think all can be said for the Continuum Care building)

This project is overwhelming positive for the city of New Haven. It will create opportunities at all levels including people currently struggling to make ends meet. Vibrant cities are always adapting and evolving to provide better opportunities for citizens.

The alternative is a dying city full of cheap rents and meals but losing population, losing employers, underfunding services like education and trapping people at the lowest rung with the fewest resources within the city limits.

posted by: meta on March 13, 2014  10:33am

Who is the architect for this project?
robn- there was an RFP for this site long ago in which Landino & RAMSA won (link above re 19-story).

but like the Colisuem site (an RFP was issued- http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/will_downtown_grow_to_ten_squares/), ultimately the project went to LLWP without much public input(?).

transparency is anathema to City Hall.

posted by: TheMadcap on March 13, 2014  10:51am

I wish the larger building hadn’t been scrapped. I’m not one someone who thinks NH should be a city of skyscrapers, but there is a few block radius where tall buildings can be appropriate, and this is right in that area. If downtown can support say 8,000 high cost apartments(random number), I’d rather have those going vertical than spreading horizontally and kicking more of the non upper class out.(not to mention you’re able to squeeze more tax dollars out of the same amount of land area)

posted by: ctguy on March 13, 2014  11:05am

I attended some of the community meetings for this and am a little surprised at the lack of questions about some details of this package. It was not clear how much the benefit to the city would be. It was not clear what would happen to the cars currently parking there. There is no requirement of what is going to be built, it could well be another hole in the ground. The part spoken about as a hotel is also called residences, what type of residences? The developer rep kept saying that they paid appraised value. What type of appraised market or property tax? How much will the city receive in taxes? There is 7.5 million in state aid in this deal no one wants to talk about also, where did that come from?

posted by: robn on March 13, 2014  11:56am

META,

3 sites are discussed in this article and you’re confusing them.

The George/College/Crown site (across from COOP Arts High School) is owned outright by Landino so the city has no say. His earlier tower design was by CL Company (as design build firm that Landino used to run) Landinos renderings are credited to Landinos current company Centerplan, which I believe is also a design build firm. Svigals Architects were involved at some point, but the design has been significantly simplified and watered down since then so I’m not sure. What a difference 9 months can make.
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/50m_building_okd_for_college_george/

The Coliseum site (10th Square) is owned by the city and was originally put out in an RFP and won by Northland Investment (with Architect Stern). Their option to develop expired during the recession and later, in desperation, the city reviewed an unsolicited offer by LLWP…so this site sort of had an RFP to help the city sort out true market potential.

The Rt.34/Legion Avenue Site (across from Career High School) is owned by the city and has not, to my knowledge, been put out in an RFP. Landinos renderings indicate Svigals Architects are involved.

posted by: SSSS on March 13, 2014  11:59am

I love how people complain about taxes, and then they complain about gentrification.  How do you expect to grow the grand list without gentrification?

I’m pro-gentrification…let’s make the city nicer.

I’m tired of hearing complaints by a few vocal commenters here who simply dismiss everyone and everything as corruption/continuing down the path of ruin.  It’s fine if you disagree with a specific proposal.  However, please provide an alternate solution for growing the grand list instead of complaining.

posted by: anonymous on March 13, 2014  12:29pm

SSSS, making the city nicer is a great idea. I think most people agree with you as long as it can be done fairly. 

The more specific question is whether the Route 34 proposal does that, or whether it simply “locks in” the mistakes of the past, and ensures that that section of the city will continue to be a divided neighborhood that never improves in any way.

posted by: SSSS on March 13, 2014  1:34pm

anonymous…fair question, but very different than one of gentrification.  Either an area improves or not.  I certainly wouldn’t support something that wouldn’t improve the area.  My problem is with those who wouldn’t support something because it would improve the area (the basic cause of gentrification).

posted by: A Contrarian on March 13, 2014  1:49pm

I’m not against towers, but I’m glad one won’t go up here.  The new plan is much more fitting for the scale of High and Crown Streets, and the building won’t loom over the lovely Atwater House, the gem next door in Crown St., and the other precious survivals of the neighborhood.  Wish it were prettier, though.  This design keeps getting worse as it approaches construction.

Condos would be better placed on the Green—perhaps the Cross & Cross building will be converted after a short time as rental apartments.

posted by: wendy1 on March 13, 2014  2:23pm

I agree with AndrsonScooper.

@Shadesofzero—-How much do you make a year?  Most New Havenites dont make a living wage and will not be able to afford an apt. or condo in ANY of these new projects.  And there are no jobs here except maybe now in construction depending on your connections.  Where do you want to warehouse us, the poor???

posted by: anonymous on March 13, 2014  2:24pm

Gentrification is caused by a city not having enough housing.  The wealthier people who really want a 2BR apartment but can’t find one will buy two 1BR apartments and combine them (this example is an abstraction of how urban space is used, but I’ve seen it happen many times in New Haven and elsewhere).

When the city, state, Yale, and other private developers make huge investments into our infrastructure and office buildings, without providing for enough additional housing, it causes gentrification.  You have more workers than houses.  This is what is happening in Brooklyn.

For every $50,000 spent to build a new commuter parking space in this area ($50,000+ is the cost of one space in a garage), the city should require that at least $50,000 is set aside for affordable housing. 

I don’t see any evidence of that here - evidence that our city and state government do not care about addressing the challenges faced by our city, other than on a superficial level.

posted by: Threefifths on March 13, 2014  2:56pm

@ SSSS You said However, please provide an alternate solution for growing the grand list instead of complaining.
Here it is.

1. Push fine grained development instead of large, mega-block developments. When large developers are the primary landowners and the only players in the development game, gentrification happens more quickly as profit trumps community concerns.

2. Encourage self-investment. When people begin to invest in their own homes instead of government targeting a specific location for investment, this acts as revitalization without the ill-effects of intense investment in a neighborhood

3. Implement blanket city policies for revitalization, rather than piecemeal reactive policies intended to halt displacement. Blanket city policy puts in place the effect of “a rising tide lifts all boats” whereas targeted geographically-based policies can result in pockets of gentrification

4. Don’t try to make over existing urban neighborhoods into the posh suburban look and feel you may be used to. Respect and maintain the eclectic, diverse and colorful vibe that attracted you to the urban neighborhood in the first place.

posted by: Stylo on March 14, 2014  12:47am

@Threefifths, your image of gentrification sounds awesome! Go gentrification, go.

I’ll take froyo over gangs and homicides.

And maybe some of the lower class will rise up with all the new jobs that will be available in a less depressed, economically strong city with a better tax base. Imagine that!

posted by: SSSS on March 14, 2014  10:31am

@3/5

Completely agree with point #4.  As for points 1-3, it sounds good but also pretty vague. 

I don’t have an understanding of how to do this from a policy perspective…maybe you do.

posted by: Serf of New Haven on March 14, 2014  5:19pm

Landino is a master of the ugly and cheap bio warehouse building.
Please check his website for examples.

His father, though well-intentioned, was another master of the ugly and the cheap. Please check appropriate areas of New Haven where his shameful legacy exists.

His latest rendering has been scaled down to look like a ‘nice’ college dorm. The dumbing down twice of original plans could be seen as a fraud. They were simply used to get the city to use its powers of tenant removal and eminent domain so he could secure the lot.

As this shyster moves forward I hope he doesn’t further uglify the edifice of this structure. I hope we at least get what we see presently. A ninth square redux with perhaps a few more details.

I agree with everyone that the original plans were much better. It saddens me we couldn’t do better in the heart of downtown.

It is a sad state of affairs when cities are denied there true potential by rampant nepotism and insider cronies. That city lawyers draft these land agreements for insiders and not for the people.
They’re should be riders in these contracts for developers to commit to original renderings or forfeit the property. Time to take out the ‘reasonable’ language that is the wordsmith of a corrupt judicial and its crafty lawyers and judges.

Sold another false bill of goods.
Thank you sir, may I have another.

Oh well, let’s just hope he gets an epiphany while building and goes the extra mile for New Haven to make up for his fathers’ disappointing legacy. By all observation of his past work I think we are in for some more 50 year eye sores.

Please prove me wrong Mr. Landino.

posted by: robn on March 15, 2014  8:27am

On June 11 2013, attorney Tony Avallone (who’s currently being pushed by Dan Malloy for a judgeship) and Landino were granted zoning variances by the BZA. At that meeting their architect….

“pointed out the varying roof line and other architectural details, designed to “break down” the scale of the building. The goal is to create a building that feels more like row houses than a monolith.”

Why is the city allowing a completely different simplified monolithic design to proceed when it was not the design presented to acquire the variance ? How many times does New Haven have to suffer this kind of bait and switch?

posted by: OneCityManyDreams on March 18, 2014  2:46pm

I hope he has a chance to undo the damage. Richard C. Lee et al destroyed New Haven.  Here it is. 50 years later and we are still paying the bill.  No one has ever done more damge to the town than this man. He was a corrupt and utter disgrace.

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