New Haven has hundreds of new apartments that most people can’t afford to rent? Not to worry — other rents may go down as a result. And no one’s being displaced.
An out-of-town company bought a local factory and is sending its workforce to Meriden? Not to worry — the workers will keep their jobs, and a new owner will bring more jobs than before the local factory.
Welcome to the new New Haven, as observed by Pedro Soto.
Soto has made those observations from close range: He is the president of the New Haven Development Commission. And he ran (and now still works for) an East Street-based jet-engine parts manufacturer called Space-Craft.
During his six years on the Development Commission — which mostly previews and reviews economic development projects rather than casting binding votes — Soto has watched a market-rate apartment and now hotel building boom take hold. He used to watch the city need to lure builders with tax incentives. With a few exceptions (like this one) the city no longer needs to pay people to build market-rate projects. At this month’s commission meeting alone, Soto said, city officials briefed members on 17 development projects in the works including five potential hotels.
Meanwhile, the city has struggled to keep and lure well-paying jobs like the ones at Space-Craft, which Soto’s father John started in 1970. (Read a story about that here.) A corporation called DRT Power Systems has bought the company. Soto has remained on in sales. DRT is moving the 50-member skilled workforce to a Meriden plant. Most of those workers will be staying with the company, Soto said. He said another business, Lucky Climbers, plans to move in to the East Street plant. Because of advances in technology, Space-Craft needed the deeper pockets of a larger corporation to invest in new equipment and engage in the “fierce competition” for highly-skilled workers, Soto said.
Soto, who grew up in Orange and now lives in Westville with his wife and young son, plays a role formerly filled in New Haven by executives of local banks and larger factories and partners in locally based white-shoe law firms, back when New Haven had significantly sized local banks and larger factories and white-shoe law firms: Civic volunteer leader. He has served as president of the preservation trust and on boards of organizations ranging from Gateway Community College to the now-defunct Elm City Market coop. His is a reasoned, calm, informed, engaged voice in an era of apoplectic talking-head public debate.
And he sits through a lot of meetings.
While he shares the concerns about affordable housing and manufacturing decline, Soto has a basically upbeat take on New Haven’s recent fortunes. He offered that take during an appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program. He also wrestled with how gray areas in preservation debates come into play when a community decides whether or not to allow developers to demolish older buildings, like the former Webster Bank at 80 Elm and the Church Street South apartment complex.
Gentrification? Or Looming Correction?
“I think it’s great that market-rate apartments are showing up all over town,” Soto said, from the Novella on Howe Street to the Corsair in Goatville, from the soon-to-start Hill development on long-underused surface lots in the Hill and Audubon Square on a flattened “superblock” off Orange and Grove to five separate projects on just one block of Crown Street.
Those developments bring more people into town. They create jobs. They build up the tax base.
They have also raised wide concerns about gentrification. Many families, especially working families earning above the poverty line, have trouble finding affordable places to live. Monthly downtown rents have hit a high of $6,200.
Soto noted that New Haven has been building quality low-income housing as well, from the new Farnam Courts complex currently taking shape on Grand Avenue to set-asides of 10 to 30 percent of subsidized units in market projects like Randy Salvatore’s in the Hill. “New Haven moves in both directions,” he said.
Gentrification traditionally involves displacing poor renters by converting existing low-rent apartments into upgraded high-rent housing, Soto noted. Almost all the new construction in New Haven is taking place on empty lots or in empty buildings, displacing no one, he said. One exception was the purchase of the Hotel Duncan by a developer of upscale “boutique” inns. Soto noted that the developer and the city’s housing authority promptly found new apartments, many nearby, for the tenants booted from the single-room-occupancy units after the sale.
Soto disagreed with the notion that the new market rate apartments will raise rents elsewhere in town for existing tenants. Rather, he said, they can just as easily increase supply and drive down prices elsewhere. In any event, he predicted “We’re building at such a rate, at some point, we’ll reach a tipping point.” That will produce a market correction that drives down rents at even some of the newer buildings, he predicted. A similar process took place when condo developers overbuilt in Fair Haven in the 1980s. Many observers predict a similar correction at sites like Winchester Lofts, a converted factory complex which opened with two-bedrooms renting for $3,000 a month.
Timely Clock Plan
One project currently before city regulators does involve a large subsidy: a $40 million plan to convert an abandoned clock factory complex on Hamilton Street into 130 apartments for low-to-moderate-income artists and “makers.” The developer, the Portland, Oregon-based Reed Realty Group, seeks a full 15-year tax freeze at the current rate, which nets the city $46,000 a year.
That proposal has won the support of city officials and citizens at a recent management team meeting. It produced extensive debate among Independent readers, some of whom argue that the city can’t afford to hand out such breaks any more, and doesn’t need to.
“The ask is pretty big,” Soto acknowledged. But he said he supports the proposal because of unique circumstances: The city has tried for decades to find someone to rescue the historic clock factory, without success until now. He called this proposal the last chance to save it — and to clean up the pollution there. The developers plan to undertake a $6.5 million clean-up, with the state covering $4 million of the cost and the city another $400,000.
“You’re not giving anything up,” Soto noted. “Nobody is going to come clean it up” if this proposal fails. He also noted that the project will create affordable, not luxury, housing.
When To Demolish?
While preservation is close to Soto’s heart, he doesn’t automatically oppose demolition. Two recent projects reveal the nuances of his position: He supports the planned demolition and rebuilding from scratch of the Church Street South apartment complex, but does not side with fellow preservationists trying to save the former Webster Bank building at 80 Elm St.
He was pressed in the radio interview from both sides — accused first of being dogmatically pro-preservation, then of being insufficiently pro-preservation. Excerpts of that exchange follow:
WNHH: This is the thing that gets me about historic preservation. If you go to the outside of that building, it’s pretty ugly.
A lot of times historic preservationists say even if something was butt ugly in its day, that eventually becomes historic. So we have to spend a lot more money to retain [features] to show us how butt-ugly things were. Why is it important to do that?
Pedro Soto: One person’s butt-ugly is someone else’s beauty in a different era. In the 1950s and ‘60s all these gorgeous Victorian buildings in the city were destroyed across the city because they were considered ugly. When you see pictures, you say, ‘What were they thinking?”
In 50 years the building might be gorgeous. Modernism is having its heyday.
But in the ‘50s and ‘60s we tore down beautiful buildings and built ugly, inhumane structures, some of which we’ve knocked down soon. Now preservationists may say we’ve got to [keep] those ugly structures because [they represent] an historical moment.
It’s hard. Some buildings age better than others. I would say a complex which was lauded in its day and probably should be demolished is Church Street South. That won national awards.
Jonathan Hopkinsthinks that should be saved.
He’s a very, very smart guy.
Why would you tear it down?
Because I think the buildings are in terrible shape. And I just think the whole point about how the buildings are, they are large units, which is nice. But they’re kind of impersonal. I don’t think that the type of living that it has is what that area needs. It turns inward.
It’s ugly and dehumanizing. Preservations might say, “Keep it. We might change our minds in 20 years.”
Some would. I don’t think anyone from the Preservation Trust has raised their hand to keep it. [Read Hopkins’ argument here.]
What about the Webster Bank building?
That’s a good question. I’m a little conflicted on that one. I think bank buildings are really hard. Once they’re a bank, they’re really hard to turn into anything other than a blank in a bank.
This wasn’t originally a bank. This was a church.
Once you’ve gone past the point where the building is a church, it’s not a church anymore. It’s a churchy bank building.
Now I’m going the other way around on you. What about those buildings we tore down in the ‘50s and ‘60s? They were no longer their original uses. Some were theaters. The use can change. There’s still value in the original.
Definitely I agree. I think that this building wouldl have a very hard time being reused. And I think that that’s the hard part. Optimally you want to find a reuse first above all else. I think this building, especially where it is sited downtown in one of the few [lots] we can probably put a very good tower on, it probably is going to get demolished. It would surprise me if it was stopped.
Sometimes you can gibe economics and historic preservation pretty nicely. The Winchester factories, for example, were beautifully restored. That makes it a better project. In most cases adaptive reuse makes for better projects. It’s hard when a building has a difficult use.
Sometimes you can do a facade-ectomy. You destroy the building behind it and preserve the front of the building. In this case you’re not gaining much. I don’t know how you can restore the building.
Click on or download the above audio file or Facebook Live video below for the full interview with Pedro Soto on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.