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Erik Johnson’s Staying; LCI’s Leaving

by | Jun 11, 2014 8:03 am

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

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, City Hall, Housing

Thomas MacMillan Photo Mayor Toni Harp convinced her top neighborhoods official to turn down a Hartford job offer by giving him a $22,000 raise—and a new mission.

The official, Erik Johnson, executive director of the Livable City Initiative (LCI) neighborhood anti-blight and development agency, had already told Hartford’s city government he would accept a new job there as the number-two development chief. He was to begin the job on July 7 at a $125,000 salary, according to his would-be new boss.

“Erik, do I have a crack at [keeping] you?” Mayor Harp asked him after learning the news, she recalled in a City Hall interview Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m willing to listen,” Johnson replied.

Harp then decided, she said, that “we’ve got to do everything we can do to keep him.”

Paul Bass Photo That was more than a week ago. Harp dispatched her chief of staff, Tomas Reyes (at left in photo, with Harp), to negotiate with Johnson to keep him on. Those negotiations continued through this past weekend.

“This wasn’t all about money,” Reyes said. Money was an issue—Johnson’s New Haven salary had been slated to rise to $98,230 in the new fiscal year beginning July 1. But Johnson also sought to redefine the mission of LCI itself. Harp had promised to do that in last year’s mayoral campaign.

The negotiations ended with a two-part agreement: Harp will raise Johnson’s salary to $120,000. She will do that by dissolving LCI and creating a new version, which Johnson will head.

The new version will hearken back to a previous mission. LCI will continue to oversee code enforcement. But its central focus will now become housing and neighborhood development. Harp said the working title for the agency is the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development (OHND). That’s what the agency was called before former Mayor John DeStefano dismantled it in the 1990s to create LCI, with its mission of at first bulldozing vacant homes, then tackling blight and assigning individual problem-solving staffers to different neighborhoods.

“I want to get away from this Livable City brand and get back to OHND,” Harp said.

Johnson confirmed Reyes’ and Harp’s account of the negotiations and the outcome.

“The mayor can be persuasive,” he said. “She is committed to building a better New Haven.”

Harp said the details of how OHND will carry out the mission remain to be worked out. Her administration was tentatively planning a press conference for some time Wednesday to announce the broad new changes.

In his new capacity, Johnson will still technically report to city Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson. But he will assume day-to-day responsibility for housing and other development projects in city neighborhoods. “Matt is the guy I’m sending out to get companies to locate here,” Harp said.

Harp noted that Johnson had planned to leave City Hall at a crucial time for three major development efforts he had been overseeing:

• The remaking of the parking lot-infested stretch connecting downtown with the train station and the Yale medical area in the Hill, including Church Street South, back into a busy, walkable neighborhood chocked with housing and offices and/or stores. Johnson, along with former development chief Kelly Murphy, crafted a detailed “Hill-to-Downtown” plan in conjunction with neighbors. He shepherded the plan’s overall vision to approvals. Now it needs to be filled in on the ground. Click here and here, here, here, and here to read more about that.

• The reclaiming of 16.2 acres of abandoned median land along Route 34 between Dwight Street and the Boulevard, property the city bulldozed a half-century ago to make way for a highway that was never built. Johnson shepherded to approval a $50 million plan to build new offices, stores and a hotel on the first 5.39 acres of that land. Now he’ll oversee the planning for the rest of the land, including an upcoming “charette” with neighbors, some of whom opposed the first 5.39-acre plan as a suburban-style office-retail strip-park with no housing and too much parking. The goal is to create a walkable neighborhood again with a mix of housing and stores. Click here, here, here, and here to read more about that.

• The construction of a new urbanist-style mini-village of apartments, stores, and open space atop the grave of the old New Haven Coliseum. Johnson and Murphy negotiated that deal and got it approved. Much remains to be done to see it through—and to complete the broader plan for “Downtown Crossing,” gradually filling in the Route 34 Connector mini-highway-to-nowhere between the post-Coliseum project and the new 13-story Alexion Pharmaceutical tower under construction. Click here, here and here to read more about that.

More broadly, OHND will focus the Harp administration’s efforts more on increasing housing in general, Harp said.

“What I learned in grad school and what we know as a nation—and seem to have forgotten—[is that] you’ve got to have worker housing, entry housing for people,” Harp said. “That’s how we grow. That’s how we help the region grow.”

Toward that end, Johnson just unveiled a new campaign to convince people to buy and occupy homes in New Haven neighborhoods, with the lure of interest-free energy-improvement and downpayment loans for city workers and military vets. Billboards for the campaign have gone up on the highway; a website has also launched. That campaign has just begun and will require extensive follow-through; the goal is to nudge up New Haven’s homeownership rate from 31 percent to above 35 percent rather than rely on outside investors to buy homes and rent them out. Click here to read more about that campaign.

“Erik had a vision of developing amenities in our neighborhoods that would make people want to live in New Haven, even in our working-class neighborhoods,” Harp said.

The unusually public effort to keep Johnson in City Hall taught Harp a lesson, she said.

Her tendency is to encourage people “to grow” professionally, even if that means losing them to another employer. In this case, given the projects Johnson had been shepherding, she felt she needed to try hard to keep him. “Sometimes,” she concluded, “you have to fight” to keep “the talent you have.”

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posted by: Threefifths on June 11, 2014  8:45am

I smell Gentrification Mackerel.New haven wake up.The Gentrification Vampires are coming.

Harp then decided, she said, that “we’ve got to do everything we can do to keep him.”

That was more than a week ago. Harp dispatched her chief of staff, Tomas Reyes, to negotiate with Johnson to keep him on. Those negotiations continued through this past weekend.

Notice back room deal was cut.

The construction of a new urbanist-style mini-village of apartments, stores, and open space atop the grave of the old New Haven Coliseum. Johnson and Murphy negotiated that deal and got it approved. Much remains to be done to see it through—and to complete the broader plan for “Downtown Crossing,” gradually filling in the Route 34 Connector mini-highway-to-nowhere between the post-Coliseum project and the new 13-story Alexion Pharmaceutical tower under construction. Click here, here and here to read more about that.

What about supply of affordable housing for poor and working people?

In his new capacity, Johnson will still technically report to city Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson. But he will assume day-to-day responsibility for housing and other development projects in city neighborhoods. “Matt is the guy I’m sending out to get companies to locate here,” Harp said.

Again you got to read this book.New haven will be the same thing.

City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York

“Today’s reformer is tomorrow’s hack,” Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito used to say.

My bad.Just finish this book.

Political Corruption in Bridgeport: Scandal in the Park City.

posted by: Threefifths on June 11, 2014  9:11am

They even now got West Haven.

Developers in West Haven propose $200 million, 100-store shopping center for West River Crossing

posted by: anonymous on June 11, 2014  9:27am

Now we have to give $25,000 raises (plus benefit increases) to every high level employee at City Hall, whether or not they live in New Haven - even as the typical income of city residents continues to drop.

posted by: robn on June 11, 2014  10:37am

1) The raise is an insult to taxpayers.
2) LCI’s original mission was to fight blight by forcing property owners to keep up their end; that’s still relevant and still needed.
3) We already have an economic development office.

posted by: Hill Resident on June 11, 2014  10:50am

As a resident homeowner who actively works to improve the quality of life in my neighborhood, I appreciated the responsiveness of LCI to my calls to resolve issues that if left unresolved would result in further deterioration of property and quality of life in my neighborhood ... abandoned buildings, blight, insufficient lighting, trash. I am glad Mr. Johnson is staying on, and look forward to working with OHND to continue to improve our neighborhoods.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 11, 2014  11:10am

Lipstick on a Pig Notes:

1. You can put a wig and lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. LCI or OHND is still LCI with a dress.

2. It will cost taxpayers more, something Harp has a knack for doing.

3. This is a missed opportunity to consolidate LCI and its original mission under economic development/building department and get rid of a layer of management.

4. Home ownership has been declining for years. Why? Crime. Taxes. Poverty. People in New Haven can’t afford to buy a house because they lack jobs, education, finances, and ability to own a house. Providing perks to buy then are focused on city workers who have it pretty darn good earning high wages and benefits from New Haven and living North and East of this city.

5. I’m sure Hartford appreciates they got played by Harp and Johnson. A man’s word ought to mean something.

6. There are no details on how this new agency will work, what it will specifically accomplish and what accountability there will be against which Johnson et al will be judged. This is as insulting as the raise, a raise that dwarfs what many families in New Haven make in a whole year.

posted by: 32knot on June 11, 2014  11:55am

A campaign promise broken, taxes rising, positions created to satisfy political needs instead of real needs. I see a one term administration in the very near future.

Oh yeah, did grad school teach anybody that the jobs need to exist before the workers need housing?? the jobs are going down the drain faster than taxes are going up in this state. Kind of putting the cart before the horse.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on June 11, 2014  12:04pm

While I disagree with giving this guy such a big raise, I have to say the Mayor has proven that she’s more of a chess player than a checkers enthusiast. The earlier article about this had people up in arms because the Mayor didn’t deliver on her promise to dismantle LCI. Welp. Looks like she’s delivering on that promise. Too bad we taxpayers will have to pay for her making good on that promise.

Imagine if the money being allocated to cover his raise and create yet another new agency could be channeled into preserving the day care slots for the students who were kicked out of the Blake Street and church sites.

posted by: NunofYurBizness on June 11, 2014  12:37pm

What does dismantle mean? Are people loosing jobs ? Where did this 22K come from and why is it we can’t find funds for youth jobs ?

posted by: webblog on June 11, 2014  12:41pm

Playing the name game, name that tune, is not going to get the job done. Calling the department LCI or OHND makes no difference in terms of performance. Performance is a measurable value; neither Johnson, the staff, nor the entire department has ever been evaluated by Destefano against established standards.

Harp has also failed to perform this fundamental task before spending money on salaries, she does not have.

She opts instead to proceed based on the DeStefano administrations faux standards.

During the campaign, Harp originally called for a complete change up to and including merging LCI with other housing related city departments in order to create accountability and measurable standards results. We can now safely assume that campaign pledge is bogus.

The administration is now reinventing itself starting with a new handle, but little else is even possible.

Harp has only committed $1.7M to this year’s capital budget for neighborhood improvements, coincidentally, the same projects as the previous three budget years, which have development little or nothing in the neighborhoods.

Harp will have to come up with Millions of development money in order to make any in road into the decaying, blighted neighborhoods, and begin to pressure, fine, and collect the fines from recalcitrant landlords.

Since the Mayor has already committed to Destefano’s downtown projects, it is clear the money will not be there in the short or long term.

Therefore, when the Mayor’s plan is unfolded, you can expect smoke with no mirrors. (Now you see me, then you won’t.)

posted by: BillSaunders1 on June 11, 2014  12:46pm

Another classic hand of Three Card Monte…..

posted by: Anderson Scooper on June 11, 2014  12:53pm

History repeats, yet I can’t believe New Haven is going backwards to the days of forgivable “loans” being quietly handed out to friends and family.

Given the cast of characters,—Jackson-Brooks, Reyes, Alvarado, etc.—hanging around the current Mayor, maybe I should believe it. But still…

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on June 11, 2014  3:31pm

I was promised a call back from Mr. Johnson by one of his staffers after I submitted what I thought was serious complaint to his office.  I did not receive one. The complaint involved my concern of one of his inspectors wrongfully accusing me of not having a permit to have work done on my roof and of improperly disposing of the waste material.  The inspector, whose mother lives in the adjacent unit to which I do, the unit to which I was having the work done, threaten me with fines and called one of his colleagues from LCI to my home who latter kindly resolved the situation. Being that I live in a Condominium, the inspector had no cause for accusing me of anything but rather ought to have addressed his passionate concerns to my Association and or the contractor doing the work.  Both suggestions were entirely ignored by the inspector when I told him about Condominium law. And this is excluding the conflict of interest involved in a LCI employee yelling at one of its citizens on behalf of his mother. If the city is really concerned about keeping professionally minded people, even in its working-class neighborhoods, I suggest that it forgoes resources that would go to amenities and focus its resources instead on the professional development of its employees.  LCI, or whatever it may end up being called, ought to exist to smoothly facilitate its citizens according only to the law. Especially if its citizens are only desperately trying to help themselves to make their homes better, livable, and as a consequence the rest of the community as well.
Timothy G. O’Rourke Jr.
The Hill

posted by: M Short on June 11, 2014  3:39pm

With due respect to the skepticism people may feel, or individual opinions people may hold of Johnson, this is to me a defensible decision on the part of the administration and I am glad it worked out that Erik Johnson will stay.

With Jimmy Miller and Kelly Murphy gone, Johnson is key to many deals that are in process or still in the pipeline, and adequately supported with project management staff and people with his skill sets, his performance can make a big difference in improvement to jobs, the tax base, and to project efficiency (that is BIG dollars) or projects getting done at all.

I hope it works out. Good luck!

posted by: Martha Smith on June 11, 2014  3:41pm

So if the “new LCI” will have a different mission, who will be checking code violations?

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on June 11, 2014  6:21pm

I’m happy to see that the Harp administration is tearing down LCI and repurposing it to the actual function it creates.  I hope that the administration goes further and moves code enforcement into housing, which would relieve some bloat.  Housing development under OHND could then exist in conjunction with economic development and there could be a synergy of efforts and staff there.  This can actually work.

As to Mr. Johnson’s salary, a person in the private sector shepherding over $150 million worth of deals would receive well in excess of $120,000 per year.  You can argue about his qualifications, but the salary is indeed below market (compare his salary to Jimmy Miller’s or Karen Walton’s - not saying he is Jimmy Miller or has Jimmy’s track record).  The salary for the expectation of the new position is warranted and is still under market for talent that would have a proven track record in New Haven (e.g. Jimmy Miller, Valerie LaShane, or Joel Schiavone). 

It is too soon to tell whether Mr. Johnson is the right person for the job.  But he has effectively managed LCI for the past years.  He is also the only person to have historic knowledge with the current “major” development deals in New Haven.  And if there is anything developers enjoy, it is consistency.  That is what the Harp administration has provided by this move.  Good or bad, that remains to be seen.  But this was likely the right move to make under the circumstances.

posted by: Steve NH on June 12, 2014  1:11pm

This posting is not about personalities-it is about managerial skills. The Mayor, Top Manager, displayed a grave lack of critical analysis,and a glaring gap in decision-making.
1. NH’s Top Manager vigorously campaigned on the pledge to dismantle LCI because of its poor results. The head of the Dept,then, is the individual now, whom she and her Chief of Staff recently begged to stay and sweetened the deal with a $22, increase. This decision indicates the Top Manager’s inability or lack of interest to fully investigate the Dept, the management, and its performance.
2. This process of mushy, messed up and publically displayed personnel blunders has become chronic. The Top Manager did an almost laughable, if it were not so critical, daisy-picking number on this decision. “Should I keep E___, Should I let E__ go?”. This style of Russian roulette, Human Resources’ process shows a complete lack of knowledge in building a competent and confident staff. 
2. The Top Manager did a bungling make-over in reviving a Dept from the Good,Old Days with a New $125,000 Position! This managerial move shows a huge amount of arrogance of leadership- “It’s my Town. I can because of who I am.
4. The Board of Aldermen got played- having just passed another awful budget, this latest story about the Top Manager’s pleading “Do I have a crack at keeping you, E___?” is an insult.
How about- Do NH taxpayers have a crack at having any trust in their city government with this latest display of mismanagement.
5. Even the newest manager will not be manipulated by an employee’s departure that will only be stopped with a pay increase. This bad personnel decision affects the entire workforce, who do their jobs daily, only to see this type of deal be set by their boss.
6. The Top Manager and her CoS have respectively boasted about their 25 years of outstanding leadership. Time for a new Brand of Experience.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 12, 2014  1:44pm

In a properly functioning city, growing and innovative businesses supply the foundations for the city’s vitality. These jobs attract workers, workers looks for housing, residents create a demand for small businesses, which are supported by a portion of the residents’ wages from their jobs. Residents also create demand for schools, recreational facilities, and other public amenities and services, which are supported through taxes. Home building, small business development, city jobs, etc. supply jobs, which contributes additional economic vitality.

As we learned with the decline of manufacturing in the city, that underlying growth of innovative business is key to a functioning city - we cannot simply have public sector jobs, home building, retail development, etc.

It appears that the city’s Economic Development is focused on fostering innovative business development by attracting new and retaining existing businesses. LCI/OHND seems to be focused on making the city a desirable place to live by attracting new and retaining existing residents through residential building code enforcement and land deals. The Building Department seems to be concerned with overall code enforcement. Now the Minority and Small Business initiative will focus on fostering small business development to encourage residents to start businesses and supply residents with services.

Ideally, these things would happen automatically and organically, but due to many factors it makes sense that the city plays some role in helping these things occur. There appears to be some overlap and repetition, but I’m not entirely sure how it would be consolidated.

posted by: anonymous on June 12, 2014  4:49pm

Atticus, that is exactly the rationale that corporate boards give when they decide to pay their CEOs more money, even though the workers continue to toil away at $8/hour.

posted by: truth talker on June 13, 2014  2:34pm

It never seems to amaze me that the city can cry broke so often but yet continue to find funds to salary increases and un neccessary expenses. Lets add new devolpments and housing for the wealthy but not improve our urban neighborhoods so that these property owners can regain value in their investments. There is truth to the saying that people will act according to environment. Revitalize an urban street to something that gives people pride and watch them take care of it. Keep it gully and watch violence increase.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on June 13, 2014  8:01pm

If Johnson has finally figured out how to enforce the payment of fines levied on blighted property owners, then I imagine that at least would cover his salary increase.

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