A developer who had vowed to storm out of New Haven for good will now instead begin spending “tens of millions” of dollars bringing new life to 11.6 fallow acres in the Hill neighborhood, thanks to a vote Monday night by the Board of Alders.
The alders voted unanimously to sell land to the developer, a partnership led by Randy Salvatore, and grant zoning relief so he can proceed with a three-phase plan to build up to 140 apartments, 7,000 square feet of stores, 120,000 square feet of research space, and 50,000 square feet of offices on the blocks between Congress Avenue and Church Street South closest to downtown.
The city has been trying since 1980 to get a developer to build on that land, a former neighborhood destroyed by mid-20th century urban renewal.
The alders swiftly approved the plan with no debate Monday night.
“I’m very excited to get started,” Salvatore, a Stamford builder who constructed the upscale Novella apartments on Howe Street, said after the vote. “Now we can go ahead and invest tens of millions of dollars” in the Hill.
He said he couldn’t specify how many “tens of millions” the project would cost. He said he plans to proceed with the project’s first of three phases, building new housing and some storefronts along Prince and Gold Streets across from Amistad Park.
Risen From The Dead
The most recent near-death experience came on June 22. Salvatore thought he had worked out a deal with reluctant alders and neighbors to increase the amount of affordable housing in the project to 30 percent. Then an alder committee voted at a public meeting to remove a key part of the plan from approval, a zoning change for a vacant lot next to the Tower One/Tower East complex. Salvatore stormed out of that meeting.
Here’s what he said that night: “I feel betrayed. The deal is dead. I followed the advice of the leadership [of the Board of Alders] — and they misled me. ... I have no desire to do anything further [in New Haven]. This sends a message to the development community that New Haven is not development friendly.”
It turned out reports of the project’s death were premature. Board of Alders leaders, neighborhood activists and city officials sat with Salvatore a couple of more times, in private, to try to hash out a compromise.
They succeeded. They didn’t even need to draw up any new paperwork.
Instead, according to several people involved in the discussions, Salvatore assured officials he plans to build housing on that lot next to Tower One/Tower East. Not, say, a medical facility.
And that did the trick.
Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker said the alders were seeking clarity before they felt comfortable approving a zone change from a BA to a BD3 zone, which allows for denser development with more uses.
“We got to sit down and speak with him about his plans. He’s thinking about housing. There was nothing hidden,” Walker said. “I think it’s going to be a great project.”
The earliest drawings of the envisioned development marked that lot, “Parcel 11,” as a site for “Office/Lab/Bio” use and a garage. But Salvatore told the alders that the market supports building housing there instead.
“Our interests were aligned. We didn’t realize it” before meeting again, Salvatore said.
Livable City Initiative Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, who played an active role in resuscitating the deal, said she never lost hope. “If you can look at the larger picture,” she said, “you can usually” work it out.
Technically, the alders voted Monday to rezone all 11.6 acres to the BD3 category; to amend a land disposition agreement the city originally had made in the late 1980s with a partnership led by developer Cliff Winkel; and transfer the development rights to a new partnership that includes both Winkel and Salvatore.
Salvatore had previously worked out other changes to the plan with local officials in order to revive it the first time it almost died. One change altered a plan for how to distribute the proceeds of the sale of the Welch Annex School (which Salvatore plans to renovate into new housing) and the Prince School Annex (which he’s tearing down to build housing); now one third will got toward a neighborhood commercial improvement fund, one third for job training through the New Haven Works agency and one third to the general fund.
The biggest change was Salvatore’s agreement that to make 30 percent of the housing he builds “affordable.”
That’s a fungible term. Depending on whether certain federal and certain state subsidies end up helping pay the cost of construction, “affordable” can mean housing the kind of low-income tenants who are losing their homes at the soon-to-be-demolished Church Street South complex; or housing more lower-to-middle-income working households.
Neal-Sanjurjo said Monday night the city doesn’t yet know which subsidies it will be able to procure. She said officials are “working hard” in seeking low-income tax credits or funding from the Connecticut housing Finance Authority.
Amy Marx, a New Haven Legal Assistance Association attorney who has championed the cause of tenants at Church Street South just blocks away, is watching to make sure that displaced families can land some of those new “affordable” apartments.
She said she wants to see money set aside for replacing Church Street South apartments used to subsidize some of Salvatore’s new apartments.
“The vote tonight is very welcome news,” Marx said Monday. “Work can now begin on the Prince and Gold Street buildings, which are so critical to solving the Church Street South housing crisis.”
Marx noted that a deal worked out with the federal government and Church Street South’s owner calls for $4 million in federal money to be invested in replacing torn-down Church Street South apartments with other “brick and mortar housing in town” — and that plan has stalled. “There are simply not enough buildings presently available to which to attach the subsidy. With 30 percent proposed affordable housing units, Prince and Gold buildings can take a large number of the project-based subsidy for transfer” from Church Street South, she argued.
After the vote, Salvatore was asked if he still considers New Haven a bad place for developers — if he would still, as he threatened in July, tell other builders to stay away from the city.
“Clearly, if we’re moving forward, I believe in investing in New Haven,” he replied. “Sometimes you react in frustration” and make statements that — five weeks, several private meetings, and one unanimous vote later — you don’t necessarily continue to believe.