Spurning Builder, She Seeks Homegrown Remedy

In a quest to revamp a parched Fair Haven block, Migdalia Castro found some powerful seeds sprouting. They went by the names Maria, Gwen and Ramón.

Castro introduced those budding grassroots leaders—and her broader alternative to encouraging redevelopers to come into her neighborhood—on a recent tour of the part of Fair Haven she represents as a city alderwoman.

She gave the tour in response to a controversy that erupted last week. She came under fire for singlehandedly blocking the city from turning over a decrepit, crime-infested abandoned property in a neighborhood to a Hamden developer. As she walked through the streets in sandals this week, she recounted how she has worked to stabilize and green some of Fair Haven’s toughest streets through a different method —cultivating a band of homeowners and emerging neighborhood leaders rooted in the neighborhood.

The tour began on Saltonstall Avenue and James Street across from the John S. Martinez School. She started walking on Saltonstall towards Lloyd. It was one of the roughest parts of the ward when she took office in 2004, she said.

“This was desert,” she said—no trees, barely any sidewalk to walk on. “There was no hope.”

An elderly couple at 200 Saltonstall (pictured) had fallen into foreclosure, she said. It was “too late to help them.” The city acquired it in 2004. Castro said when it came time to sell the house, she contacted a new restaurateur who had just opened El Coqui on Grand Avenue.

“Can you buy here and live with us?” she asked. Restaurateur Lin Feng Juan bought the home in 2006, hired a contractor to fix it up, and became one of a series of homeowners who started to invest in the block.

“This is what I want to encourage,” Castro said.

Castro said after taking office, she began a block-by-block plan to revive the streets in her ward. She began on that block of Saltonstall. She lobbied the city to bring in new sidewalks and trees.

But first she had to find two neighbors to develop into block captains to carry out the mission.

She turned to Maria Quinones (pictured), who had just stared renting an apartment at 195 Saltonstall.

“When I came over here [about six years ago], it was totally ugly,” she said.

In order to get a tree outside a house through the Urban Resources Initiative, someone has to agree to put in the labor to plant it, then water it and care for it. Quinones signed up for a new cherry tree. She started cleaning yards.

She spruced up a corner garden lot. She quickly became a block captain, keeping an eye on the street and on everyone’s garbage. She said she personally picks up her neighbors’ trash and pulls out all the recyclable cans.

“I clean all around,” she said.

On Wednesday, Quinones planted a new hosta under her tree. She squatted for a photo, then joined Castro on a tour of the block.

Beyond the sidewalks and trees, Quinones and Castro went through each of the homes on the block and identified quality-of-life problems they could tackle. Castro said her goal is to have two leaders on each block who can carry on those efforts after she’s gone.

“I want to develop leaders who can take ownership of their own ward,” she said.

Further down Saltonstall, at the corner of Lloyd, Castro pointed to an abandoned lot that used to be a “dumping ground.” Castro helped the next-door neighbor buy it from the city. Now he’s turning it into a garage.

Around the corner, Castro came across a sign of more work to be done: Someone had dumped a broken TV onto the ground. The sidewalk could use repairing, she added.

To her left, the house at 148 Lloyd was owned by an absentee landlord. Mexican tenants had to go to the Fair Rent Commission to settle a rent dispute.

When the home was fixed up through a city initiative, Castro helped the next-door neighbor, a woman named Minerva, buy her dream-house and move in.

Across the street, 69-year-old Ramón Rodriguez (pictured at the top of the story) watched the changes unfold on his block over the past 25 years. He said when he moved onto Lloyd, there were lots of boarded-up houses. The Latin Kings gang ran the block. Castro tapped Rodriguez to help lead a tree-planting mission.

Rodriguez scored a tree (pictured) for himself and helped others with theirs.

“Now it’s beautiful,” he said of his block.

“This is what I want it to be like,” Castro reflected as she left Lloyd. Homeownership “stabilizes the whole block.”

Around the corner on Wolcott, Gwen Heath had just come home from her job at AT&T. After moving onto the street from the Hill some 10 years ago, she has become a stalwart block watch captain, gardener and homeowner. She helped lead the effort as the tree-planting fervor spread to her block.

Now Castro is trying to convince Heath to join a neighborhood panel that would screen new residents at a fast-rising development next door. Mutual Housing is building 19 new townhouses and one three-bedroom apartment there. Heath said she didn’t particularly want to sit on the panel, but she does want to make sure good neighbors move in to keep up the good momentum on the block.

“It’s quiet,” she said. “I like it like that.”

In general, she agreed with Castro’s argument that homeownership strengthens the block. “It gives you more of a responsibility,” she said. Homeowners fix up their homes instead of waiting six months for a landlord to do so.

As the revival effort spread to Exchange Street, Castro looked to Julio Peña. Peña’s properties stand out on an otherwise suffering strip of Exchange between Blatchley and Lloyd. He owns one home, which he lives in, and rents out the home next door. His house was fixed up by the Corporation for Urban Home Ownership. He bought the house across the street, where his daughter runs a daycare. 

Castro just helped him buy an abandoned lot next to his house. He plans to outfit it for family barbecues. He’s pictured standing in front of a fogón, a primitive grill above a wood fire.

She passed another sliver lot, where she coordinated three homeowners to co-own and use for shared parking. She said instead of selling the sliver lot at 150 Poplar to developer Gil Marshak—the lot is the source of her their dispute—she’d like to see a shared parking lot for nearby houses owned by Mutual Housing.

“It’s very important that we do development,” Castro said, “but that we do it responsibly.”

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posted by: streever on May 4, 2012  1:17pm

Building a parking lot on residential land isn’t good land use: especially in a dense city that needs to better support our non-driving residents.

I appreciate the intentions Migdalia has, but seeing as no alternative developer has materialized to buy and rehab the lot, I’m not sure why she would block a responsible developer who has not alienated neighbors elsewhere.

Has she reached out and offered reconciliation? I think this is important to do.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 4, 2012  1:32pm

Ok for those of you that have not lived here long…..this is NOT the area I remember! WOW!! I remember when first married my ex and I rented in this area and I would cry at night…that we needed to move. And we did. I am truely impressed with the changes and the community that is shaping there.

posted by: jayfairhaven on May 4, 2012  3:22pm

it didn’t take very long for nhi to print a damage control fluff piece!

castro’s heart is clearly committed to making her neighborhood a better place, and all the residents of her ward can be thankful for that.

it’s unfortunate that she’s hung up on certain developers. while the community waits for a buyer that meets her requirements, city owned properties in her ward continue to languish.

posted by: FairHavenRes on May 4, 2012  3:24pm

Okay, then can we set a time limit, Alder Castro?  Will you please agree that if you haven’t found a buyer suitable to your liking by the end of May (2012), that you will give up this nonsense and stop blocking progress?  Will you please agree to that?  I somewhat understand your sentiments but they are not realistic, practical or helpful, and I’m saying this as a resident, homeowner AND landlord of Poplar Street.  PLEASE set a time limit and then let us get on with cleaning up Fair Haven.  Please.  Thank you.

posted by: robn on May 4, 2012  3:52pm

Great Job!

But the alderperson needs to ignore bad manners and not take it so personally. Please bury the hatchet and let him (the only bidder) fix 155 Poplar up.

posted by: Noteworthy on May 4, 2012  4:06pm

The changes here are good. They are not good enough to override a responsible developer who will with his own money, do a quality rehab, not alienate neighbors and find a responsible family to buy or rent it. And yes, take a non-productive property and add it to the tax rolls and by doing so, end the crack and ho house.

Ald. Castro’s actions remain inexcusable no matter how much green and clean she tries to put on it.

posted by: anonymous on May 4, 2012  5:17pm

So, the “bottom line” to this story appears to be that Castro wants to demolish our city’s beautiful housing stock in our traditional neighborhoods and turn the lots that they sit on into parking? That’s certainly interesting, but it has no place in the leadership of our city.

I sincerely hope that someone corrects me - is the “sliver lot” that she doesn’t want to sell to a developer different from the house that she doesn’t want to sell to a developer?

posted by: RCguy on May 4, 2012  11:17pm



Is that good use of land?

posted by: HhE on May 5, 2012  2:08pm

I agree with FairHavenRes, albeit, I would give her 60 days. 

While owner occupant is the ideal, it may not be real(istic).  The state of the property will easy require 100k in repairs, and that is if the project manager (contractor or home owner) has experience.  I know, because I have done it twice, and the first house was a hard school, but the second went fairly well.  For an owner occupant scenario, that person will have to have the means to reside else-wear during the renovations, as this house is not habitual.  The time required to do all this work, suggests that they would have to be unemployed too, so I guess Alderwoman Castro needs someone who want to live in Fair-haven and has a trust fund.

anonymous, I think I can help.  Sliver lots are parcels of land owned by the city that are two small to build on legally.  How they first came into being I have no idea.  The city tries to sell them to abutters because then they will be looked after and added to the tax rolls.  The process is not without controversy.

RCguy, not my ideal, to be sure, but typically for early 21st century.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 7, 2012  5:48am

Sliver lots are the result of now vacant, formerly deverloped lots that no longer conform to land use regulations (zoning), thereby making the impossible to develop as of right. Many, if not most of these lots, were created during the massive demolition campaign that was conducted in the mid-1990s by City of New Haven’s Liviable City Initiative (LCI) shortly after its creation. The buildings selected for demolition were city-owned, structurally unsound and/or blighted eyesores. Often these buildings had been used as drug houses, flop houses, and copper mines and, in many cases, had suffered from lack of maintenance, fire damage, building and zoning code compliance issues, and were magnets for crime.


Fair Haven:

Lower Newhallville:

Hill North:

Hill Central: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/71632470.jpg

Trowbridge Square: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/71632501.jpg

However, while the buildings were degraded, they were nevertheless valuable and many were worthy of preservation. Furthermore, the land use conflicts were mostly self-imposed by the city because it adopted a zoning ordinance that was not tailor-made for the unique development history of each neighborhood, but rather contained a normative set of building lot sizes, setback requirements, height limitations, and functional districts that often are in conflict with existing conditions in the city, especially in speculatively-built working class areas in Newhallville, Fair Haven and the Hill, and in successionally-built settlements like the Westville Village, Morris Cove, the Quinnipiac River Village, City Point, and the West Village.
A more appropriate response would have been to engage some of the community developers in the city like Neighborhood Housing Services, Hill Development Corporation, Beulah Land Development (before it went bankrupt), and Mutual Housing to rehabilitate some of the buildings. This work could have coincided with efforts to engage the neighbors about creating shared open spaces in the center of the block, which is often a better solution to creating community facilities and open green space than to use vacant building lots. An example of a shared central open space exists in Westville in the block bounded by Yale, West Rock and West Elm and contains a basketball half-court and a field.