These out-of-town smart guys saw something here that lots of New Haveners don’t always notice: Stuff’s still “made in New Haven,” much of it in a quietly humming district bordering the Mill River. The duo helped the city create a logo and a new plan designed to have more stuff made there.
Officials Wednesday unveiled the plan as well as a “Mill River District—Made In New Haven” sign designed to greet visitors at seven strategic points around the emerging commercial corridor.
Those signs will help people see what consultants Tim Love and Kevin Hively (left to right in the above photo) saw: An under-the-radar district with invisible boundaries that has 3,000 people working to build zinc-topped countertops (at Boldwood) and tomato sauce (Palmieri) and precision jet-engine parts (Space-Craft) and to sell plumbing supplies (Bender’s) and (Grand) paint and and floor tiles.
They also saw some old buildings “with good bones” that go unused—but could be retrofitted to house new employers that build on the industry that already exists in the area.
The two consultants helped prepare a plan for the Mill River District on behalf of city government and the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation. (Click here for an earlier story about their work as they got started in 2011.)
Their “Mill River District Planning Study,” released at a press conference Wednesday, would give form and a strategy to the district, some 206 acres which largely straddle the Mill River. The district is roughly bounded by James, Humphrey, Hamilton, and Chapel streets.The plan marks a departure from familiar city-planning models: It builds on existing small-scale development rather than imposing a social engineer’s own vision for what would work best. And it puts a priority on maximizing industrial jobs rather than tax-base-building residential gentrification near a waterfront.
Who said you have to live in China to work in a factory?
Beyond “Eds & Meds”
“New Haven’s economy is witnessing a revival of its industrial base and will need state-of-the-art infrastructure and economic catalysts to properly encourage this growth,” the 111-page report begins. “[Mill River] represents one of the last remaining places in the city with large parcels of underdeveloped land and buildings able to capture the commercial and economic growth in the region.”
The report’s prescriptions tend toward some small-scale public improvements and zoning changes on the part of government, as well as some experiments borrowed from other cities.
The report envisions streets with angle-in (rather than parallel) parking, complexes where small start-up businesses share equipment, “stormwater parks” to handle new climate change-sparked coastal zones. It envisions new zoning laws that allow more “hybrid” stores or restaurants that front factories or food-packing plants; and that enable people to live alongside small modern light-industrial shops that neither pollute nor make noise.
The one price tag in the report comes at the end: a suggested $5 million in public improvements over five years. These include $70,000-$85,000 in pedestrian improvements (curb ramps and extensions), up to $450,000 in sidewalk and landscape improvements on Grand Avenue near Hamilton and East, the “storm-surge solutions,” and “striping for street parking, shared lots and biking.”
City economic development chief Kelly Murphy and Mayor John DeStefano hailed Wednesday’s announcement as a counterpart to another big event this weekend: the groundbreaking at 100 College St., a new 11-story home for Alexion Pharmaceuticals that will begin filling in the downtown Route 34 Connector mini-highway-to-nowhere into a growing biomedical district.
“This is as much a landmark direction as Alexion,” DeStefano declared.
Here’s what he meant: Everyone hears about the new natural-sciences companies fueling growth downtown and at Science Park. But, despite the popular wisdom, more traditional conventional factory jobs haven’t all left town. Thousands remain. And the Mill River District can support thousands more.
Albeit with a modern twist.
High Ceilings, Expectations
American factories can’t really compete with China for large-scale factories focusing on high-volume mainstream products, argued consultant Hively, from the Rhode Island firm Ninigret Partners. (In fact the Mill River district has one such story to tell: The demolished Simkins recycling plant, whose owner moved the business to China in 2006.) They can compete for the “fashion risk” sector—specialty products that go in and out of style within four to eight months. It takes that long for an order to go to China and return home, he said. Specialty foods, clothes, glass products “with a certain creative flair” can all do well here, he said.
So could, say, a print specializing in 3D printing (that sci-fi-like new technology that lets your computer turn out, say, a gun, using digital code to make physical objects).
He made the remark while standing in an expansive first floor of a newly remodeled factory building at 20-26 Mill St., a block from Chapel Street and Criscuolo Park.
The space officially went on the rental market Wednesday.
The building’s owner, Steve Bernblum, had Ken DiStasio’s (pictured) West Haven remodeling firm spend eight months cleaning and repainting and rebuilding the interior of the 24,863-square-foot former factory—for the first time since its 1929 construction, he said.
Bernblum said the building began life as a plate-glass factory. Later gold screws were made there for medical use. A half-dozen metal companies formed a partnership to do electroplating jointly for their businesses, but then fought among themselves and never got the enterprise off the ground. That’s when they sold it to Bernblum in 1988. He ran an archival storage business there, before selling the business three years ago.
DiStasio’s crew had to wash and prime and paint all the beams and the ceiling, clearing almost a century’s worth of dust. It filled in large patches of the floor with concrete slabs. It put in new wooden fixtures, all new sheet rock.
Now the first floor, with its high ceilings, is ready for a new manufacturer; those ceilings are a selling point because of air handling systems required by modern workplace safety rules, Hively said. The higher ceilings also enable manufacturers to pile boxes higher, a plus because the rise in real estate prices has put floor square footage at a premium.
The upstairs, with shorter ceilings, is geared to office rentals.
“I almost want to start my own internet start-up so I can come in here,” Pedro Soto (at left in photo with Bernblum and his daughter and business partner, Julie Bernblum) said as he marveled at the panoramic river and harbor views during a tour of the upstairs space Wednesday. Soto is a Mill River District stalwart: His family runs Space-Craft, which has 43 employees making precision engine parts.
“Tech Shop” & A “Mercantile Food Hub”
The report envisions three parts to the district’s evolution.
One is an “industrial village” with “live-work” spaces and light industry. The city would seek to steer more small-scale manufacturers and tech start-ups to buildings there, partly with the lure of a “tech shop” where they can share the cost of shared manufacturing equipment. (The same idea the ill-fated electroplating partnership had in the building Steve Bernblum eventually bought.) The consultants looked to industrial spaces that housed clusters of creative start-up types in Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland, and Providence as models.
A second part of the vision: an urban antidote to Home Depot. The planners envision the city knitting together existing home-improvement stops like Bender Plumbing and Reclamation Lumber and Creative Stone and Tile with pedestrian street improvements, improvements to storefronts, and “pop-up” (an omnipresent liven-up-cities adjective these days) kiosks and carts to fill in abandoned or underused spaces between buildings and in storefronts.
Third, a “mercantile food hub” would develop by stitching together existing food producers (like Lindley Foods, La Michoacana Tacqueria, Palmieri Foods, Jamaican Coffee Roasters) with newer outlets as well as enhanced retail tie-ins. Plus a marketing effort to draw in the tourists.
The district has more than enough parking (2,121 spaces) but not enough coordination to make people realize that, the report argues. It recommends shifting some of the surface lots to new locations, and maximizing street parking by having cars park at an angle in front of stores rather than gobbling up horizontal spaces.
Finally, it envisions not building on some waterfront land, like that China-bound former Simkins site, but rather preserving it for public use and absorbing overflows from the Mill River. It also envisions “seasonal hoophouses and agricultural plots” on some of that land.
The report speaks of zoning changes in only general ways: The need to update rules to acknowledge that much modern manufacturing doesn’t create noise and smog, so you can have people living right by the spot without a problem, for instance. It calls for zoning changes that make more “live/work” and “live/make” spaces possible, more retail mixes with industrial plants, and more maritime uses for spots along the Mill River. City Hall’s Murphy (pictured Wednesday) said she expects to have specific zoning proposals to submit to the Board of Aldermen later this year.
Much like the industrial gems buried in a district most people haven’t noticed, a planning-philosophy gem is buried on page 63 of the new Mill River District report, a passage containing an argument about economic development not often found in reports issued by government or private-sector planning agencies. Titled “The Economic Threat of Gentrification,” it reads:
“Today many of the industrial buildings purpose-built in these segregated districts are no longer compatible with large-scale manufacturing operations due to the limitations of building design and construction. Increasingly across the country, prewar industrial buildings with ‘character’ are being converted to residential lofts, commercial space, and boutique product manufacturing spaces. Despite this trend, which is helping to bring energy and jobs back to depopulated urban districts, a balance must be struck between the desire to preserve these buildings through gentrification and the need to protect industrial properties that can support more intensive manufacturing employment. Within the Mill River district, larger parcels are available that can serve as future job centers for the City.”