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Route 34 West: “Giveaway”? Or The Right Price?

by Paul Bass | Mar 10, 2014 7:37 am

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

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, The Hill, West River

Paul Bass Photo Edward Anderson rose to “indict” the “raw deal” the city struck with a developer. Mayor Toni Harp rose to offer a plainspoken, expansive defense.

The passionate exchange erupted toward the end of a two-and-a-half-hour public meeting about a long-awaited plan to start filling in a New Haven neighborhood that disappeared a half century ago during the heyday of urban renewal.

And it added a new element to debate over the plan: In addition to previous criticisms about parking, new questions arose about the sales price and choice of developer.

The meeting took place Sunday afternoon at Hill Career Regional High School on Legion Avenue. It concerned a plan to sell a 5.39-acre lot at 243 Legion directly across the street from the school —the block bordered by Legion, Sherman, MLK/North Frontage and Dwight—to a developer for $2.65 million to build in two phases a pharmacy, a medical office building or hotel, an 850-space garage, and a new three-story headquarters for a not-for-profit agency called Continuum of Care that helps people with psychological and developmental disabilities.

The $50 million project is part one of “Route 34 West,” a long-term strategy of rebuilding the 16.2 acres of surface parking lots and median strips the city created by bulldozing a neighborhood that ran from Dwight Street down to the Boulevard, separating the Hill, Dwight and West River neighborhoods from each other.

“I’m here to indict the way the city’s doing the business. I’m here to ask the mayor to rethink this,” declared Anderson (pictured at the top of the story), a veteran local activist.

“It’s a raw deal. ... Put this stuff out to bid.”

Harp, who had said little while her appointees and the developer addressed the crowd’s concerns in sometimes bureaucratic jargon, took the opportunity to respond in plain English to Anderson and some critics who had preceded him. She spoke of the need to keep Continuum of Care, a fast-growing statewide agency with over 600 employees, in New Haven. She spoke of the need to bring jobs and new tax revenue to town.

“You know I’m getting basically criticized because we’re going to have to raise taxes,” Harp told the crowd. “One of the ways you don’t raise taxes is if you have development.”

How Best To Fill In?

About 60 people showed up to Sunday’s meeting, which came four days before the proposal’s first public hearing at the Board of Alders.

Some speakers praised the plan in full for bringing back life and mixed commercial activity to long-fallow land surrounded by fast-moving traffic. West River activist Stacy Spell and Hill activist Leslie Radcliffe (pictured) recalled the bustling activity on that land in their childhoods. Radcliffe recalled her mother bringing the family to buy jeans and sneakers at Eli’s at the corner of Orchard and Legion, before all the stores disappeared in the 1960s.

“It’s been 50 years since there’s been anything but a parking lot,” Radcliffe said. “I’d like to leave a little more to my grandchildren than a parking lot.”

“It’s time out for the blight!” declared Spell. “It’s time to add to the tax base. It’s time to create jobs.”

Opponents supported the first part of the plan: the $11 million, 30,000 square-foot home for Continuum of Care. They objected to the vision for the rest of the block, calling it a suburban-style, car-centric “business park,” in the words of Anstress Farwell of the Urban Design League. The critics compared the project unfavorably to the recently approved plan to have the Montreal-based firm LiveWorkLearnPlan develop a $395 million mini-neighborhood atop the old New Haven Coliseum site.

Many speakers, such as Hill activist Ohan Karagozian, the vice-chair of the Hill North Community Management Team, and Dwight preservationist Olivia Martson (pictured) , focused on the 850-car garage envisioned for the second phase of the plan for the block. They argued it would increase New Haven’s already-high asthma rates.

Yves-George Joseph, vice-president of Centerplan, part of the development team (along with Continuum of Care), responded that the current surface lot already parks 602 cars; he said the 850-car garage, a “worst-case scenario,” would accommodate people using the block without adding measurably to local traffic or pollution.

Frank Panzarella of West River suggested that the developer, as well as Yale-New Haven Hospital (whose employees currently park along Route 34 West’s surface lots), set up parking areas on Long Wharf or on Marginal Drive by the Yale Bowl, then shuttle people over.

Anderson v. Harp

Chris Bockstael, Svigals Partners architects

All that was prologue to Anderson’s ringing denunciation of the deal late in the meeting and the defenses by Harp and her team.

Anderson (pictured) focused first on the fact that the city agreed to sell the 5.39 acres for $2.65 million without putting the property out to bid. The buyer is Centerplan, a Middletown-based development company run by former state Rep. Robert Landino. Anderson noted that the city agreed to turn over the old Coliseum land to LiveWorkLearnPlay after a competitive, public process in which developers responded to a city request for proposals (RFP). he suggested that the city is selling the Route 34 West land for “less than it’s worth” to a “favored developer who’s very politically connected.”

“We’re being told to swallow this and marry these guys, Centerplan, or tough luck. What if we want housing there? What if we don’t want a garage? What if we don’t want a Rite Aid? What if we don’t’ want to be detracting from Whalley Avenue with big-box retail?” Anderson asked.

“Right now we’re getting a half-acre going to a nonprofit. We’re getting a Rite Aid. We may be getting an office building, and we’re getting a huge parking garage which is going to be for the benefit of somebody, but I don’t think it’s going to be for the benefit of us.”

He added that it “can’t look good” to the outside world when the city sells land without a competitive bid.

“This site is bigger than the Coliseum site. The Coliseum site was really serious. It took a lot of time to figure out what we were going to do with that. We got a lot of choices. We figured out which was going to be the best for the city. Here we don’t have any choices. They get the land. They’re paying $2.5 million. Rite Aid’s going to give them the first $2 million, if not the whole two and a half. They’re getting three or four acres. We have no idea what they’ll do with it.”

Matthew Nemerson, the Harp administration’s economic development administrator, started to respond to Anderson. Then a voice in the audience called for Harp, who had sat silently onstage throughout the afternoon after offering introductory welcoming remarks, to answer instead.

Nemerson handed Harp the microphone. And she was off.

Chris Bockstael, Svigals Partners architects

She pointed out that Centerplan is buying the property (in addition to financing $42.5 million of the $50 million project).

“We have an opportunity for development,” she said. “We have a developer who actually wants to pay dollars. You know, we hear about LiveWorkLearn and Play. I support that as well. But they need $12 million from us [for the Coliseum project]. And because we think it’s a great project, everybody likes it, we’re going to come up with $12 million. They need another $20 million from the state. This developer [Centerplan] is giving us money for the project. That’s almost unheard of in New Haven.”

New Haven’s not putting a dime into the Route 34 West project, she said. The state, at her urging as a state senator, agreed to give Continuum of Care $7.5 million to help build its headquarters on the land. But that headquarters costs $15 million, so Continuum of Care needed a developer as a partner to build it. And the developer needed to build commercially on the rest of the block in order for the project to make financial sense, Harp said. The project will produce an estimated $950,000 a year in taxes to the city once completed; 91 percent of the land will be taxable, everything but the Continuum of Care footprint.

“We didn’t want them to move out of town,” Harp (pictured) said of Continuum of Care. “The former administration didn’t want them to. I support them. I think they’re good corporate citizens and hire a lot of people who live in New Haven. So we started out with wanting them.”

Harp (pictured) vowed to keep a promise to include the critics as well as the rest of the public in a planning “charette” to envision how to develop the rest of the 16 acres. Housing promises to be high on the priority list.

Then Harp turned to the asthma question.

“I know a little something about public health,” she said. “And what is causing the asthma frankly in all of our urban cities in Connecticut is because we’re on highways. And it’s really not as much the traffic that is in town but the air quality that blows from the cars that are on the highways. And we are at the junction [of] 95 and 91. And that is really what is driving up our asthma. And it certainly doesn’t help to have cars wandering around our neighborhood looking for places to park. And that is what will happen if we don’t have a parking structure. ...

“I heard ‘Marginal Drive.’ Marginal Drive is a park! I got a call from West Haven at the last snowstorm saying they don’t want us to dump and use Marginal Drive for our snow because of contamination. I don’t think this neighborhood wants cars there.”

Liveable City Initiative chief Erik Johnson, City Hall’s lead negotiator on the Route 34 West project, challenged Anderson on his claim that the city undervalued the property. He detailed how his team arrived at the $2.65 million sales price: It obtained an appraisal of the land at $3.9 million. It subtracted $900,000 for the cost the developer will assume in cleaning up contaminated soil. (“Urban fill—it’s not the worst thing in the world. You can’t eat it,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to dig it up and cart if off some place where it can be stored safely.”) Then Johnson’s team lopped off another $350,000 for the cost of building the not-for-profit Continuum of Care portion of the block. That left the $2.65 million.

“How is that less than market value?” Johnson asked Anderson.

“I’d like to see the appraisal,” Anderson responded. You can hire an appraiser “to say anything,” he said.

During the exchanges, officials did not respond to Anderson’s question about why they never put the land out to bid instead of negotiating with just one preferred developer.

Asked the question again afterwards by the Independent, Johnson repeatedly responded that former Mayor John DeStefano “made that decision.” Continuum of Care approached the city with the plan and brought Centerplan along with it as a development partner, he said. The city was focused on keeping Continuum in town.

Asked the same question, development chief Nemerson also stressed that the previous administration made the call to negotiate directly with Centerplan rather than seek competitive proposals. Asked why, he responded, “I have no idea. I sat down on my first day, and I got the plan.”

Nemerson was asked whether he considered ditching the plan he inherited and going out to bid.

That could delay the project another year, Nemerson responded, without producing any more money for the city. “We believe this is a market deal,” he said of the sales price. He said he will continue to negotiate with the developer on design details, such as seeking to make the pharmacy at the corner of Orchard and Legion more than one story tall.

 

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posted by: okaragozian1 on March 10, 2014  8:28am

A lot of “things” with this plan were done “behind-the-scenes”.  “Things” such as the appraisal, the choice of design, the choice of inclusion or exclusion of the types of businesses or the choice of business over residence.  The community was not invited to participate in the design process.  The final product was “paraded” before various management teams as a final vision rather than using a charette as proposed by the Mayor for the remainder of the development.

Aside from an 800 car garage and 50+ surface parking spaces, the “plan” is ill conceived and has no character of community or connection of neighborhoods long-ago split by the building of the RT 34 Corridor in the 50’s. Yale-New Haven Hospital representatives no where in sight, but cast a big shadow on this project arguably through possible “hush-hush” arrangements as there are “medical buildings” promised to be built on site. “After-construction” jobs for New Haven residents are mostly limited to cashiers, parking lot attendants and hotel maids as likely very few indigenous New Haven residents poses high-level skill set necessary for “medical facilities”; nursing and home-care attendants the possible exception. But for the 1/2 acre allocated to Continuum of Care project, the rest of the development is an extension of medical expansion and supporting facilities to medical expansion presided over by Yale-New Haven or it’s affiliate doctor-practitioners. The health and welfare of the residents of New Haven are being sacrificed to the altar of medical expansion.

Further, and importantly, there is yet to be done a air pollution study, as required, Yves-George Joseph of Centerplan development conceded but that the approval process is scheduled for March 13th nonetheless.  The idea of having 200+ cars adding to the pollution of the existing 650 cars already parking at the site is little solace to the 600+ high school students across the street from this newly proposed development.

posted by: okaragozian1 on March 10, 2014  8:47am

Matt Nemerson let slip that the State has final approval say if this project moves forward as the project is sandwiched between a State RT 34 on both sides.  As presented, the design plan envisions sharp 90 degree entry and exit onto the property in question as though this development was being placed between two regular streets, where the State requires a more ramp-like smooth entry onto the property amongst other things said Mike Piscitelli.

Rather than designing within parameters, normal or otherwise, The City has undertaken a confrontational approach of excluding residents of essential input, of scheduling approval from the Board of Alders prior to an air pollution impact study and fore-visioning arm-twisting at the State level through, possibly, the Mayor’s past Senatorial position in Hartford to influence Hartford lawmakers’ favorable acceptance of the plan as presented.

The audacious arrogance of this plan and the negative environmental and “neighborhood mending” impact are monumental and overflow the bounds of its perimeter.

posted by: Esteban on March 10, 2014  9:34am

Anderson for Mayor!

posted by: ohnonotagain on March 10, 2014  10:05am

This is the thing. Mayor Harp will give lip service about producing revenue because no one wants taxes to go up. The truth is Mayor Harp is a tax and spend kind of person. She proved that as a state senator and will prove that as a mayor. No matter how much revenue this city would like or can bring in, she will continue to spend, make no cuts in spending and our taxes will go up anyway. I dare Mayor Harp to prove me wrong. I would welcome it.

posted by: wendy1 on March 10, 2014  10:27am

Once again a bad decision making money for connected developers and ignoring aesthetic and pollution concerns for the neighbors including myself.  A huge parking lot with ugly corporate buildings; no homes or mom and pops like old Legion Ave.  It will be lifeless and ugly.

I support Anderson, Anstress, and Olivia.

New Haven has the worst air on the east coast.  25% of us have asthma, worse in the ghetto around the hosp.  Yale owns 2 power plants or more.  Their hosp on York St. off the highway along with the medical school gets the worst air in town but with them money comes first not health.

posted by: Shaggybob on March 10, 2014  10:38am

threefifths comment says it all
“The buyer is Centerplan, a Middletown-based development company run by former state Rep. Robert Landino.”
It would be interesting to know if Mr. Landino still has any interests in this company or this projector this is just a favor payback. Putting it plain sight it just so callous & insulting to those of us paying attention.

Otherwise, it would appear on the surface this project is better than the mt land that’s there, but needs some details worked out, but why the public is just hearing about this so far into the approval stage is a sign that the “good ol boys” are still in control even though their names not on the door.

posted by: HewNaven on March 10, 2014  1:32pm

So, taxes are too high to attract development, developer incentives and backroom deals are rightly criticized, and long term solutions like PILOT reform are never nearby, oh and we’re dealing with the fallout from decades of mismanagement. I’m kind of glad my guy didn’t win the election.

posted by: Kevin on March 10, 2014  1:33pm

Ohan, you state that an air pollution study is required. Under what provision of law? (just curious)

posted by: Scot on March 10, 2014  2:08pm

It doesn’t seem like a bad plan. I agree it’s good to keep Continuum of Care if they employ 600 people.  I like that 91 percent of the land will be taxable, and hope that’s accurate. 

However I appreciate Anderson’s complaint.  This is a perfect example of why some people are suspicious of New Haven politicians - past and present. When the city decided to sell the land why didn’t they put out a well publicized RFP?!  That should be standard operating procedure. If they had just done that they would a) possibly get more offers and b) eliminate people’s suspicions of favoritism/inside deals.  There is no cost/downside to putting it out to bid, only potential gain.

In this case, the chosen developer is a former State Representative and Mayor Harp is a former State Senator - and they don’t put out an RFP. Of course it looks shady - whether or not it actually was. This administration blames it on the previous one for the lack of RFP, and says it’s too late now. So, question for Mayor Harp:  Will she agree, going forward, that the city will publicize and put out an RFP each and every time it sells city land? (would love it if a reporter could ask her this!)

posted by: Scot on March 10, 2014  2:19pm

If you had a piece of land you wanted to sell, would you advertise it publicly or only mention it to people you knew?  Why does the city act any different?  Even if the city thinks they have the best plan in hand, why not put out an RFP anyway?  Let the public know the land is for sale.  At the very least it will show transparency and prevent this type of criticism.  And who knows what could happen if you put it out there, maybe some fabulous growing company will see it and want to build their new headquarters there. To not publicly advertise the land is either really shady, or shows really poor judgment.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on March 10, 2014  2:29pm

Betrayal of the neighborhoods and their needs is standard operating procedure in New Haven.

The City has these useless “vision” exercises and community meetings, only to approve projects out of scale and out of sync with what the people who live nearby want.

The Dwight, West Rive and Hill sections want to re-connect with small scale businesses and housing, parks and bike paths.

As usual, the leadership of the City defends its need to develop to build a tax base.

Thoughtful development would not bring opposition.

Development cannot and will not solve the tax problems in New Haven, but re-thinking the tax system is too big a job for our elected and appointed officials.

Government leaders are lousy city planners.

posted by: jdoss-gollin on March 10, 2014  3:11pm

Agree with everyone on here. Certainly doesn’t seem like the neighbors score a huge win on this deal, so it must be us—right? If the deal is so good, then if we put it up for bidding no one will possibly come up with a better option—right?!?

posted by: shadesofzero on March 10, 2014  3:36pm

If I understand correctly, this plan was executed under the DeStefano Administration, correct? Perhaps the fear here is that if Harp does an RFP and basically re-negs on the development plan, not only will nothing better come along, but the original developer will lose interest?

posted by: hillnorthresident on March 10, 2014  4:19pm

To Kevin: Actually a part of discussions at yesterday’s meeting between a neighborhood resident and Yves-George Joseph.  Yes confirmed that such a study is the next step.

posted by: hillnorthresident on March 10, 2014  4:27pm

Interestingly, another type of development could likely increase the City’s tax base even more than this present development.  Not all options have been thoroughly vetted as one might think.  The idea that an 800 car garage is worth more in taxes instead of some other occupiable structure is unbelievable.

posted by: anonymous on March 10, 2014  4:45pm

What is the point of holding a “Charette” to get community input AFTER the land has been given away for the developer to dispose of it into a neighborhood-killing mega block strip mall as they wish?

Is this kind of a slap in the face to people’s intelligence? Or was it a joke?

[Ed.: To clarify, the announcement was that the charette would concern the fate of the other 16.2 acres of land, not the block being developed for this project.]

posted by: anonymous on March 10, 2014  5:12pm

Ed, so there’s no community input into this block at all? At least that is honest. The charette is still insulting, because once this is developed as a single block strip mall, the rest of the 16 acre streetscape is ruined for several future generations.

Where’s Dannel Malloy and Barack Obama on this? Given what is known about economic development, they would be appalled to see a project like this going forward.  Despite the huge state & federal investments that make it possible, (like 100 College) it has absolutely zero written requirements for the developer to take basic steps to ensure the health and welfare of surrounding neighborhoods.

posted by: Olivia Martson on March 10, 2014  5:45pm

The plan is truly harmful to the neighborhood, plus no RFP to boot. The BOA should not Vote on this until we have an environmental impact study.  So many unanswered questions? Is this the best we can do?  Not one ounce of interconnectivity or good urban planning.  Slow the Project down and get it right.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on March 10, 2014  7:46pm

Anonymous:
Dan Malloy overrode a local decision in Stamford to retain a local boat yard of long standing in favor of selling it to a developer.
Any other illusions I can shatter?
As for Obama, what do you know about the XL pipeline?

posted by: hillnorthresident on March 10, 2014  8:36pm

True. We waited over 60 years to get this right, what is an extra month or two?  Let people get together and figure things out taking into account the close by neighborhoods.

posted by: 1483mmm on March 10, 2014  8:38pm

We are told that in order for the Continuum Care plan to move forward, additional acres are needed to be part of the deal for the developer. For the record Continuum Care employs 600, of which 30% are New Haven county residents.  This is what was displayed and mentioned in the community meeting on Sunday.  They provided much needed services and no one disagrees with supporting them.

Nonetheless, I am in agreement with Anderson and others – get an RFP so we have some OPTIONS regarding this development.  We are informing (not asking) residents who LIVE here to swallow another bitter, bad development pill and take a “leap of faith” that the city and developers will listen to our concerns for future development. Ha!

I would like to see the neighborhoods reconnected.  This is yet another development, like Downtown Crossing, that will continue the separation.

As for the air quality comments, I find it hard to believe that an additional 250 cars will only have a minimal impact on traffic or air quality.  This is easy for folks to say – they don’t LIVE HERE.  It seems like the City is once again making concessions and deals for developers and companies.  I wish residents could get special concessions and deals too!

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 10, 2014  8:46pm

@ anonymous—

What people need to envision for the Route 34 strip is a new Whalley Avenue, with big box retail in the vein of what you’ll find along the Post Road, or at Exit 9 off I-91. 1) It’s probably the best use from a developer’s perspective,—quick, easy and certain profits. 2) The cash-strapped City is bound to continue selling off the parcels, 3) whatever businesses locate will prosper, because of the extreme car traffic.

Of course if this does come to fruition, it will be devastating to Whalley Avenue, and the long-term interests of Beaver Hill. But what does Centerplan care? They’ll be getting rich from the rents of Rite-Aid, Dunkin Donuts, TD Bank, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Red Roof Inn, etc.

posted by: 14yearsinNHandgone on March 11, 2014  7:44am

Did I miss something?  Is John DeStefan still mayor?

No? Then why are you still carrying out his plans as if he was?

New mayor, new opportunities.  For Harp and Nemerson to uphold this deal because “DeStefano did it” is the height of comedy. 

This whole election was about change from the DeStefano era, and making better choices, and having more transparency, and doing better for the people who live in areas like this.

To pass this through, to not pull up on the reins a bit and slow it down and do a RFP, just proves that nothing has changed.

Do the RFP.  The current bidder can still put in a bid.  If it’s the best bid, then they’ll win.  If it’s not, then all these people who live and work in this area will win.

I find it hard to believe that delaying this any amount of time is going to make or break all of New Haven.

That said, I find it heartening that Toni Harp managed to speak up for once instead of letting her handlers do it.  I just wish there was something coming out of her mouth besides John DeStefano’s voice.

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 11, 2014  12:38pm

The last thing Rt 34 needs is big box development with its excessive parking. What we need is a 3-5 story mixed use linear neighborhood.

But since the city owns the land what we’ll get is more of what’s before us now; a back room deal.  What a shame and a waste of an opportunity.

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 11, 2014  3:36pm

Since when did ‘Hospital’ become a synonym for ‘Community’?

posted by: 14yearsinNHandgone on March 11, 2014  7:56pm

Why can’t they mix parking and development? Retail and offices on the first three levels, then five levels of parking structure?  They did that successfully in Boston.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on March 12, 2014  11:09am

Of course the City could plan for thoughtful development, and it does in some areas, but notice when the zoning is changed around Route 34 in advance of development or after a development meets opposition, like the RMS plan for Chapel and Howe.
None of this is an accident.
Charettes, neighborhood management groups and local development groups give the illusion that the stakeholders, the people who live and work in an area, have a say.
Democracy is dead at every level and the plutocracy rules. We have only zombie democracy now.
No amount of cards, letters, protests will change the plutocracy’s plans.
Did anyone notice during the mayoral campaign that not one candidate eschewed development as a key to increasing the tax base? Did anyone notice that not one candidate dared to suggest alternatives?
The charade continues.

posted by: Jones Gore on March 12, 2014  9:01pm

Ha HA..HARP is paying back her political supporters and telling New Haven Residents…Stick IT.

Continuum of Care is a great organization, I worked for them. And I’d hate to see them leave the city which I doubt they will do even if they did not get this property. Also Harp talks about taxes, well non-profits don’t pay taxes so that will not change with Continuum of Care getting their own building.

We don’t need another parking lot, people need to use public transportation. This is a perfect time to bring up the Trolley system up again. Let Harp work her political magic to funding for that. For to mention highway as the reason for asthma means she doesn’t mind introducing more pollution to New Haven.

posted by: Seth P on March 13, 2014  9:29am

$2.65 million is far too cheap for prime real estate located at a juncture between two interstate highways and direct access points to the /CT valley communities.  $4 million will make a much better deal for the city in our current economic situation.  We must avoid selling prime real estate in our city for discounted rates.The city should not absorb nearly $1 million dollars for soil clean-up.  The buyer should assume that responsibility.  I doubt that would break the deal.  The good gesture of $350K to satisfy Continuum of Care is reasonable given that they have provided jobs and shown a commitment to remaining in the Elm.

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