See that picture above? That’s a sign of progress in one of the city’s longest-running blight battles.
It might look like a mess. But this spot on Winchester Avenue near Science Park used to look like ...
... this. For 15 years. It was the site of a bitter standoff between a former NFL cornerback-turned-developer Kenny Hill and the city of New Haven. It involved an abandoned, dilapidated apartment building, lead paint, allegations of government misconduct, legal threats and promises of forced demolition. Wedged between Yale and the Science Park technology complex, it also left a glaring, dangerous eyesore dragging down an otherwise improving working-family neighborhood.
Hill and the city were fighting over what happened with a $168,000 loan the city gave him to remove lead from 14 of the 18 apartments at the property at 235 Winchester Ave. before he conducted a full renovation. He claimed the city forced him to hire an unqualified contractor who took the money but never did the work. The city claimed that it acted appropriately and Hill owed them the money and needed to proceed with the renovations.
Every few years a new director would take over New Haven anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), and try afresh to negotiate a deal with Hill to clean up the mess and rebuild. Several times they got close, but the deals fell apart. (Click here, here, here and here to read about that.) Hill lost $1 million in potential rents while the hovel stood rotting.
Then Hill finally took the building down a few months ago.
And on April 3 he obtained a $950,000 construction mortgage from a New Jersey lender at a variably-set rate of between 12 and 15 percent so he can finally proceed with erecting a new apartment building there. As part of the deal, Hill said, the lender required Hill to pay back the outstanding loan to the city as well as thousands of dollars in blight fines so that the city would remove liens on the property.
So, Hill said, he did. He said this week that he plans to finish removing the old foundation and put in a new one by the end of May or the middle of June, then complete the framing, with enclosed walls and a roof, by mid-fall. That way, he said, he hopes to be able to work through the winter on creating a new building with 18 apartments to have open by early to mid-2019. (City Building Official Jim Turcio confirmed that Hill has permits for the foundation and footings.)
The city’s relieved, but both sides remain wary. This was a cold peace, not a kumbaya coming together.
Even when Hill finally took down the building, he and the city spent months disputing whether he was adequately cleaning up the debris.
On Feb. 5, LCI finally cited him for failing to remove the bricks and a construction fence. Hill complained the city was unfairly singling him out. His attorney Brian Enright wrote in a Feb. 27 memo to a city lawyer that the weather had delayed the clean-up, but that Hill was moving ahead. “We will not hold back on any fines. He must get the clean-up completed,” LCI Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo wrote in a memo the same day to city attorney Alison Lanoue.
The fines mounted to $3,300 through March 21. LCI Deputy Director Frank D’Amore said the city stopped adding on the fines at that point because Hill had succeeded in doing the clean-up. He said the $3,300 check arrived at City Hall on Thursday. (No word yet on whether a $168,000 check appeared at the health department.)
Hill gave up trying to negotiate with the city for aid to put in affordable units (though he said he might end up doing so on his own; he’s not yet at the point of calculating rents). He calls it “comical” that he ended up paying back the city for the old lead-paint money: He describes a Kafka-like experience of the city on the one hand claiming that he owed the money because the city-recommended contractor had done a good job removing the lead, and on the other hand fining him for failing to clean up a mess that that contractor failed to clean up.
“That was the only way I could progress the project,” he said of his decision to comply with the lender’s request that he pay the money. “At the end of the day, I said, ‘You know? Let’s just pay them.’ We paid back all the lead abatement money. Think about that: Even though the only reason the building was in the condition it was in was because of the city’s actions. Even though the city refused to allow me to fire the guy they forced me to use when it became clear to me he was either incompetent or a criminal. Even though that guy didn’t even come close to satisfying the commitment he made to me or the city vis-a-vis the scope of work he was going to complete in order to be paid in full.”
“If he’s finally there, we’re happy about it,” LCI Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo said this week when told Hill had obtained a mortgage to rebuild and had turned over money to settle the dispute. “It’s been an eyesore for the community.”
Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison said this week that she welcomes the new progress. She owns a condo at McCabe Manor across the street a block away from 235 Winchester. She’d been hearing complaints for years charting the progress, or lack thereof, at 235 Winchester every day she drove past it.
“I definitely have my eye on it,” said Morrison, who has kept in touch with Neal-Sanjurjo on the property dispute. “The city put him on notice: You’re getting it done.”
Hill’s development company also owns this graceful 12-unit apartment building a block closer to Morrison on Winchester. It burned in 2012. He did some work restoring it, but hasn’t yet completed it. He said he’s on track to finish those renovations sooner: He expects to start renting out the apartments by July or August. “There were 12 [units] before the fire. There will be12 after the fire. Hardwood floors. Fireplaces. Fire suppression system. Central air. Granite. Same marble,” he said.
Could it be a new day?