Ground Broken on New Tech Campus

Kenneth Boroson ArchitectsAllan Appel PhotoA driver manipulated a huge piece of old tech — a backhoe —Tuesday to formally start the process of bringing a new-tech and innovation campus to the dusty industrial gateway to Fair Haven.

He reached up and beneath a dust-tamping stream of water to chipped away at the upper corner of an abandoned 1950s bus barn sitting on top of contaminated land.

Thus began the demolition of an old CT Transit bus site, to be followed by the construction of a much-anticipated $22 million projected called DISTRICT: a future tech hub, beer garden, kayak launch, and a new destination that might become the Elm City’s version of Silicon Valley linking Fair Haven and East Rock along a cleaned-up Mill River.

The demolition took its first steps toward physical reality Tuesday at the groundbreaking for DISTRICT at 470 James St. by the corner of State.

Two dozen city and state officials including Mayor Toni Harp and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy shared 15 groundbreaking shovels — the demolition began afterwards — to congratulate DISTRICT lead developers David Salinas and Eric O’Brien.

Salinas, the owner of Digital Surgeons, and O’Brien, the owner of CrossFit Gym, for a decade rented space in an old swimwear factory complex directly across James Street, won a competition to buy the abandoned CT Transit site and build the new project.

After the land was transferred from the state, the city sold it to the developers for a dollar and the hopes of putting nine acres and many future businesses onto the grand list. The city and state also worked together to secure, in tough economic times, bonding for a $5.5 million brownfields revitalization grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

With lots of neighborhood and management team involvement and promises that the deal includes the retention of 100 jobs, the creation of some 200 to 300 more, a grassy “campus” that features local culinary pioneers like Caseus’s Jason Sobocinski, and the developers’ commitment to add a centerpiece section to the evolving Mill River Trail linking East Rock and Fair Haven, the project came before the Board of Alders earlier this year.

There it was fast-tracked to dovetail with the termination of Digital Surgeons and Eric O’Brien’s leases in their current digs at the old Robby Len factory building.

Salinas and O"Brien arranged another $16 million in financing. If all goes well, the ribbon-cutting and opening of the first businesses on the site should take place in about a year, Salinas said in post-groundbreaking remarks.

“DISTRICT is meant to be a destination,” Salinas said, calling everyone’s attention to the “CT” at the end of the word, meaning a destination that aims to draw people from all over the state and beyond.

He called DISTRICT a “campus” that would be aNew Haven first, comparable to the first and best pizza, hamburger, and other Elm City achievements that have put our town on many maps

Others hailed DISTRICT as the state’s flagship brownfields revitalization project and the engine of developments in tech that could make the Elm City rival Cambridge or Silicon Valley.

Salinas put meat on the bones of the hyperbole.

After the demolition of the rear building,  60 percent of the remaining 105,000 square feet on the 9.3 acre campus are already signed, sealed, and leased, he reported.

That promising startincludes the businesses of the two developers: Digital Surgeons and a new entity to be called the District Athletic Club, Salinas said. The club will include O’Brien’s Crossfit Gym, as well as a yoga studio, and spinning facility.

The restaurant/beer garden tenant will be a yet-to-be named eatery whose principals are Jason Sobocisnki and his Black Hog Brewery, award-winning chef Tyler Anderson, of Millwrights eatery in Simsbury, and Chef Jamie McDonald.

Salinas said a co-working space will also occupy 15,000 square feet of DISTRICT along with an e-commerce business from Stamford.

Of these, all are signed up except the Stamford company, which is on the verge of becoming official, he said.

All told, there are 19 spaces available to rent, although, counting the co-working spaces, Salinas estimated about 1—businesses could be housed when the full facility is completed in about 18 months. At full operation, he said, about 300 people will come to work on DISTRICT’s cool campus.

“About 30 percent park, 30 percent parking, and 30 percent buildings. That allows us to have a campus feel, with a gorgeous interior courtyard,” he added.

Salinas was introduced to the governor and explained that the rear building would come down entirely except for the smokestack, around which perhaps the bar of the restaurant-to-be might be constructed. “A monument to our industrial past,” Malloy said of the smokestack.

New Haven State Rep. Roland Lemar reminded listeners that the building about to come down was erected in 1950 as the latest, modern facility yet, one that would replace all those clattering trolleys with newfangled rubber-wheeled buses.

“Those [1950s structures] were put up by risk-takers,” Lemar said, “and we are doing that again with David and Eric.”
DECD Deputy Director Tim Sullivan reported that in addition to the $5.5 million for remediation of the property, the state recently approved an additional $2 million in bonding to clean up the Mill River in the area that DISTRICT fronts. He said it will mainly involve dredging to remove PCBs and other contaminants from the riverbed.

The architect on the project is Ken Boroson. The general contractor is Urbane NewHaven, LLC, a company co-owned by Eric O’Brien. The other developer partners of DISTRICT include Pete Sena, of Digital Surgeons, and Mark Dillon, co-owner of Urbane New Haven.

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posted by: CaptainNutmeg on June 15, 2016  1:57pm

They need to knock down those empty buildings on Grand Ave that create a no man’s land between Wooster Square and Fair Haven and put something there.

posted by: Renewhavener on June 15, 2016  5:29pm

Am so conflicted about this project. 

Want to see it succeed and am glad it is underway.  However, remain frustrated over the undue level of sponsorship and winner picking being conducted here by the current administration at both the municipal and state levels.  There is no clear case to be made as to why we need to bend the rules for the “cool kids”, when a much more worthy an aim would be making reasonable rules applicable to all.  But yet: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/cool_tech_hub_fast-tracked/

Also conflicted about this team.  They seem polished, and have a solid local architect which is easy to appreciate.  But, it is challenging to overlook their lack of experience and the rough ride that implies.

For example, from the article: “If all goes well, the ribbon-cutting and opening of the first businesses on the site should take place in about a year, Salinas said”...it continues…“Salinas estimated (...) when the full facility is completed in about 18 months.”  From a prior article: “Salinas said the goal is to ... complete it in the first quarter of 2017.” http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/lda_on_the_way_/ 

So which is it?  Planning to phase occupancy now to stop paying Carter, or is this for the tenants to get in early?  Hate to believe all this taxpayer funded aid is geared primarily toward helping DS/X-fit pay less rent.

“The general contractor is Urbane New Haven, LLC…”  Never heard of them.  Checked and found they have had their license only since last September (MCO-0903536).  Asked around, no track record of paying bills on time or finishing other meaningful work.  It’s just a license, not a contractor.  Moreover a license that expires in two-weeks.  Time to re-file gentlemen.

Do want to see the project to go well, but hope for the sake of the principal’s, their tenants, and future of the neighborhoods around the project that they approach it with more care than the 4Bfest.

posted by: LookOut on June 16, 2016  7:58am

@Renewhavener:  I agree with you that having the government pick winners and losers is bad policy but we live in a city and state (and nation for the last 2 elections) that has chosen these type of liberal processes so at that point, a savvy businessman must learn to play the game.  (check out Fed grants for failed solar programs and CT’s First Five for examples of the good and the bad)

However, I must correct you regarding Urbane New Haven.  That company has been developing and redeveloping properties in our city and elsewhere for almost 20 years. ( It is bad form to say “I asked around….” as research on a business.  Give details and names….and before stating that a business doesn’t exist, just google them.

posted by: win win on June 16, 2016  8:52am

I too am deeply conflicted about this project.

If it’s a pathway for out of work or underemployed urban residents to get into the tech field, that’s a good thing.

Brownfield remediation. Another good thing.

BUT if it’s a pathway to a New Haven version of Silicon Valley, which has some of the worst inequality around, that’s a BAD thing. Particularly if taxpayers are footing the bill only to be majorly left out of economic opportunities and benefits. New Haven is already home to the fastest growing inequality anywhere and I don’t see our city administration or major instructions doing much about it.

Tech + Cross fit, Kayaks, and Beer gardens?? definitely sounds like a recipe for gentrification that doesn’t include or offer meaningful benefits to the existing Fair Haven community.

posted by: Renewhavener on June 16, 2016  11:23am

@Lookout,

“I agree with you that having the government pick winners and losers is bad policy but we live in a city and state (and nation for the last 2 elections) that has chosen these type of liberal processes so at that point, a savvy businessman must learn to play the game.”

Tell us then, what’s a principled business-person to do in such a context?

“I must correct you regarding Urbane New Haven.  That company has been developing and redeveloping properties in our city and elsewhere for almost 20 years. (It is bad form to say “I asked around….” as research on a business.  Give details and names….and before stating that a business doesn’t exist, just google them.”

Bad form?  So we just google companies websites and take their representations as fact now?  What kind of form might that be?  Several people out here who do a lot of real entitlement work to start projects know to rely on a lot more than google and wikipedia.  Would be wrong of you to assume that all that was done to form that statement was to call one desk salesperson at a supply house yesterday.  Have watched this effort unfold and discussed it with other practitioners for a while now.

Will restate that I am hopeful it goes well.  Looking forward to us all innovating great things while crunching big data and enjoying grilled cheese and granola brown served from a bar in lieu of a truck before kayaking down a PCB-Free Mill River in short order.  That said, Urbane’s website which you point to as evidence of their experience is devoted entirely to residential scale renovation work.  Commercial general contracting while financially intertwined with the City, and the State, while operating on a legacy brownfield site that directly abuts a DEEP regulated watercourse is unmistakably different. 

They have no obvious track record in that competitive space.  As a tax payer, before we unload millions on their project, it would be more comforting to know that they did.

I stand by my comment.

posted by: RobotShlomo on June 16, 2016  11:56am

BUT if it’s a pathway to a New Haven version of Silicon Valley, which has some of the worst inequality around, that’s a BAD thing. Particularly if taxpayers are footing the bill only to be majorly left out of economic opportunities and benefits. New Haven is already home to the fastest growing inequality anywhere and I don’t see our city administration or major instructions doing much about it.

Tech + Cross fit, Kayaks, and Beer gardens?? definitely sounds like a recipe for gentrification that doesn’t include or offer meaningful benefits to the existing Fair Haven community.


It definitely sounds like the ideal “vision” they have is the old “if you build, they will come” (PHRASING!!). The “they” are most likely Williamsburg transplants originally from the Midwest who all claim to be “artists / free lance graphic desingers” and ride a penny farthing to an office somewhere, who have been priced out of the area and think “Brooklyn is like totally dead now”, and are looking for a new city to ruin. I’m baffled, knowing it’s history, why anyone would want to go kayaking in the Mill River.

I sound overly cynical, but we’ve seen these types of plans before with all of the same buzzwords :“Hope that”, “should”, “yet to be”. “Could make”.  “Might become”. And more times than not, these plans never work out they way they hoped.

posted by: nhindy on June 16, 2016  6:38pm

So sad to see another give-away based on buzz words.

“Kayak launch” will have like 5 users for like 6 days a year, while there is one a 1.4 mile away on a nicer stretch of river.

“Beer garden” (means upscale restaurant in English) is a pretty small need with few decent jobs.

“Tech Hub” there are several in the city with poor track records.

How about: “local grocery store” or “day care” or something that can provide neighborhood jobs.

And the developer’s track record includes a brewery in VT, supported by big tax breaks and their economic development office, which sold out in 2 years and all the local jobs vanished.