City lawmakers were so determined to move ahead a plan to build a new $16 million tech and innovation campus that they voted ... not to vote to approve it.
That vote not to vote made the project move faster toward approval than if they had voted yes.
The vote not to vote took place at City Hall Wednesday night at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour hearing held by the Board of Alders Community Development Committee.
The committee was considering a plan to turn a vacant, polluted former CT Transit bus depot on 9.3 acres at 470 James St. into the new tech and innovation campus, complete with a beer garden and kayak launch and amphitheater, called “DISTRICT.”
The state plans to transfer the property to the city, which in turn would transfer the property for $1 to a development team led by David Salinas of the Digital Surgeons company and Eric O’Brien of CrossFit. The state’s throwing in $5.5 million to clean up contaminated soil — oil and petroleum from its days as a bus garage — on the site.
Salinas and O’Brien brought new details and drawings of the project to Wednesday night’s hearing. City officials brought along an amended version of a development land disposition agreement (DLDA) they negotiated with the developers.
Officials implored the alders to move the project along by advancing the DLDA and property transfer deeds to the full board for approval so the developers could get started building. Officials said the developers need to move fast: Digital Surgeons’ and CrossFit’s leases at their current locations (across the street at the old Robby Len factory complex) run out at the end of the year, so they want to move to 470 James by then.
Ten members of the public (including two elected officials) testified in favor of the project. No one spoke against it. Neighbors spoke of how it would bring life back to a dead zone at the gateway to the Mill River industrial district. Kevin McCarthy of the East Rock Management Team spoke of how the project could link his neighborhood to Fair Haven. Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix spoke of his desire to move his growing software company there. Alder Jessica Holmes spoke of how it would bring jobs and opportunity and a feeling of safety and “cool” to the area. State Rep. Roland Lemar said the project will help nurture the kind of tech innovation network and job base that lured General Electric to move from Connecticut to Boston.
Even the alders on the committee — some of whom had spurned officials’ pleas to speed along a separate neighborhood-revival development project that came to the same chamber two months ago — unanimously heralded the DISTRICT project Wednesday night. After the officials and the public finished speaking, the alders offered five-star reviews.
“Really great for New Haven!” raved committee Chair Frank Douglass of Dwight.
“Sounds great to me,” remarked Beaver Hills Alder Jill Markes.
“What working together is supposed to look like,” added Beaver Hills Alder Brian Wingate.
“The committee’s in favor of this. The alders are in favor of this. The city’s been working on this. Let’s vote for this!” declared Hill Alder Dolores Colon.
Fast/Not So Fast
It turned out that if the committee were to vote to approve the project proposal Wednesday night, Colon’s colleagues noted, then the project wouldn’t move as fast to final board approval as they hoped.
That’s because when a committee votes to approve a project proposal like this, the proposal then gets read into the record of the full Board of Alders at the board’s next meeting. That’s called a “first reading.” The proposal doesn’t get debated that night. It doesn’t get voted on. It gets scheduled as a “second reading” for debate and voting the subsequent meeting.
So Matt Smith, the project manager in the city’s economic development office, urged the committee to vote instead not to vote to approve or disapprove it Wednesday night. Instead, he asked the committee to vote to “discharge” the matter to the full Board of Alders.
That means the matter gets technically forwarded to the full board to sit as a “committee of the whole” at its next meeting, which is March 7. At that point the full board can debate the project and vote on it that same night, without waiting for a “second reading.”
That way, Smith explained, the property transfer can occur in early March and construction can begin in early spring,
That’s right, Dolores Colon corrected herself, “we can’t vote for this ... until March 7. Let’s bring this baby home!”
Which her colleagues promptly did. They voted unanimously to “discharge” the LDLA and property sale to the full Board of Alders, for likely approval on March 7.
“The Coolest Work Space”
Before casting that vote not to vote, the alders spent hours receiving updates on the project’s design and the LDLA’s provisions.
An empty 195,000 square-foot building now sits on the land. The developers plan to raze 95,000 square feet of that building (including the garage with the contaminated soil under it) and construct 5,000 new square feet of inhabitable space. They plan to renovate the rest of the building as expanded headquarters for Digital Surgeons and Cross-Fit (to be rechristened the “Athletic Club at DISTRICT” with new spinning and yoga and pilates offerings), SeeClick Fix, and other local and regional tech-oriented companies. A 4,000 square foot interior courtyard will offer a space for people to lunch or schmooze or chill in the open air. The plans include incubator space as well to nurture tech start-ups. And a riverfront beer garden and bakery run by Caseus’s Jason Sobocinski, featuring suds from his Black Hog craft brewery.
The plans also call for a kayak launch along the Mill River and an outdoor amphitheater for small concerts and, in Salinas’ words, “TED talks — something exciting like that.” The LDLA calls for DISTRICT to make that amphitheater available for free for annual “community” events.
In addition, the developers anticipate erecting a digital billboard visible from I-91. The LDLA calls for them to turn over 30 percent of the first $84,000 of annual billboard revenues to the city, and 20 percent of the revenues above $84,000. The city would turn 60 percent of its share of the revenues to the committee formed to stage the annual “community event.” It would devote the other 40 percent to a fund dedicated to public improvements along the Mill River.
“Our goal was to make the coolest work space in the area,” said Salinas, whose partnership has committed to invest $16 million in building the project.
“Today’s companies, young people, millennials, people in general, are looking for work spaces that ... have energy, that provide opportunities for collaboration.” As opposed to soulless corporate monoliths.
The old smokestack is staying. Not to blow smoke. As an “icon” of the property’s industrial past.
The city does not offer any public dollars (on top of the $5.5 million in state environmental clean-up money) in the deal. The developers can apply for a property tax phase available to any developer increasing the value of a property by more than 30 percent. That means that at the outset the developers would pay the current tax bill on the property — which is zero dollars, because the state owns it. Once they complete construction, the tax bill would be phased in gradually over five years, 20 percent of the full value per year.
For 30 years, the property’s owners would not be able to transfer any land to not-for-profit organizations unless they sign agreements to pay the city the full value of property taxes.
The developers promised to work with the New Haven Works organization to help local people find jobs at the new complex and to cooperate with the city government and Gateway Community College on a new project to train coders for local jobs.
And while the city welcomes the craft beer garden, the LDLA forbids nips and fifths. Similarly, body work is in, but not the kind that includes titillation. The developers promise in the LDLA not to lease any property to “a discount dollar store, ‘dollar’ store; firearms and/or ammunition store establishment, or massage parlor (provided that therapeutic massage establishments shall be permitted) or any liquor store which sells single beers or hard liquor in containers less than one pint.”
One revision to the LDLA announced Wednesday night gives the city the right to recoup unspent state environmental clean-up money if the developers fail to complete the work, so the city can finish the job and make the land available to a different builder.
Pay Up — A Little
Amid all the praise showered on the project, Alder Colon did have a concern.
She heard Salinas say he plans to include space to park 240 cars on the property.
Will you charge employees to park there? Colon asked Salinas.
At first, Salinas responded, he planned not to.
Then he discussed the matter with city transit chief Doug Hausladen, who’s trying to convince more commuters to “think outside the car.” Hausladen convinced Salinas that charging for parking could offer an incentive to find other ways to travel to work.
But Salinas didn’t want to saddle employees with too much of a cost, especially since some employees come from out of town.
So he decided, he said, “at least [to] make it a small fee.” That “might get people to consider a bike share program or to take the train.”
“I’m glad you said ‘small fee,’” remarked Colon, who has recently joined her colleagues in pressing Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital to convince their employees—who don’t want to pay for parking in the employers’ lots—to stop hogging neighborhood streets spaces.
With a bigger fee, she said, “they’ll end up parking in the neighborhood” instead.