Nemerson Resigns, Heads To Private Sector

Paul Bass PhotoThe city’s embattled top development official, Matthew Nemerson, is resigning his post as of Friday to take a tech job.

Nemerson, a former Chamber of Commerce president and mayoral candidate, has served as Mayor Toni Harp’s economic development administrator since she took office in 2014.

He informed people of the move on Wednesday. He and Harp told the Independent they have kept news of his pending departure quiet so he could tie up work on numerous projects. He particularly wanted to complete work on a deal to bring a new owner for the Ninth Square apartments, a new developer for the old Coliseum site, and resolution of lawsuits to enable new building projects to commence at Olive and Chapel streets.

Acting City Plan Director Mike Piscitelli will also serve as acting development administrator starting next week, Harp said. Nemerson will remain on contract to be available to help part-time with the transition, though he will not be working from City Hall.

Harp said she has yet to decide on a process for finding a permanent replacement; her priority is to keep momentum going with city building projects in the pipeline.

Nemerson said he is leaving for “an exciting opportunity with a high-tech company which I’ll be [publicly identifying] very quickly. The company “is near New Haven, and we’re hoping to move it to New Haven,” he said. In the new job, he will focus on business development and strategy.

Harp said she wishes him well.

“He’s one of the smartest guys I know. He loves the city,” Harp said. “He always brings an interesting historical perspective to everything he does.”

“It’s been a really good run,” Nemerson said. “I always push to the edge. I’m passionate about this stuff. I always feel that no matter how difficult the problem, we can come up with a solution. Once we come up with one, I push until it happens.”

During his five years in the city job, he has scored some big development wins. They include finding new workarounds to outmaneuver Yale to bring a concert hall to the long-shuttered former Palace Theater (now the College Street Music Hall); and to find a builder for a new development arising on 11.6 acres of land in the Hill that had lain fallow since the 1980s despite previous administration’s attempts to develop it. (Here was part of how he did it.) Nemerson’s team has negotiated a series of new apartment-construction deals across town during a boom period.

In the process, it has overseen a dramatic reshaping of New Haven’s urban landscape, from the clearing out of Church Street South (with hopes of replacing it with a new development), to new complexes at the corner of Howe and Chapel streets, on Upper State, on all four sides of the Crown-College-George-High block, to a slew of in-the-works boutique hotels.

Nemerson’s brash style also clashed with staffers, public officials, and state leaders over issues like the future of Tweed-New Haven Airport. That often brought pressure on the mayor from influential people who had dealings with the city. The conflicts led to Mayor Harp placing him on unpaid leave earlier this year, during which time he sought to work on his approach to dealing with people.

“This is my first time in government,” Nemerson reflected. “My MO wherever I am is to be a change agent and try to do things that are really really hard to do. What I’ve always known and perhaps ignored is that when you are in government and trying to do things that are very hard to do, you can only do it for so long. You get totally burned out. The idea of changing this is resisted.”

That said, Nemerson argued, “we’ve accomplished a great deal. The mayor and I have very different personalities. If used in the right way, we could accomplish a great deal.”

“I wish Matt well in the future,” developer Randy Salvatore, who built the Howe Street Novella project and is building the Hill-to-Downtown project on the 11.4 acres in the Hill,  said upon hearing the news. “In no way will this affect anything in the projects we do in New Haven at all. There’s a great team there. There is continuity.” Salvatore said Livable City Initiative Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo has “been the quarterback” on his Hill project. “She’s been terrific. We’ll continue on without a hiccup.”

Thomas Breen PhotoDavid Salinas, the co-founder of a tech hub project called DISTRICT, called Nemerson’s departure “a big loss for the city.”

Nemerson oversaw a process that gambled on a local team rather than an out-fo-state developer to turn an abandoned bus depot into the DISTRICT project, which has gotten off to a successful start.

“Matthew’s got an incredible passion for New Haven,” Salinas said. “He’s got a big, big heart for the city. He’s an historian. He wants the city to do well. It’s a shame that we’re losing him.”

Thomas Breen PhotoAnstress Farwell of the Urban Design League, who often clashed with Nemerson, criticized him Thursday for having been too focused on “project by project” development rather than pushing for more structural zoning, transit and land-use reform. She has consistently criticized Nemerson-negotiated projects for including too much parking, and argued he should have worked harder to promote more convenient public transportation rather than trying to “push off” bus stops from the Green.

“He did what he believed in,” Farwell said. “I wish him well. We just had very different ways of looking at the city. I respect him for following through on his beliefs. They shouldn’t be where the city should be focusing on now.”

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posted by: Bohica on November 29, 2018  3:55pm

Another one? How bad are things in City Hall?

posted by: 1644 on November 29, 2018  4:49pm

“If used in the right way, we could accomplish a great deal.”
WOW!  That “if” says a lot:  if only ....

On another note, while it’s clear that this departure is long planned,  it’s sad that the mayor doesn’t even have know what process will be used to find a replacement.

To me, the big loss in his tenure was the Strong School deal, blocked by neighbors and Alders who preferred that it sit and rot rather than return to the tax rolls.

posted by: tbialecki on November 29, 2018  6:00pm

Great Job Matt! This is no easy job. I had the opportunity to work alongside several hardworking Development Administrators, Sal Brancati - The Art of the Deal book on his desk, Henry Fernandez - Che Guevara hanging on his wall, and Kelly Murphy - the ultimate NYC Bloomberg professional. It is a rare mix of talents one must have and the ability to understand and work closely with the community. I believe the Mayor understands the complexity of the job and will appoint the right person.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 29, 2018  6:29pm

Mike Piscitelli is a good guy. But the two jobs he is holding are to some extent in tension with each other. City Plan is primarily a regulatory agency. Economic Development is primarily a promotional agency.  I think it is the city’s interest to name permanent directors for both agencies (Mike would a solid director of either.)

Anstress Farwell is correct that the city is overdue for a systematic rewrite of its land use laws and policies. But that would take serious money and is not going to happen anytime soon.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 29, 2018  9:25pm

One gentrification vampire out.Soon another gentrification vampire in.

posted by: Politics 101 on November 29, 2018  9:33pm

Apropos of nothing, really, some life advice for anyone out there who happens to be reading this:

If you are constantly finding that you’re always (just always!) the smartest person in the room, chances are you’re not. Go back to your room and Google Dunning Kruger.

posted by: Stylo on November 30, 2018  10:29am

Harp has got to go. Matt was a big part of the city’s resurgence. She’s been a threat to it.

The overly sensitive don’t want a dissenting opinion. He had conviction and guts. That means not everyone will be your friend. But great leaders and changemakers tend to be somewhat controversial.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 30, 2018  12:51pm

@ Stylo,

“Matt was a big part of the city’s resurgence.”  You must be a relative.

Congratulations Mayor Harp for cleaning house and showing the leadership style that you’re capable of.

The only one who should be thanked for Matt’s menial work is the mayor who gifted him with the job.  Though I disagreed with the hire from the inception, his departure is great news for the city.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on November 30, 2018  2:51pm

Love Nemerson or hate him, fact is he was in on a ton of great new developments.

I thank him, and walking around th Crown-College-George-High block, I am stunned at the transformation. (Former decrepit garage, Salvation Army operation, boarded up office building, boarded up TK’s, surface parking lot, ugly Budget car rental.)

Let’s hope the next Econ Development brings just as much to fruition.

posted by: Stylo on November 30, 2018  3:03pm

@AverageTaxpayer

Exactly. One just has to look at the before and after.

Interest in New Haven development was happening before Nemerson. But bad deals were made or, even worse, nothing moved at all, frustrating and deterring developers.

Anyone that thinks Harp disrupted that status quo is delusional.