The 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.”
David 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.”
Anstress 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.”