City Seeks 16 State-Neglected Lots

Markeshia Ricks PhotoWhen Jeff Moreno became a Livable City Initiative neighborhood specialist for the Hill, he tried to get someone to clean up a fenced lot near the end of Rosette Street. At first he didn’t know the identity of the nuisance landlord; it turned out to be the state Department of Transportation.

Now New Haven is asking the DOT to hand over — for the princely sum of about $16 — that property and 15 other “excess” lots it owns throughout the city, particularly around a state road that divides the Hill neighborhood from West River.

That request is part of a broader bill before the state legislature aimed at ordering DOT and other state departments to convey ownership of unused land to local communities.

A city official told lawmakers this week at a hearing on the bill before the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee that New Haven maintains many of those long abandoned properties and keeps them clean and plowed — and it spends untold hours chasing down people at DOT to clean up its property and stop contributing to neighborhood blight.

The state’s DOT chief testified in support of turning over two of the 16 requested parcels to the city for no money, but argued against turning over the other 14. He said the city should go through an existing process to acquire land deemed “excess.”

The bill also would turn the operation and revenue of Union Station over to New Haven. That part of the bill got the biggest attention. But through the bill, the city also seeks to convince the legislature to transfer 11 parcels of state-controlled land along North Frontage Road and Legion Avenue, also known as the Route 34/West River corridor. The city already owns the central parcels in the corridor, but the state owns the acreage along its northern edge.

Intended a half-century ago as the location for a mini-highway connecting I-95 to the suburbs growing west of New Haven, the corridor, where construction cut up the city and displaced thousands of people, ultimately was abandoned to become open grass space and surface parking lots. The city has been working since the 1990s to knit that part of the city back together and has had some success in the downtown portion of the corridor.

The Harp administration is hoping to have some similar success in the rest of the corridor. It argues that the state DOT is standing in the way because it has failed to do anything with the properties, including keeping them clean and plowed.

Under the conveyance bill, the city would acquire 11 state-owned parcels in the Route 34 West corridor for $1 each, and five additional parcels scattered throughout the city, also for $1 each. The other five properties include:

• 25 Kendall St.: Land acquired for the I-95 project on New Haven’s East Shore. It’s a grass plot that the city wants to integrate in its economic development strategy for the area and target for a preferred use through the city’s request-for-proposal process.

• 16 & 18 Rosette St.: These two plots—the state’s system shows them as just one—likely acquired during construction of the New Haven rail line, are fenced off and overgrown. The city believes they’re suitable for a community garden or affordable housing plot, particularly if paired with an abutting city-owned sliver lot. City officials say the plots are a neglect and blight issue, with regular complaints reported to the city’s Livable City Initiative of infrequent maintenance.

• 99 Stiles St.: A corner sliver plot, likely acquired during I-95 overpass construction, could serve as a public green space or landscaped side yard.

• 195 Derby Ave.: A corner parcel of a major intersection, 195 Derby could be landscaped green space welcoming people as they enter New Haven.

“The western section of the corridor, what we call Route 34 West, has remained undeveloped, separating the West River and Hill North neighborhoods,” city legislative liaison Mike Harris told committee members at the Monday hearing. “Each of these parcels is owned by the Department of Transportation and classified as ‘excess land,’ likely acquired during the original 1950s acquisition and construction process. They are currently maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to prevent neglect and blight.”

He said that the city would like control of both the land in the corridor and the parcels scattered across the city as potential space for a landscaped park and pathways, community gardens and possibly housing and mixed-use development scaled to fit the neighborhoods.

But state DOT Commissioner Jim Redeker told the committee that he opposes such transfers of state property to municipalities, because many of those properties were purchased with federal money and require a disposal process that properly repays the federal government. He said the state already has such a process.

“It’s a known process, and we’re happy to go through that with any of the municipalities where any of that property is available, at the close of project,” he said. “But we do have to go through that federal process to ensure appropriate repayment to the federal government.”

In that process, the DOT puts property out to bid without notification to the city, Harris pointed out. That happened a month ago for the I-95 project headquarters at 424 Chapel St., he said. The 1.86 acres of land, with its two-story office building and warehouse of more than 58,481 square feet of gross building area and more than 36,600 square feet of ground floor area, went out to bid in February. DOT seeks $3 million for the whole shebang.

If the city wants the I-95 property, or any property in the city that DOT decides to sell, New Haven has the right to meet that bid, Harris said. If it can’t, that formerly public property ends up in private hands.

In the case of the parcels the city seeks to control, the state has left them fallow for years. Harris said the city is amenable to paying market rate for any property purchased with federal funds, but it thinks it should pay no more than $1 for the rest of it considering their long standing disuse and neglect by the state.

Fields Of Dreams

The Livable City Initiative’s (LCI) Moreno didn’t at first know that the slumlord for the fenced-in lot at 16 Rosette, which abuts city-owned 14 Rosette and LCI mows and keeps clean, was the state DOT.

He just knew that the lot was filled with waist high grass and junk. When he found out DOT owned the lot, he started contacting the agency, repeatedly, to get someone to just clean the place up. He has a flurry of emails back and forth with several different people from the agency that show that it took nearly two years to get the lot cleaned.

“I don’t know exactly when they did, but they did finally do it,” said Moreno, who is now an LCI project manager. “It has been extremely frustrating to try to get them to do it.”

“I know it’s probably not high on their priority lists, these lots in the neighborhood,” said Frank D’Amore, LCI’s deputy director of neighborhood and property service. “I know they have their issues with personnel and capacity too, but because these are neighborhoods they can’t overlook them. Jeffrey put a lot of pressure on them and we finally got a contact, but it’s like pulling teeth getting people out here.”

And just because DOT cleaned up one lot they own, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll clean up others. The state owns a lot just down the street at 34 Rosette that is effectively surrounded by privately owned lots, and it is overgrown and filled with junk, just like 16 Rosette used to be.

And for a time that meant that nearby neighbors weren’t keeping up their backyards either. Moreno said he found it hard to credibly enforce city blight regulations on the private property owners when the state was clearly flouting those same regulations.

“How am I going to enforce on them if the state didn’t take care of theirs?” he said. The neighbors eventually cleaned up their act, but the state has yet to do the same at 34 Rosette even though Moreno had repeatedly requested that they do so. That job has since passed to new Hill Neighborhood Specialist Arthur Natalino.

Hill Alder Dave Reyes said he supports the city’s efforts to acquire the Rosette Street property so that the city can get a handle on blight in that part of the neighborhood.

“Local control is a much better mechanism for that because we have day-to-day interaction with the impacted area and know best what the community’s interests are,” he said in a statement.

Harris said the city sent its list of parcels to the state back in mid-January to find out what its access rules are for maintenance to the rail, and included them in the conveyance bill now before the state legislature. Those properties, which face the street, have all been cleaned up. But those parcels that are not in the bill, like 34 Rosette, have not been cleaned.

The state also is showing a bit more interest in working with the city on at least two parcels, namely 16 Rosette and 195 Derby.

“The department is supportive of the proposed conveyance of property known as [16] Rosette Street to the city of New Haven,” Redeker wrote in his testimony to the committee. “But [DOT] requests a 20-foot easement along the southerly property line for future transportation purposes. The property is currently vacant and requires regular maintenance to remove litter and perform brush control.”

Harris said the city is currently looking at what the easement would mean for the parcel on Rosette Street and what could be done with it given that the only thing at the back of the property is a wall.

Redeker further wrote in his testimony that he has no qualms with handing over 195 Derby Avenue to the city, but he does oppose transferring the 11 Route 34 parcels for “no monetary consideration” given the city’s desire to use it for mixed-use purposes.

He told lawmakers in his written testimony that the department doesn’t have a copy of the city’s plans for Route 34 West development and that the proposed language of the bill “circumvents the public bid process as stated in Sec. 13a.-80 of the Connecticut General Statutes and does not allow the Department to generate income from the sale of the property.”

“CTDOT recommends the city purchase the property for fair market value as determined by the average of two appraisals,” he added.

The DOT chief also opposes the transfer of 25 Kendall St. and 99 Stiles St. given that both properties were purchased with federal funding and the department is required to reimburse the Federal Highway Administration if they are sold. Selling those properties for less than fair market value would put the state on the hook for that reimbursement.

Following is a status report on bills of particular interest to New Haven before the state legislature this session:

The 2017 Agenda

Bill #StatusSummarySponsors
SB11/ HB5539Committee DeniedWould legalize, tax recreational use of marijuana.Candelaria
Dillon
Lemar
Walker
Porter
et al
SB 17Committee ApprovedWould make certain undocumented immigrant students (DREAMers) eligible for state college financial aid.Looney
HB 5434Committee ApprovedWould have CT join with other states to elect the President based on popular, rather than Electoral College, vote.Winfield,
Porter
Albis
Elliott
D'Agostino
et al.
HB 5458, HB 6058Committee ApprovedWould establish electronic tolls on state highways.Genga
HB 5575/HB 7126Passed SenateWould regulate companies such as Uber and Lyft.Scanlon
HB 5589Passed HouseWould expand disclosure requirements for contributions to campaign funds.Dillon
Lemar
D'Agostino
Elliott
et al.
HB 5591Passed HouseWould require equal pay for employees doing comparable work.Dillon
Walker
Lemar
Albis
D'Agostino
Elliott
et al.
HB 5703Committee DeniedWould have CT enter into an agreement with other states to limit "poaching" of each other's businesses.Lemar
HJ 13/HJr 95Passed HouseWould amend the state constitution to permit early voting.Lemar
HJ 16In CommiteeWould amend the state constitution to permit absentee voting for all voters.Lemar
SB 1/HB 6212Committee ApprovedWould require employers to provide paid family and medical leave for their employees.Looney
SB 2Committee ApprovedWould make the education funding formula more equitable.Duff
SB 8Committee DeniedWould allow municipalities to adopt a 0.5% sales tax.Looney
SB 10/HB 5743Passed SenateWould strengthen hate crime laws.Winfield
SB 13/HB 6208/HB 6456Committee ApprovedWould increase the minimum wage.Looney
Winfield
et al.
Albis
Candelaria
D'Agostino
Elliott
Lemar
Paolillo
Porter
Walker
SB 137Committee DeniedWould expand birth-to-three and provide universal pre-school, among other things.Gerratana
SJ 5/HJ 1Passed HouseWould amend the state constitution to create a "lock-box" for transportation funding.Duff
HB 5588Committee DeniedWould limit certain bond allocations.Dillon
Lemar
Albis
Walker
Elliott
et al.
HB 5912HB 6127Committee DeniedWould establish a 1-cent/ounce tax on sugared beverages.Lemar
Elliott
et al.
HB 6554Committee DeniedWould tax carried interest as ordinary income.Porter
Albis
Lemar
Elliott
Winfield
Candelaria
Dillon
D'Agostino
et al.
HB 5831Committee DeniedWould provide bonding for transitional housing for NH female ex- offenders.Porter
Candelaria
Lemar
Winfield
Looney
Paolillo
SB 631Committee DeniedWould provide bonding to make structural improvements to the Shubert Theatre.Winfield
Looney
Walker
Porter
Lemar
Candelaria
Paolillo
HB 6863Committee DeniedWould authorize bonds for renovating the Barbell Club as a youth/ community center.Canelaria
Porter
Paolillo
Lemar
Winfield
SB 649Committee ApprovedWould allow local building officials to impose fines for building w/o a permit.Looney
Winfield
Walker
Candelaria
Lemar
Porter
Paolillo
Et al.
SB 590/591Committee DeniedWould limit police ccoperation w/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (590); establish an immigrant's bill of rightsWinfield
SB 20Committee DeniedWould require affordability to be considered in reviewing proposed health insurance rate hikes.Looney
HB 6352Committee ApprovedWould establish a deposit system for car tires.Ritter
Gresko
McCrory
HB 6901Committee DeniedWould impose a surtax on large employers that pay an average wage less than $15/hour.Elliott
HB 7278Passed SenateWould convey various parcels to New Haven, among other things.Gov't Administration and Elections

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posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 24, 2017  6:02pm

On a procedural note, the annual conveyance bill is typically among the last bills to get a vote in the House and Senate. Legislative leaders, of both parties, use it as a way of making sure that members whose districts would benefit from the conveyances vote the “right” way on other bills.