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New London’s mayor again seeks to ride EB cycle

February 4, 2018 GMT

New London Mayor Michael Passero, a mayor caught between optimism and desperation, has come full circle.

When he was a kid, the difference between a great Christmas and a frugal one was the status of the Electric Boat submarine building cycle. Now with that cycle on its greatest upswing since the Cold War, the future of his city depends on whether developers follow through on plans to build housing for EB’s new generation of workers in proximity to its long-struggling downtown.

“My father was EB, retired Navy,” Passero told the editorial board when he sat down with us last week. “He got a job in 1960 or something, EB was growing then. I spent my whole childhood riding that cycle. The layoffs, the up and the downs, and the strikes. That colored my whole life, the EB cycle.

“So it is sort of ironic,” he continued, “that now I get elected to this office, which wasn’t a life ambition, and all of a sudden the thing driving the region again is EB.”

If plans, which range from concept to well along in the approval process, come to fruition, New London could have upwards of 400 new apartments near the downtown in the next few years. The target demographic for this potential development is primarily the thousands of well-paid, younger workers assigned to EB’s offices in Fort Trumbull, but also older empty nesters looking for an urban setting, Passero said.

But projects have a history of not coming to fruition in New London. Passero has the burden of not screwing up an opportunity that won’t come again.

Passero pointed to poor urban planning, not the opening of a mall in Waterford, as the major contributor to the struggles of the city’s waterfront business district.

“If you look at a demographic map of New London … the downtown area is just a pocket of poverty. The average per capita income is extremely low, down to $12,000 or something. And it makes sense if you think about it, because what’s the residential housing stock?” said Passero.

He then reeled off the public housing scattered around the downtown — Winthrop Square, Huntington Towers, the Mohican Hotel, the Hempstead Street high rise.

“Do I have to go on?” Passero said. ”(That’s) poor urban policy when there isn’t any kind of mixed-income residential development in the area. There are no people with money walking around the city, put it that way.”

And nothing, the mayor is convinced, will change unless a mixed-income demographic emerges around the core of the downtown.

“There are a lot of empty buildings,” he said, responding to recent criticism in this newspaper. “And there have been a lot of empty buildings. And it seems like anything we’ve tried to do, whether it’s the waterfront park, or Parade Plaza or, going back to Captain’s Walk, all of these schemes that we’ve dreamed up to correct the situation and turn the business district around … yet it’s all still the same.”

Passero needs to use all the resources available to a strong mayor to make this happen. He needs to work with the planning commission to ease parking restrictions that could inhibit apartment development; find the means to pressure speculators who want to sit on properties and not develop them; and hire a director for the Office of Development and Planning — the position is vacant — with a record of success.

New London has swung and missed so many times before, it’s easy to grow cynical about talk of a turnaround. But cynicism is an attitude that never leads to success.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.