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ABCs of New London’s economic progress

May 26, 2019

The ABC’s of New London Mayor Michael Passero’s strategy for the city’s growth are (a) live, (b) work and (c) invest. More people residing downtown and in the outer ring of nearby streets is the cornerstone.

“The dream would be four, five hundred people with money in their pocket living downtown,” Passero told The Day’s editorial board in January of last year, on the same occasion that he announced he would be running for re-election this fall.

The dream stands at 300-400 new residential units already occupied or being built and hundreds more on the drawing boards. Those will be the foundation for a new network of urban neighborhoods, the first leg of the economic revitalization of the center city.

Under the Passero administration hypothesis, people with a preference for an urban apartment over a suburban lawn will create a critical mass of populace. Many are apt to be newly hired millenials at Electric Boat, Yale New Haven Health/Lawrence + Memorial and other nearby workplaces. Residing in micro-neighborhoods in one-bedroom or studio apartments, they will attract investment by restaurateurs, markets and shops.

Step (a) seems to be working. Between new construction and adaptive reuse of existing buildings, the city’s own arithmetic counts more than 1,000 units proposed in more than 20 structures. New London is committed to a diverse mix of housing, so 15 to 18 percent are being built as affordable. The former St. Mary’s Convent, for example, will become 25 affordable units.

As the number of apartment dwellers increases, the question of which comes first — living, working or investing — will be a matter of the chicken and the eggs. The impetus to develop is already strong because of EB hiring, which puts workers into the city and creates the need for more housing. 

The best sign that the excruciatingly slow turnaround for the city is underway is recent news that the long-fallow Fort Trumbull peninsula has two developers interested — one in building apartments and another in a hotel and conference center. A.R. Building Co., the Pennsylvania firm that developed 60 Mansfield off Ocean Avenue and is now working on an apartment complex at the corner of Bank and Howard streets, wants to develop at least 104 units on three parcels at Fort Trumbull. Optimus Senior Living, a Massachusetts firm building an assisted-living complex in Bozrah, is negotiating with the RCDA, the city’s development arm, as preferred developer for Parcel 1. The proposal encompasses a four-story, 200-unit waterfront hotel with a restaurant and other features.

Reawakened interest in Fort Trumbull comes with the settling of a former would-be developer’s lawsuit, 14 years after New London won the 2005 eminent domain Supreme Court case and lost the war of public opinion. That’s not the land that has waited the longest, either. The 137-unit Bank-Howard construction underway by A.R. Building is on Parcel J, a label worn by the empty lot since the former Redevelopment Agency failed to find a developer decades ago.

Another 70 units are or will be downtown in old and historic buildings. The Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved 10 proposed apartments in mixed-use commercial and residential buildings on Bank Street, as well as a new 50-unit, five-story residential building across Pequot Avenue from the EB complex.

All this is expected to take three to five years to mature. Some existing proposals may time out for want of investors, while new or reworked proposals will come along. The RCDA is still working with the developers of the 201-unit Shipway proposal on Howard Street to find a potential equity partner; it first got approval in 2017. In New London economic development years, that’s not long at all.

But the times — good news! — are changing. More than one million square feet of new and rehabilitated construction is a reasonable projection, with the result of 2 million in building permits; and significant new property taxes for the general fund. And the development of new neighborhoods, something not seen here in a long time, will be good for everyone who lives, works or invests in New London.

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