NEW HAVEN — The fate of the biggest proposed downtown development project in New Haven’s history now rests in Hartford — where its prospects are by no means certain, according to lawmakers who’ll lead the charge on its behalf.
The project is the $395 million remaking of the old New Haven Coliseum site into a busy new-urbanist mini-city of apartments, stores, offices, a hotel and a public plaza.
The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously Monday night to approve a land disposition agreement for the proposal, a new development to be built on the former site of the New Haven Coliseum.
The developer, a Montreal-based company called LiveWorkLearnPlay, intends to build a two-phased mixed-use development in the block bounded by the block bordered by Orange, George and State streets, and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
LiveWorkLearnPlay says it will spend about $363 million to develop the block. It hopes to begin construction next summer, said Max Reim, principal of the company. Before then, the project will need “state commitments,” he said. Those include approvals for new infrastructure, including from the Office of the State Traffic Administration.
And lots of money — from governments facing fiscal crises. Reim said LiveWorkLearnPlay won’t build the project unless the state and federal governments come through with some $20 million on top of now-approved $12 million in city money to reconfigure Orange Street and the I-95 and I-91 exits there. The money would go toward reworking the exits so all the traffic lets out onto Orange Street, rather than onto Church Street. Then Orange Street would be reconnected to South Orange Street at grade level, eliminating that stretch of the Route 34 mini-highway-to-nowhere that the state has already starting filling in for the Alexion Pharmaceuticals tower down the road at 100 College St.
City officials and the developer have been making the case already to state decision-makers in hopes of obtaining the money.
“I don’t bet on these kinds of things,” state Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Tuesday when asked the likelihood that the state legislature and governor will come through with the money this year.
“I think it’s certainly an exciting project. That’s a huge gap in the center of downtown. I think the proposal is one that could have a transformative effect there. I think it’s certainly a case worth making,” said Looney, who as majority leader of the state Senate will be in a position to make that argument. “We’re going to try to obviously make the case for it.”
Toni Harp said Tuesday that she will make that argument to the governor and legislative leaders as well. Harp is retiring as one of those legislative leaders, in the state Senate. On Jan. 1 she takes over as New Haven’s mayor, the driver behind the engine to make development projects happen.
Harp said she supports the LiveWorkLearnPlay project. But she said it’s too early to say how big a priority it will be for her compared to other major “asks” of the state government. She said she wants to wait on a report from her transition team before laying out priorities.
“It’s a big ask,” she said of the project. “I think it’s not unreasonable to ask for that. It’s important to finish what has occurred downtown.
“Am I going to say it’s at the top of my list [of priorities]? I could say it’s at the top of [current Mayor] John DeStefano’s list. The Board of Aldermen thinks it’s important. I certain support it; I don’t know what our other asks will be.”
Harp, like current city officials, noted that the federal government and Gov. Dan Malloy have already poured tens of millions of dollars into the Downtown Crossing project, including the 100 College St. tower and the filling in of the Route 34 Connector at that end. She called the LiveWorkLearnPlay project a continuation of that effort to remake downtown.
“The state has already invested. I think they’re going to see that as part of the overall economic development of the town,” Harp said.
New Haven state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, agreed that people shouldn’t consider state support a given. He did predict that receiving approvals from state agencies could take less time than in the past because the process has been “expedited over the last year.” As for the funding, Lemar said LiveWorkLearnPlay has already met with him and other members of the New Haven delegation, as well as the governor.
Lemar said he will push for the funding for the project, but it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be a fight,” he said. “We have to make our case that this is a smart investment for the state.” Lemar called the project a potential job- and tax-creating “boon for the city.”
Lemar noted the legislature is not in session again until February, and will have to act fast to secure the money.
“A strong case can be made based on the investment the city and state have already made [in Alexion]” and based on jobs, said Kelly Murphy, the city’s economic development director. The Alexion project will produce an estimated 1,000 jobs, she said; the LiveWorkLearnPlay project will produce 2,800 permanent jobs.
Monday night, aldermen approved three separate measures related to the LiveWorkLearnPlay development.
The first was a change to the city’s zoning map, designating the project site as a BD-3 zone, rather than BD. A BD-3 designation allows for mixed use development: retail and residential in the same building.
The second two approvals were for the land disposition agreement and the abandonment of a section of MLK Boulevard to make way for the project. Aldermen approved those items unanimously, after attaching a couple of amendments.
One amendment contained some minor tweaks that came out of the committee process, like adding car-sharing to the deal’s transportation plan and clarifying what the words “substantially similar” mean.
The other amendment, offered by Alderman Mark Stopa, clarified some language about a 30-year “compulsory taxable period.” The deal states that if, for some reason, LiveWorkLearnPlay sells the land to, say, Gateway Community College, which is exempt from property tax, Gateway would nonetheless have to pay payment-in-lieu-of-taxes for 30 years.
Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colon, in whose ward the project will be built, hailed the plan as a step forward for her neighborhood and for the city. She thanked LiveWorkLearnPlay for “reaching out to neighbors” and creating a lot of opportunities for community input.
In a letter to the developer sent Monday, Anstress Farwell, head of the New Haven Urban Design League, called for the establishment of “procedures for public participation” as the design process goes forward.
Reim called LiveWorkLearnPlay’s process “extremely inclusive forever and forever.” He said public input can continue through social media and workshops.
Colon said that although the agreement doesn’t include requirements for ongoing public input, she’s confident LiveWorkLearnPlay will be responsive, based on the company’s past performance.
“I think they’re conscientious,” she said. “They seem generous in spirit.”
She said LiveWorkLearnPlay has always responded to requests for community meetings. “I might be being naive,” she said. “But I have a good feeling.”
This story originally appeared in the New Haven Independent (www.newhavenindependent.org).