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Apartment project at Fort Trumbull: Will it happen?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 17. 2013 4:00AM

Careful readers might remember Mayor Finizio's apology for the eminent domain sins of the New London Development Corp., which he issued in February 2012, back when he announced a name change and new management for the agency he had promised on the campaign trail to eliminate.

Finizio said in early 2012 that the management change for the newly christened Renaissance City Development Association would occur by the end of that year, along with a groundbreaking for the agency's proposed apartment project at Fort Trumbull, Village on the Thames.

Apparently, NLDC President Michael Joplin of Chester, his fingers gripping the door jamb, has insisted on staying at the helm here in New London until the shovel goes into the ground for Village on the Thames.

The trouble with the mayor's new window dressing for the NLDC is that the apartment project, even with city planning permits and tax abatement promises in place, has been locked in delayed mode.

That means Joplin, one of the gold-starred generals in the apology-inducing eminent domain wars, is expected to remain firmly in charge as the agency holds its annual meeting Thursday.

The developer of the Fort Trumbull apartments, The Stillman Organization of Westport, still lists on its website that construction on Village on the Thames is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2012. Oops.

Were it not for an addendum to the 2010 development agreement with Stillman, signed in January by Renaissance City, Mayor Finizio and the state Department of Economic Development, which still has mortgages on the property, the developer would have been in default on the deal by now.

The 2010 agreement gave the developer until February of this year to get financing and permits and start building or the deal was off. The extension addendum sets a new drop dead date of May 16, which, of course, is fast approaching.

Many things seem to be in place, including all the necessary planning and zoning permits. I understand the lawyers have even staged a "mock" closing. I guess the agency needs practice since it is used to taking land, not giving it away.

I had limited success reaching Renaissance City officials this week, but someone did agree to open the agency's offices on State Street Tuesday morning, after I asked to review the Village on the Thames file.

The trouble was the file, which contained no recent correspondence at all from the developer, seemed remarkably empty. I was told a lot of the communication occurs by telephone, hence no paperwork. It looked to me like Disclosure Light.

When I asked for specific things mentioned in the agreements, like the developer's business plan for the project or evidence of financing, like a commitment letter from a bank, a pretty typical disclosure before any closing, I was turned down.

There was also no communication in the file from the state, even though a deputy commissioner signed the project extension in January. Do they only do business by phone, too?

Attorney Karl-Erik E. Sternlof, Renaissance City first vice president, didn't respond to my phone or email messages. (The developer also did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

But Sternlof did respond to my request for documents about the project - no - through an intermediary.

He suggested, incredibly, that a lot of the material would not be made public until after a real estate closing. By that interpretation, the public does not have a right to know what's going on until it's all over, until the public's land has been given away.

That sounds a lot like the old NLDC we all came to know.

Here's the tortured reasoning on disclosure from the first vice president's email: "First and foremost, it is the RCDA's position that none of the proprietary and confidential financial information of the Developer, including the Business Plan, is within the public domain unless and until the Developer fulfills its conditions . . . and an initial closing on one or more of the four parcels takes place."

More alarming, the first vice president goes on to say that institutional financing is not required.

Could it be that the agency will accept proposed financing by private investors and not tell anyone that's the plan until after they have given away the land?

No matter how hard I tried or how many different ways I asked, no one from Renaissance City agreed to provide any evidence that financing for the project is in place. No one would even offer up the name of a bank.

Until I see some evidence of financing, my guess is that it doesn't exist.

And if it does, the apology-giving, extension-granting mayor should make sure the public sees it before their land is given away by an agency that may have a new name but hasn't changed much at all.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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