A "tiny house neighborhood" and a symbolic cleansing of the Kelo ruling "stain" are among the development options discussed for Fort Trumbull by New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio in his recent meeting with The Day editorial board. What remains murky is the mayor's vision for how any development takes place on the long barren peninsula and who will be in charge of guiding and promoting it.
The 2005 Supreme Court decision in New London v. Kelo, in which the court by a 5-4 majority constitutionally validated the New London Development Corp.'s use of eminent domain to purchase and raze the homes of Fort Trumbull residents who refused to sell, remains a "black stain" on the city, said its mayor
NLDC wanted to clear the site to attract large corporate development and expand the city's tax base. Its judicial triumpth proved a pyrrhic victory, the decision widely despised for interpreting "public use" to include the government taking the property of citizens to turn over to private developers. Count the New London mayor among the despisers. He characterized the Kelo decision as a "corruption of the constitutional interpretation of public use."
Fort Trumbull has seen no new construction since the bulldozers departed the flattened neighborhood.
Mayor Finizio said he would like New London to symbolically overturn Kelo by undertaking a true "public use" of the seized private properties. He offered as an example a parking garage, under discussion recently as a means of meeting the parking demands generated by Electric Boat's offices in the former Pfizer buildings, the one major project resulting from NLDC's corporate development vision.
This would not be any municipal parking garage, but one with solar panels to power it, landscaping and design to fit it into the setting, and first-floor shops to generate revenues.
"What really gets us beyond the eminent domain debacle may be effectively overturning the Kelo opinion if not de jure before the Supreme Court, then de facto in the city of New London," said Finizio. "What (New London) justified this (eminent domain seizure) on was generating private development for economic development purposes, but what we are actually going to do is create public development for economic development purposes."
As for other parcels in Fort Trumbull, those not obtained through eminent domain, Finizio threw out an idea that he said is in keeping with his campaign vision to seek "green, integrated, mixed use" development.
"Tiny house neighborhoods," Finizio told the editorial board.
Tiny house neighborhoods?
"Small, environmentally self-sustaining homes that are low up-keep, energy self-sufficient, etc. And a lot of cities that are trying to green themselves have looked at this kind of development," he elaborated. "Where you were going to do big, expensive multi-million dollar Village on the Thames condos, you could have a real village on the Thames of micro lots."
An Internet search turns up what appears at this time to be a small movement of building neighborhoods of homes smaller than your typical attached garage in suburbia.
The multi-million dollar Village on Thames to which Finizio referred is that proposed by father-and-son developers Irwin and Robert Stillman, who received preferred developer status from the city in 2009, pre-dating the Finizio administration. The developers and the development corporation remain at odds over whether the Stillmans meet the contractual conditions for financing. A recent effort to mediate the differences failed.
Mayor Finizio suggested the project is effectively dead, likening it to a brain-dead patient on life support with the plug about to be pulled.
Lacking from the mayor's vision for Fort Trumbull is any clear path to achieve it. After vowing during the 2011 campaign to eliminate the NLDC of eminent domain infamy, he instead renamed it - Renaissance City Development Association. It has new leadership, with attorney and city resident Linda Mariani serving as president. Complicating matters is the state remains a major player, having invested tens of millions of dollars in supporting development efforts at Fort Trumbull.
For legal reasons, the city still needs the quasi-public development corporation, Finizio said, but he alluded to control ultimately shifting to the city, without offering a clear explanation of how that happens. In the meantime, there is no indication the administration and RCDA are coordinating development efforts. Mariani, for example, thinks Village on Thames would be a great project to kick start development at the Fort if the financing issues could be addressed. Finizio never liked the plan.
Before moving on to tiny house neighborhoods and cleansing black stains, Finizio needs to focus on the process. As of now, it's questionable who a tiny-house developer would even talk to if he came to town.
Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.