Published October 16. 2005 4:00AM Updated November 11. 2009 2:27AM
New London -- In mid-July, as commentators and politicians around the country decried this city's attempt to seize private homes for economic development on the Fort Trumbull peninsula, a press release appeared on the Web site of Pfizer Inc.
The pharmaceutical company, whose $300 million research complex sits adjacent to what remains of the neighborhood, announced that it wanted to set the record straight on its involvement in the Fort Trumbull development project.
The project, the statement said, wasn't Pfizer's idea.
"We at Pfizer have been dismayed to see false and misleading claims appear in the media that suggest Pfizer is somehow involved in this matter," the statement said. The writers said the company "has no requirements nor interest in the development of the land that is the subject of the case."
But a recent, months-long review of state records and correspondence from 1997 and 1998 -- when officials from the administration of then-Gov. John G. Rowland were helping convince the pharmaceutical giant to build in New London -- shows that statement is misleading, at best.
In fact, the company has been intimately involved in the project since its inception, consulting with state and city officials about the plans for the peninsula and helping to shape the vision of how the faded neighborhood might eventually be transformed into a complex of high-end housing and office space, anchored by a luxury hotel.
The records -- obtained by The Day through the state Freedom of Information Act -- show that, at least as early as the fall of 1997, Pfizer executives and state economic development officials were discussing the company's plans, not just for a new research facility but for the surrounding neighborhood as well.
And, after several requests, the state Department of Economic and Community Development produced a document that both the state and Pfizer had at first said did not exist: A 1997 sketch, prepared by CUH2A, Pfizer's design firm for its new facility. Labeled as a "vision statement," it suggested various ways the existing neighborhood and nearby vacant Navy facility could be replaced with a "high end residential district," offices and retail businesses, expanded parking and a marina.
Those interactions took place months before Pfizer announced that it would build in the city, on the site of the former New London Mills linoleum factory, and months before the New London Development Corp. announced its redevelopment plans for the neighborhood and the former Naval Undersea Warfare Center next door.
The NLDC's plans, while different in many respects from the hand-drawn 1997 plan, maintain the vision statement's core purpose -- a total replacement of the existing stock of modest homes, apartment houses and businesses, and the development of upscale housing and office space to jibe with the new Pfizer complex.
NLDC and city officials have long characterized their efforts to recast the working-class neighborhood as a response to Pfizer's decision to build on the peninsula, rather than a move made as a condition of Pfizer's involvement in the project.
And in the state and federal court rulings that upheld the city's takings of homes for the private development project, judges at every level of the judiciary have assumed the same.
Even in a blistering dissent, which warned that the NLDC's plan left all private property under the "specter of condemnation," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sets the beginning of the case in February 1998, when Pfizer announced its plans to build its facility. While challenging the constitutionality of the eminent domain project, O'Connor and the other justices accept that it was an independent effort to "complement" the construction of a research complex next door.
But in a series of recent interviews, several former high-ranking state officials confirmed what opponents of the project have long insisted and what the company continues to deny: The state's agreement to replace the existing neighborhood was a condition of Pfizer's move here.
Current and former Pfizer executives, meanwhile, concede that the company expected a major redevelopment of the area to occur and offered guidance, but they strongly deny that they insisted on specific changes.
"The issues you raise are ones that were gone over in detail in the court case, and I do not feel it serves the city well to revivify them at this time," said George M. Milne Jr., an NLDC board member and the former president of Pfizer's Central Research Division, in an e-mail message. "The record as described by the Connecticut Supreme Court and cited by the U.S. Supreme Court 'clearly demonstrates that the development was not intended to serve the interests of Pfizer Inc., or any other private entity,' and that is correct."
But, according to the former state officials, Pfizer did not just support the city's attempt to renovate the neighborhood. The company demanded it, they said.
Any attempt to clarify the origins of the development project is hindered both by the passage of time and by the fact that many of the participants in the earliest discussions with the company will not, or cannot talk about their efforts.
Peter N. Ellef, who as DECD commissioner and later Rowland's co-chief of staff oversaw the state's involvement, is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges stemming from his years in the governor's office. A message seeking comment, relayed through his attorney, went unreturned.
Rowland, who publicly embraced this and other urban development projects and poured in state bond funds, sits in federal prison in Pennsylvania after pleading guilty to a corruption charge.
Rita Zangari, a former deputy commissioner at DECD who also played a major role in the Fort Trumbull project, has moved to the University of Connecticut and declined to comment for this article.
But some former members of the Rowland administration with knowledge of the state's negotiations with Pfizer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they wished to spare their relationships with current and former colleagues, confirmed Pfizer's involvement in the planning of the Fort Trumbull project.
The company's formal assistance agreements with the state, which lay out more than $118 million in financial incentives and other amenities that were offered by the state and the city to convince Pfizer to build in New London, does not specifically offer to redevelop the neighborhood.
But the redevelopment project, largely paid for with an additional $73 million in bonded funds, was an integral part of the state's deal with Pfizer, the officials said, and the company would not have built its headquarters in New London without being assured that the surroundings would undergo a radical change.
"They would not have done the deal without the commitment to make the surrounding area more livable," said a high-ranking official who was privy to negotiations between Pfizer and the state. "They were trying to attract people with Ph.D.s who make $150,000 to $200,000 a year to eastern Connecticut ... and they were not going to tell them they had to drive to work through a blighted community."
The official, whose account was corroborated by fellow sources, and in part by state records provided under the Freedom of Information Act, also said that it was clear from the beginning of the negotiations with Pfizer that it would be necessary to use eminent domain to clear some of the houses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, a prospect that concerned some conservatives in the Rowland administration uncomfortable with the prospect of seizing private homes for the project.
But those concerns were outweighed, the official said, by the promise of as many as 2,000 high-paying research jobs coming to a struggling, cash-strapped city.
"I'm not going to tell you it was a difficult decision," the official said. "It wasn't, because of the number of jobs."
Another former member of the Rowland administration confirmed that assessment of the decision.
"Yeah, definitely," the second official said. "One of the things Pfizer was concerned about, from the point of view of being a corporation that could attract people to this facility, was a high quality of life in general."
"What is it going to take to attract this corporation to build this facility in New London?" the second official said, describing the attitude of Rowland and his subordinates when they negotiated with Pfizer. "What could we put on the table? Just cleaning up the whole area in general, I think, was part of the deal."
But for years, executives at Pfizer, along with the state and the NLDC, have disputed that view.
Instead, they have maintained that the effort to redevelop the neighborhood came only in response to Pfizer's announcement that it would locate its headquarters here, and they have insisted that the company never directed the state or city to overhaul the surrounding area in exchange for that construction.
In January 2005, for instance, a company executive disputed the assertion that the Fort Trumbull homes were moved to help attract Pfizer in a letter to the editor of The Day, in response to a syndicated column by Froma Harrop.
"Ms. Harrop claims that homes in Fort Trumbull were razed because Pfizer wanted the area 'spiffed up,' " wrote Nancy Hutson, a senior vice president and director of the company's Groton and New London laboratories. "This charge was examined at length by the Superior Court and dismissed as groundless. Repeating the fib is unfair and hurtful."
In an interview late last month, Pfizer's senior corporate counsel for global research and development, William C. Longa, acknowledged that the company had been involved in the earliest consultations about the project, saying the possibility of generating benefits in a host community helped convince corporate leaders in New York to agree to build in New London rather than other, less encumbered sites.
"Really what it distilled itself down to was there were probably better, less difficult financial opportunities for the greenfield sites," Longa said, "but the balance was probably tipped by two things, one being proximity to our major research site in the Northeast -- Groton labs -- and the other being that there was a feeling that significant good could be done for New London, because the site had been vacant and a number of efforts had been made to develop it and they had all been unsuccessful."
What the former state officials had called Pfizer's "demands," Longa said, were simply suggestions offered by the company, intended to spur the sort of development that could benefit from Pfizer's presence.
There are "nuances to how people listen to and hear various things that are said," Longa said, adding later that "we really wanted to help the city capitalize on the opportunity that would be generated, and the city knew that.
"So there are people around the city who are wanting to say the design of the (municipal development plan) was the architecture of Pfizer, which is totally false," he continued. "It's not the case at all."
In interviews, however, the state officials made clear that the difference between a demand by Pfizer and a statement of preference about what it would like to see next door was a small one, especially when the city and state had already committed to invest, according to figures from the DECD, a total of $118 million in other incentives.
"This wasn't like convincing a bank in Norwalk to move to Stamford," a former NLDC employee said. "This was a major league deal. This was 2,000 jobs, et cetera. They know what that means. DECD knows what that means. ... What do we need to make this happen?"
Longa initially said neither the company nor its architects had ever provided renderings or plans to suggest new uses for the peninsula.
When a reporter called back later -- after the state provided a copy of the 1997 plan, which was stamped with the logo of the Princeton-based architecture and design firm CUH2A, which built the Pfizer complex -- a spokesman noted that neither he nor Longa were employed at Pfizer when the sketch was produced. The spokesman referred further questions on the subject to Milne.
In a second e-mail message, Milne said the sketch was "emphatically NOT prepared to reflect Pfizer's views and or needs -- a fact I think everyone has been very consistent on."
"As I recall it was prepared by CUH2A as a favor to (then-NLDC president) Claire Gaudiani and the NLDC for use as a very early concept 'bubble diagram' to give a high level view for the state and city leaders of what might be possible from the total development of the area," he wrote. "CUH2A routinely produced this sort of conceptual drawings for me in my planning for projects globally in (research and development) so I was aware that this kind of drawing was helpful in visualizing options and starting a creative process."
In retrospect, the company's interest in the Fort Trumbull project does not seem to have been much of a secret at the state level, where the project seems largely to have been treated as part of the package of incentives prepared for Pfizer.
For instance, on Dec. 11, 1997, DECD Commissioner James F. Abromaitis wrote to Milne to lay out the various offers of assistance that state agencies would extend to the company if it would agree to build in New London.
The state would help, Abromaitis wrote, by "defraying the cost of that development and improving its value through a comprehensive, state-funded waterfront improvement and development project," seemingly a reference to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.
Later, in a bulleted list outlining the components of DECD's aid package, Abromaitis offers up to $8 million in initial funding for NLDC, to be used for "operating costs and to exercise options on properties adjacent to (the Naval Undersea Warfare Center) and New London Mills site as defined in the Pfizer concept plan," an apparent reference to the plan prepared by CUH2A.
A spokesman for the department, where some employees initially told The Day that such a plan likely did not exist, now says department officials "do think this is the document he (Abromaitis) referred to in that letter."
(Scott Butler, the president of Princeton-based CUH2A, said last week he could not discuss the plan until he consulted with his former client. "I'll be talking with Pfizer on how to understand and respond to these issues," he said.)
Scott Bullock, the lead attorney for the property owners who fought the NLDC's condemnation of their homes, said last week that he could not remember if he had seen the CUH2A sketch, but said it came as no surprise. While the trial court found that the project was not conducted solely for Pfizer's benefit, he said, the plaintiffs have long maintained that the city's plan reflects the company's interests.
"What the court said ... is that there was no evidence that the only intent by the City Council was to benefit Pfizer," said Bullock, of the Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit Institute for Justice. "In other words, they weren't doing this solely because they were simply interested in seeing Pfizer's stock price go up. And I think that's true.
"They weren't a party to the eminent domain action, and that's very clear. But they were clearly a part of the municipal plan of development, which gave rise to the eminent domain action, and eventually led to the court decision that said everyone had to be moved out of that neighborhood."
The plan that was eventually adopted by the city reflects the vision of Pfizer and the state for the city, said Jay B. Levin, a lobbyist and former mayor who worked with Ellef and other state commissioners from the earliest days of the project.
"It really took the vision and persuasion that Claire had, that George Milne and his board had, and that Rowland had, to look at the site as a real possibility and to put together a deal that was attractive and competitive," Levin said.
Meanwhile, some memories have faded.
"I just don't remember discourse about the neighborhood," said Gaudiani, the former president of Connecticut College, who says she was the first to suggest the New London site to Milne in 1997, shortly after she was tapped to lead the reconstituted NLDC.
"I'm sure at the time we were so naÃ¯ve that we didn't think anybody would choose to live in the neighborhood if they could get a significant amount of money and assistance in finding other housing," said Gaudiani.
Gaudiani also noted that she would not have been in the negotiations between the state and the company.
"I can't tell you, 'cause I wasn't in the one-on-one discussions between Pfizer and the state, whether Pfizer made the rest of it a condition or not," she said.
In the meantime, the NLDC and the city -- not the state, and not Pfizer -- have absorbed the sharpest criticism since the Supreme Court decision brought the New London case to the public eye. And that, one of the state officials said, was no accident.
"They have taken all the missile attacks," the official said, referring to the development corporation. "That's the beauty of distance."