After 10 years, first construction at Fort Trumbull

The map shows the 6.5-acre parcel of former federal land where up to 80 townhouses are planned.
The map shows the 6.5-acre parcel of former federal land where up to 80 townhouses are planned.

New London — The first new construction in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood after more than a decade of public debate and legal wrangling will be 80 townhouses, under an agreement signed Friday.

The New London Development Corp. reached the agreement with River Bank Construction LLC to build the townhouses along the Thames River on the Fort Trumbull peninsula.

The project, which needs the approval of the City Council, would be the first new construction at Fort Trumbull since the city acquired the former federal property where the Naval Undersea Warfare Center was situated in 2000.

At that time the NLDC, acting as an agent of the city, began buying up the surrounding land — including taking some by eminent domain — to make way for new economic development in the nearly 90-acre Municipal Development Plan area. The 6.5 acres being developed for the townhouses were not part of the eminent domain taking.

Friday's agreement needs the approval of the state, which invested about $90 million in the project and holds a mortgage on the land.

"This is a real turning point,'' Michael Joplin, president of the NLDC board of directors, said after the unanimous endorsement by the board. "Visually, it's going to change what Fort Trumbull looks like."

River Bank Construction, which is owned by father and son Irwin and Robert Stillman of New York City, has just over two years to complete the design, draw up a business plan and obtain financing and land-use permits. Construction on the 6.5-acre site must begin within 26 months, but Joplin expects the project to get underway sooner.

The proposed townhouses will resemble the Italianate, federal and Greek revival architecture prominent in the city, according to the agreement. The units will be at least two bedrooms and of wood construction. There will be no basements because of FEMA and state Department of Environmental Protection requirements for the land, which is low-lying along the Thames River.

The project may be built in one, two or three phases.

The NLDC will give the land to the developers for $1 at the start of construction. The state is expected to release the mortgage.

The cost of building the two- and three-story attached townhouses, which will be developed as condominiums, but could be rented by Riverbank, will be about $15 million.

"I think New London is a very beautiful city and has so much beautiful architecture and physical attributes,'' Robert Stillman said Friday. The Thames River, Fort Trumbull State Park and vistas of downtown New London from the fort make it an unusual piece of land, he said.

"I'm looking forward to being able to develop it,'' he said.

The news was well received Friday in the city, which has been waiting 10 years for new construction in the area.

But the prolonged eminent domain battle for private property surrounding the NUWC land, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, divided residents and is still a sensitive issue for some.

"I'm glad to see anything positive happen. It's such a disaster down there, anything will help,'' said former City Councilor Lloyd Beachy, the only councilor to vote against the plan in 2000 because it included using eminent domain. "It's taken so long, it's been a real eyesore and a sore on the whole community. We had a community down there. Hopefully we will get one back."

Seven property owners who challenged the NLDC and the city's assertion that it could take private property to enhance economic development lost their land after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city.

The City Council is expected to review the 40-page development agreement Monday at a 7 p.m. economic development committee meeting.

Mayor Rob Pero said the good news about the project is that it eventually will lead to owner-occupied housing, which the city desperately needs. The Stillmans also are looking into developing other projects, he said.

"Other things they might be interested in are an extended-stay facility and a marina,'' Pero said. Both uses were included in the original development plan.

Stillman agreed that if the condo project is successful, he be would be eager to do more.

"But I don't want to put the cart before the horse, making claims of what I can do,'' he said. "I'd rather build what I can and let my work speak for itself."

Earlier this year the city hired the Yale Urban Design Workshop to study and present a list of options for future development on the Fort Trumbull peninsula. The proposed townhouse project property is exempt from the study's charge.

The peninsula holds only the buildings of Fort Trumbull State Park, a renovated 90,000-square-foot office building, Coast Guard Station New London and the Italian Dramatic Club, which was spared when most structures there were razed.

The original Municipal Development Plan, adopted in 2000, designated the land where the new townhouses will be built as residential. The NLDC changed the use of a portion of that land to commercial to accommodate the original developer, Corcoran Jenison, which also wanted to build an office park.

But Corcoran Jenison lost its preferred developer status in 2008. At Friday's meeting, the NLDC changed the use back to residential.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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