Fort Trumbull primed for development, RCDA says

New London's Fort Trumbull peninsula on April 25, 2014. Much of the land that was taken by the city remains vacant. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London's Fort Trumbull peninsula on April 25, 2014. Much of the land that was taken by the city remains vacant. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — To the naked eye, Fort Trumbull may look today like a barren tract of land that has not seen much progress in the decade since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of eminent domain by the city and its development corporation to make way for major projects.

But the Renaissance City Development Association, formerly the New London Development Corp., says the peninsula is primed for development.

“It’s ready to go,” John Brooks, RCDA’s Fort Trumbull development manager, said.

The electric, water and sewer utilities have been upgraded and buried underground, roads in the former neighborhood have either been fixed or entirely rebuilt, and the land has been rid of environmental contaminants, Brooks said.

“Much of that would have to get done if any residential, hotel, that type of development is going to occur,” he said. “Just to redevelop the area, you would have to have a lot of infrastructure built and in place. The streets that were there before were inadequate for handling the development.”

In total, about $75 million has been spent to make the 90-acre area covered by the Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan ready for a developer to break ground on a project, Brooks said.

“Things are looking good for the future,” RCDA President Linda Mariani said. “It’s a spectacular piece of land. You can’t ask for a better location. So it should bring in commercial, residential, maybe a hotel.”

But in the last decade, various projects have been proposed for Fort Trumbull, only to fall through before getting the first shovel in the ground. The main reason for the delays in development of the peninsula, RCDA officials said, is the economy.

Though the Supreme Court cleared the major legal hurdles to development in 2005, the homeowners who contested the use of eminent domain did not leave the neighborhood until 2007, and by that time the economy was already on its way down.

“The people, even though they lost, didn’t leave. It took them until 2007 before we could actually, with the assistance of the folks from the state, have the property cleared and (put) that behind us,” said Karl-Erik Sternlof, a former first vice president of NLDC who now serves as an attorney for the RCDA. “Which is exactly when the bottom fell out of the economy ... We really went right down the throat of the economic hard times.”

Mariani said she thinks the economic climate has finally reached a point that it will facilitate and encourage development at Fort Trumbull.

“It’s been a hold-up of over a decade and it’s kind of frustrating that we’re back to square one, but it’s exciting, and now things are picking up a little bit with the economy and people are interested and we’re going to do what the plan was to establish," she said.

Last year, RCDA hired a brokerage firm, NAI Elite of West Hartford, to market the land to developers. And in March, Pennsylvania-based A.R. Building Co. announced its plan to build an $18.4 million residential development at Fort Trumbull.

The A.R. Building Co. proposal would include an 80-unit “urban living” apartment building, two 12-unit townhouse buildings with integrated parking garages, a clubhouse with common areas and a fitness room, and an outdoor pool.

RCDA and A.R. Building Co. are negotiating a development agreement now, and Sternlof said he thinks the two sides will be able to work through any issues and reach an agreement soon.

“Once that starts it’s going to really affect the rest of the Fort Trumbull area because then people will be excited and the manufacturing people will come and the commercial people will have to service the residential,” Mariani said. “It will really be a catalyst for the development of the whole area.”

Though no plans have been announced publicly, Mariani said a New Jersey hotel developer has expressed interest in building a hotel on the peninsula. A Connecticut-based LED lighting manufacturer has also inquired about land at Fort Trumbull, she said.

The RCDA has also had discussions about building a parking garage at the corner of Walbach and Goshen streets to accommodate Electric Boat employees who currently park on the street in Fort Trumbull, employees who work at the office building at 1 Chelsea St. and the needs of future developments.

“If we get a parking garage, we can then get the people off the streets, which we need to do to get a development anyway,” Sternlof said. “But it also opens up the development of other parcels because you now have a place to put all the cars.”

Other recent proposals for the Fort Trumbull peninsula have fallen flat, including Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's request that the RCDA hand over control of most of the parcels covered by the MDP to the city.

During his 2011 mayoral campaign, Finizio ran on a promise to abolish RCDA’s predecessor, the New London Development Corp., and return control over development at Fort Trumbull to the city’s elected officials. He renamed the agency the Renaissance City Development Association, forced out former NLDC President Michael Joplin and endorsed Mariani, a New London resident, as the head of the renamed agency.

Transferring title to the Fort Trumbull properties to the city, Finizio said, would have effectively dismantled the RCDA. But his request was not well received by the city's risk manager, the Planning and Zoning Commission, or the City Council. Earlier this year, he acknowledged that it is no longer a viable option.

“The effort to abolish the NLDC has come a day late and fallen a vote short. So now we must move on," the mayor said in March. "Lost homes can never be replaced, the city will never again have this opportunity to take control of its own future, but all hope is not lost.”

The mayor pledged to work in cooperation with the RCDA to facilitate development at Fort Trumbull, but the relationship between City Hall and the development agency still appears to be a sour one.

In his State of the City address this year, Finizio announced that he and the RCDA reached an agreement that would remove Susette Kelo's former property from consideration for any future development and have it remain silent testimony to those residents whose homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood were taken by the city's use of eminent domain.

But Mariani said Finizio's announcement was premature and the City Council then tabled the matter indefinitely without discussion.

The cool relationship with the mayor aside, Mariani said this is a time of renewed support for the city's development association.

“I think that the community is really behind us, too, and that is so important,” she said. “I really feel like people are rooting for us and that there is a very positive atmosphere now, as opposed to even five years ago.”

With the development of Fort Trumbull again seemingly at hand, Mariani said RCDA could set its sights on other areas of New London and carve out a greater role for itself in the redevelopment of the city.

“What’s on the horizon is that we’re hoping to get more involved in the rest of the city for development,” Mariani said. “As far as Fort Trumbull, we’re going to work to implement the MDP, and it looks like it’s going to happen.”

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

New London's Fort Trumbull peninsula on May 11, 2005. Since then, the houses are gone, but little else has changed. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London's Fort Trumbull peninsula on May 11, 2005. Since then, the houses are gone, but little else has changed. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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