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Would-be Fort Trumbull developers seek tax break

New London - A developer hoping to build housing at Fort Trumbull said Thursday they will seek tax abatements from the city to move the project forward.

Robert and Irwin Stillman, the father and son owners of Westport-based River Bank Construction, said the abatements were necessary to make the project financially feasible.

"If abatements are not approved, we would have to reconsider,'' Robert Stillman said during a meeting Thursday afternoon with The Day's editorial board.

The city has granted tax abatements to two other residential developments over the past few years, including Harbour Towers and Shaw's Landing, both on Bank Street.

Michael Joplin, president of the New London Development Corp., said the city should offer the abatements because it will help increase homeownership and eventually bring in more taxes.

The NLDC does not look at short-term economic rewards, he said. Rather, it seeks to increase the tax base and create economic development that will be span the next 30 to 40 years.

"If we have an abatement for three or four years to get the project going, we should do it,'' he said.

Mayor Martin T. Olsen agreed.

"I think it's critical we support what's happening here,'' he said. "The longer the property lays empty ... well, that's not good."

The Stillmans signed a development agree with the NLDC and the city in November to construct 80 residential units in Fort Trumbull on land where the former Naval Undersea Warfare Center once stood.

They have since retooled their initial design plans for the so-called "Village on the Thames" and have an application pending before the state Department of Economic and Community Development to expand the project to 104 units.

Thursday night, the Stillmans unveiled updated conceptual plans for the project to a group of about 20 people during a public meeting at the Custom House Maritime Museum.

The new concept, which still needs approval from the NLDC and Planning and Zoning Commission, includes two-story, wood-frame units reminiscent of the Greek revival and Italianate housing stock in the city. The units will appear to be freestanding but will be connected by garages. Buildings will be close to the road with courtyards in the rear. The new design also includes a "mews," or a row of carriage-house garages with duplex loft apartments above.

Plans on the 6.5-acre site also include proposed retail space at the corner of Smith and Walbach streets for a coffee shop, laundry and/or grocery store.

The Stillmans said they expect the two-bedroom units, which make up 70 percent of the construction, to sell between $300,000 and $375,000. They will first be available as rental units and then sold as condominiums when the real-estate market improves.

"Our intent is to sell the units,'' Irwin Stillman said. "We do not own a single rental unit. Our history is, we are not renters.''

The 90-acre Fort Trumbull development area has been an ongoing issue in the city for more than 10 years. The NLDC presented a plan in 2000 that the city approved that in essence leveled nearly all the buildings in Fort Trumbull to make way for new construction. Several property owners fought the eminent domain taking of their land all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where eventually justices ruled in favor of the city.

The Stillman project would be the first new construction on the site since 2000.

Over the past few years, the city has agreed to at least two tax abatement plans for residential housing. In 2009, the city gave a five-year tax abatement to Harbour Towers on Bank Street. Condo buyers pay only 30 percent of their tax bill the first year of ownership, but their bill increases by 10 percent in each of the subsequent four years.

On the sixth year, the owner pays 100 percent of the property tax.


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