Passero says downtown on the brink, plans a re-election bid

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New London — The city’s business district has long been stymied by a lack of disposable income, but Mayor Michael Passero expressed optimism Wednesday that market forces are driving a major change.

Passero, who said he plans another run at the office when his four-year term expires in 2019, met with members of The Day’s editorial board to discuss a broad range of issues but focused much of his time on his optimism linked with to the rapid pace that developers are scooping up downtown properties.

The visit was in part a response to a column by The Day’s David Collins, who earlier this month wrote a scathing review of Passero’s time in office. Titled “Michael Passero: The empty buildings mayor,” Collins blamed Passero for “the sad state of downtown, which has most certainly declined during his two years in office.”

Passero refuted the accusation and said the turnover of downtown businesses has been a fact of life for decades and has more to do with poor urban planning and a lack of economic diversity than it does with his administration. He noted the number of low-income apartment complexes in the immediate area of downtown.

“If you break it down into sections, the downtown area is just a pocket of poverty,” Passero said. “People who live downtown aren’t going to the symphony necessarily. Developers are telling us this. The dream would be four, five hundred people with money in their pocket living downtown.”

An onslaught of residential development proposals in the downtown area — at least 300 apartment units are on the table at the moment — should prove to be the turnaround New London needs to help fill empty storefronts, Passero said.

“Until we get those people down there, more feet on the street, they’re not going to come,” Passero said of filling empty commercial storefronts.

The hiring blitz at General Dynamic’s Electric Boat facility in New London is the driving force behind the recent upswing in residential development proposals in the city, and Passero said it has opened a window for his administration to be able to capitalize on.

“There’s a lot of good signs of life. I’m optimistic,” Passero said. “What’s really going to do it is something that has really consumed my two years in office, which is responding to the market pressures that want to build housing in the business district. My mantra is let's not screw this up. Let's get this. This is it.”

It was only weeks after he took office two years ago that Passero said A.R. Building came to the city looking for land to develop residential units. A.R. Building is now close to completing a $14 million, 104-unit multifamily development on Mansfield Road and has plans for another multimillion-dollar apartment development at the corner of Bank and Howard streets.

Another proposal, the 201-unit residential complex known as Shipway 221, currently is seeking land-use permits to build on another section of Howard Street, within walking distance of Electric Boat. Passero said there is also a developer interested in a residential development at Shaw’s Landing.

“The window has opened up,” Passero said. "I feel like I’m fighting against time. I just have this image of a window of opportunity and we have to grab it now. We can’t pass it up and I think that’s been the story of New London, where we lose our opportunities that are presented. The market’s going to put businesses downtown.”

Passero downplayed the recent donation by the Tagliatela family of 21 of its unsold luxury condos at Harbour Towers to the University of New Haven simply as a downturn in the condo market. The expected loss of a would-be hotel developer at Fort Trumbull has more to do with development costs than with a lack of interest in New London, he said.   

Signs of life in the city include $3 million worth of building permits issued over the past two years and some major “players” that have purchased and are working to rehabilitate buildings on Bank and State streets. Mel Foti, Eric Hamburg, Yehuda Amar, David Preka and William Cornish are among the people with multiple purchases over the last several years.

Passero admits that exact plans for the commercial buildings are not all known, but past work from developers like Hamburg and Amar are a good example of how to develop market-rate or upscale apartments.

Passero, who insists "things are about to percolate," said there are too many things on the table for him not to consider a re-election bid.

"I do not want to waste these four years," he said. 


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