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Transforming Fort Trumbull, without a Coast Guard Museum

I spent many years writing about the Fort Trumbull drama.

It began with the City of New London, through its corporate development group, failing to dislodge by way of buyout offers the residents of the peninsula's old neighborhood. They were seen as being in the way of redevelopment aimed at expanding the city's tax base and driving economic growth.

The fateful decision to turn to eminent domain to seize and raze the homes deeply divided the community. Led by Susette Kelo and her pink house, the residents dug in. Then came the 2005 landmark but broadly unpopular 5-4 Supreme Court decision, led by the liberal justices, which found that taking private property to spur private development could, somehow, be considered a "public use" under the "taking" clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Irony followed. The city, having won the legal battle, saw nothing much happen with the large vacant property for 15 years. Next door stood the two Pfizer office buildings that predated the Kelo case, a space later abandoned by the Big Pharma company and replaced with Electric Boat offices, but across the peninsula stretched vacant parcels.

Aside from the state park and its historic fort, and the adjacent Coast Guard station, it began to seem nothing ever would, or could, happen at Fort Trumbull. Proposed projects came and went. It was as if a curse had been placed on the place in revenge for the home-taking powerplay.

If so, the curse is lifting. Economic opportunity was the antidote.

On Thursday the city's Planning & Zoning Commission approved plans for a 100-unit, high-end apartment complex and a 100-room extended-stay hotel, which should both offer visitors spectacular views of the Thames River and toward Long Island Sound. A red-hot market for apartments, fueled in significant part by job expansion at EB, suggests developers will have no problem filling those apartments. The extended-stay hotel meets an obvious need as EB, the Coast Guard Academy, the region's Yale-New Haven Health medical centers, and other institutions attract professionals needing lengthy accommodations.

This spring, the city is expected to begin construction on a $30 million community recreation center in the Fort Trumbull area. Memberships will be made available on a sliding scale, making them affordable to low-income residents, say city officials. Making sure the city's youth have access to the center, and transportation options to get there, is a challenge that must be met if New London truly wants to make this a community center, the development of which has been a long-term goal of Mayor Michael Passero.

While the development of the residential properties and the community center will leave some parcels undeveloped, I suspect it won't be for long. The anticipated activity that the new development will generate — regional athletic events are planned for the community center — along with the bustle the EB offices already create, is sure to attract another investor or investors. Picture a restaurant, a coffee shop, a place to grab a drink and other businesses that could benefit from the foot traffic.

By 2025, the 20th anniversary, of Kelo v. City of New London, Fort Trumbull will be largely, and perhaps fully, transformed.

This is not good news for those who have pushed for the National Coast Guard Museum to be built there, rather than at the planned location on the waterfront in the city's downtown section. The community center will be a large, non-property-tax-paying project. The city will not welcome a second one to Fort Trumbull in the form of the museum.

The museum will either be built where planned, helping drive downtown activity, or not at all in New London. Success will be determined by whether the National Coast Guard Museum Association can step up its so far disappointing fundraising efforts. Its latest report shows $79 million committed towards its $150 million goal. Only $29 million comes from private donations, with $30 million in federal aid and $20 million from the state for safe pedestrian access.

The development of a bustling Fort Trumbull and a busy Coast Guard Museum downtown would be great for New London. I'm now confident one is going to happen, while withholding judgment on the second.

Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. Reach him at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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