14 years after Kelo, a phoenix stirs

I know people in New London — Crazytown, as one education official inadvertently dubbed it — are focused these days on reports of city educators having sex on campus and sharing videos of those encounters with students.

And, yes, that deserves a lot of attention.

But with a sex scandal dominating headlines, another important story for New London slipped by without generating some of the excitement it deserves.

The Renaissance City Development Association is in new talks for a $20 million project at Fort Trumbull with a developer that has a successful track record in the city.

A lot of developers and plans indeed have come and gone in the 14 years since the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly decided it was OK to tear down a residential neighborhood to build one the city would consider better. But given this developer's success with other projects in the city, and the ongoing demand for new housing created by Electric Boat job growth, this plan seems promising.

Congratulations to RCDA and city officials for finally clearing the legal morass of the last unsuccessful project and breathing new life into one that does indeed seem to have the potential to at last build something on the peninsula laid bare so long ago by misguided planning fueled with the misuse of eminent domain.

A new Fort Trumbull, as it begins to come into focus, will never replace the community that was lost, with its mixture of longtime residents in single-family homes and mixed-use buildings, a part of the old city's urban fabric.

But this developer seems interested in gestures that would respect the city's architectural traditions, even as it builds a modern apartment complex. They will pay taxes from the outset. And, honestly, at this point, some shovels in the ground would go a long way toward dispelling the bad taste of Kelo v. City of New London.

The optimism for this Fort Trumbull project reminds me, though, of a lingering problem for the RCDA — one the agency seems unable to address.

It appears that any new development in Fort Trumbull will be in the shadow of blight curated by a member of the RCDA's board of directors. It's hard to go anywhere in downtown New London or its surrounding neighborhoods without encountering a blighted building owned by Bill Cornish, in this case the burned-out industrial complex at 95 Trumbull St.

The fact that the owner of a blighted property in the heart of a neighborhood the city is trying to market to developers sits on the board of the redevelopment agency is embarrassing. The fact that he is a donor of Mayor Michael Passero's political campaigns makes it uglier. This is indeed Crazytown.

But the actual conflict of Cornish's vote on the RCDA board comes into sharper focus as development plans unwind and the mayor tries to negotiate a lifting of the cap on the number of residential units that can be built on the peninsula.

This cap pits RCDA interests against Cornish's. Under the exiting maximum rule, each new unit developed on RCDA property would eliminate the potential for one on the Cornish property, and vice versa.

Even if the mayor is successful in eliminating the cap on housing units, Cornish's sitting on the RCDA board presents an ongoing conflict, since he has a clear economic interest in how the peninsula is developed, more than any other resident of the city.

It is not only unseemly but possibly unethical for the mayor to be using his office to negotiate with the state a change in the residential cap that would benefit not only a redevelopment agency in his city but also a campaign supporter.

Why won't the mayor confront this obvious conflict of interest?

A lawsuit by one developer held development on the peninsula hostage for years. There are worries about a lawsuit over another stalled development. Why risk more legal jeopardy by allowing someone with a clear conflict of interest serve as a board member of the redevelopment agency?

Certainly, it is beginning to look like Cornish made a pretty wise investment when he bought 95 Trumbull for $300,000 in July 2017. It is bounded on one side by a beautiful state park and sits squarely on the Thames River, with commanding views. Of course, Cornish had the benefit of insider information about development plans for the peninsula that are just now coming into focus. The plans being discussed were first unveiled to the agency in 2015.

This is a problem the mayor and his redevelopment agency should quickly resolve.

It would make the celebration over a final agreement to bring new development to the peninsula much sweeter.

And it does indeed feel like this could be the one, after decades of wheel spinning, that will finally put this neighborhood back on the tax rolls and bury for good an ugly chapter in the city's history.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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