Developer's ambitious ideas for Eugene O'Neill still just a concept

New London — One city official called the idea of a massive mixed-use development along Eugene O’Neill Drive a “game changer,” if such a plan was more than just an idea.

Old Lyme-based real estate development company Readco has such an ambitious idea but isn’t ready to go public with its conceptual designs.

The undated conceptual designs for a stretch of Eugene O’Neill Drive, obtained by The Day, show a mix of commercial, recreational and residential spaces enveloping both The Day’s building at 47 Eugene O’Neill Drive and 1 Union Plaza, at the corner of Eugene O’Neill and State Street.

The plans appear to show demolition of both buildings with a towering structure in its place with integration with the city’s parking garage and spaces allocated for a YMCA and offices for Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

Attorney William Sweeney, representing Readco, said it was unfortunate the plans were made public since they represent only early conceptual designs.

“There may be some interest in doing a project in that location … but there is nothing publicly to announce,” Sweeney said.

Readco is encouraged by the leadership in New London, is looking at multiple locations for investment opportunities and wants to acquire more property in downtown, he said. But any serious developer has design concepts compiled and vetted before moving forward, and many projects never see the light of day, he said.

In fact, early announcements on ideas can sometimes hurt projects especially when the necessary steps to acquire properties have not begun, Sweeney said. He said he was not aware of any agreements with property owners in the area outlined in the plans. A spokesman for L+M said the hospital has no current plans for any development on Eugene O'Neill Drive.

Felix Reyes, the city’s director of development and planning, said Readco had presented the plans to the city as part of its vetting process.

“We’re looking at this as a vision a developer has for the city,” Reyes said. “Essentially what he’s trying to do is turn a vision into a real project and there are a lot of steps involved.”

Reyes said Readco, like other developers, came to the city for consultation on how such a project might be received and to look at things like zoning, parking, traffic patterns, building heights and density issues.

“From the city’s prospective, is it exciting, yes. A development of this magnitude is essentially a game changer in downtown. Rarely do you have a developer come in and say, ‘I want to develop an entire downtown block,” Reyes said.

Readco, which owns the Stop & Shop grocery stores in Pawcatuck and East Lyme, is building a 25,000-square-foot medical office building for Hartford Healthcare in Stonington. The company owns the former Merrill Lynch building at 92 Eugene O’Neill Drive. At the time of the $890,000 purchase last year, Readco Chief Executive Officer Michael Lech said he was encouraged by the economic outlook of the city and thought this area was a hot spot for future development.

Readco also owns 63 Eugene O’Neill, now home to Citizens Bank, and is vying to become the new home for city offices under a consolidation plan under consideration by the city.

The City Council on Monday will hear pitches by representatives from both Readco and Julian Enterprises, owner of the office complex at Shaw’s Cove Six off Howard Street.

Both companies responded to a request for proposals from the city for a location for city offices with 30,000 to 35,000 square feet of space and willing to lease to the city for 20 to 25 years with additional 10-year options. The preferred location is within one mile of City Hall.

A representative from Union Plaza Associates II LLP, owner of 1 Union Plaza, could not be reached for comment on the plans.

Timothy Dwyer, The Day's president and publisher, said the building is not on the market and there have been no formal offers for its purchase.

Dwyer, named publisher on Feb. 28, said The Day does have more space than it needs. A section of The Day’s building that used to house the printing operations is empty. The Day is printed in Providence.

“Like a lot of media companies that no longer print their own product, we have a larger real estate footprint than we need,” Dwyer said.

Maureen Croteau, a member of The Day’s Board of Directors, said The Day was approached by Readco. Gary Farrugia was publisher at that time.

“When this company mentioned they were thinking about a development and could involve us, we said, ‘Yes, we’ll listen,'” Croteau said. “Every newspaper with extra room is looking to take money from their real estate and put it back into the business. Newspapers are doing it all over. We don’t need the big buildings we used to need.”

Croteau said The Day worked briefly with a consultant to explore what other properties might be available.

“We’re not wedded to the Readco plan. We looked at it but there’s no proposal to say ‘yes,’ or ‘no’ to,” she said.

Dwyer and Croteau both said The Day would entertain ideas for the large empty former press room.

“If a brewery wanted to set up shop in the press room, I’d entertain that,” Dwyer said.

g.smith@theday.com

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