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Development booming at Fort Trumbull in New London

New London — After years of stalled development plans for the Fort Trumbull area, the city suddenly has four major projects in various stages of development.

A 200-unit residential complex is under construction by RJ Development + Advisors on Howard Street where Hughie's restaurant was once located, and the city has plans to build a $30 million community recreation center at Fort Trumbull.

The latest developments are a 100-unit residential complex and 100-room extended-stay hotel that would span three parcels on the Fort Trumbull peninsula. The plans by Massachusetts-based Optimus Senior Living Group are scheduled to come before the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission on Thursday for a key site development plan approval. While these two projects could become the the first new construction on the peninsula, the RJ Development apartment complex was the first groundbreaking in the area covered by the Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan.

The projects collectively total about $100 million in private investment, and all have come together within the past three years, though work to attract development has gone on for two decades.

Peter Davis, the director of the city’s development arm, the Renaissance City Development Association, said it's a combination of factors and timing that have led to the rush of interest.

Davis was hired by New London Mayor Michael Passero in 2016 to help attract developers to an area of the city open to development through the use eminent domain — a chapter in the city’s history that still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many. The Fort Trumbull neighborhood properties were bought or seized to accommodate development in association with the construction of the former Pfizer research center. The use of eminent domain led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 in the case of Kelo v. City of New London. The court sided with the city, but it was a pyrrhic victory.

Pfizer is now gone, but Electric Boat occupies the space, and the submarine maker's hiring blitz over the past several years is helping driving a boom in construction of residential units across the city.

Passero said the city has put together a strategy to attract and guide would-be developers, helping instead of hindering them. The new housing units being constructed are filling up as fast as they are being built, he said.

“There was always a lot of interest for people to live in New London, but there was never the inventory of housing that would attract those people,” Passero said. “People want to live in a walkable urban environment.”

He also credited Davis and the RCDA for facilitating recent developments on Howard Street, including the completed apartment complex at Bank and Howard streets.

Davis said the local market is being driven by the major employers such as EB and Yale New Haven Health. Passero said the development of an offshore wind power hub at State Pier is also helping to drive interest.

If Optimus’ plans are approved, the RCDA has a deal in place for the company to purchase the Fort Trumbull parcels for $750,000.

The purchase would come at an opportune time for the RCDA. It has a Feb. 13 deadline to satisfy a court-stipulated $600,000 settlement with Riverbank Construction, the Westport-based firm that had its own plans for a residential development on the peninsula but was found to be in default of a development agreement by the RCDA’s predecessor, the New London Development Corp. A lawsuit was filed in 2016 and for years left a cloud overhanging any potential development offers on four parcels, 2A, 2B, 2C and 3B. Three of those parcels would now accommodate Optimus’ hotel and residential development. The city has satisfied a $200,000 portion of the settlement, and the RCDA is expected to cover the rest.

If all goes as planned, the Fort Trumbull peninsula would have limited space left for development. The largest parcel is adjacent to land being leased to a commercial fishing businesses. The RCDA is in the process of dividing that parcel because of environmental contamination issues that remain on one portion.

“The state invested a lot of taxpayer dollars in that peninsula to benefit economic development. That’s finally coming to fruition,” Davis said. “The good news is the inventory is shrinking. The bad news is the inventory is shrinking.”

g.smith@theday.com

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