Downtown is battleground for big plans

As the September Democratic mayoral primary draws nearer, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and state Sen. Martin Looney have made economic development increasingly important in their campaign platforms.

Both candidates emphasized the importance of downtown revitalization, with DeStefano focusing more on increased home ownership and improvements on East Chapel Street and Looney pushing for new baseball stadium and downtown business development. Each candidate also capitalized on perceived weaknesses of his opponent’s plans in an attempt to promote his own initiatives.

In the wake of the failed Galleria at Long Wharf mall project, which had been one of DeStefano’s primary economic development objectives, the mayor has refocused on home ownership, the rehabilitation of 50,000 square feet of retail and 300 housing units on Chapel Street, a 1,000 space parking garage downtown, and port revitalization.

The DeStefano administration has made city development a renewed focus of late by planning downtown revitalization and releasing a comprehensive 79-page report this year, titled “The City of New Haven Five Year Strategic Plan,” that aims for sustainable growth in economic and housing development.

“We’ve seen housing prices increase 25 percent in the city, and that suggests demand for home ownership,” DeStefano said. “The completion and rehabilitation of Chapel Street as mixed development will strengthen the dynamic that is creating exciting and diverse downtown.”

DeStefano added that the city is seeking state Urban Act funds because national Housing and Urban Development guidelines are more restrictive in regards to income. The fund would encourage home ownership projects in the city.

Looney’s most extensive and controversial proposal to date has been for a new baseball stadium for the New Haven Ravens, a Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Looney said a $15 million to $20 million stadium would make New Haven a strong tourist attraction and reap economic benefits.

The state budget currently allocates $30 million to New Haven development plans.

“A stadium would be a sign of local pride for the city and would bring more people into the area,” Looney said. “This project shouldn’t foreclose us from doing other things.”

Looking beyond the stadium, Looney said an enhanced downtown would jumpstart the city’s economy.

“New Haven has two separate downtowns: the one close to campus on Chapel and Broadway which is doing reasonably well, and the other on lower Chapel and Church streets which is desolate,” Looney said. “The major challenge will be to restore economic development and vitality to the area.”

Looney said he plans to improve the “desolate” side of downtown by bringing new businesses to the Church Street area and, in the long run, fostering the development of small businesses and biotech industries.

The two campaigns also differ in approaches to improving city parking.

Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said parking can be improved with a parking garage in the Wall Street area and the implementation of shuttles to transport people across town.

Looney said the first hour at parking meters should be free and the lower-levels of parking garages reserved for short-term parking.

The candidates were quick to criticize the excessive nature of each other’s trademark proposals.

Looney said DeStefano invested too many resources in the failed Long Wharf mall. He added that DeStefano has yet to formulate a plan comparable to his idea for the new baseball stadium, an idea he believes would greatly improve the city’s economy.

But DeStefano called the stadium a risky proposition, adding that his own plans would lead to greater economic prosperity by generating jobs and revenue for the city.

DeStefano’s proposals “will generate taxes for the city. The baseball stadium doesn’t. And they will generate jobs. The baseball stadium doesn’t,” he said. “There are scare subsidy dollars and they should be used to meet the criteria of either jobs, taxes or to what’s essential to the community.”

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