City moves ahead on downtown projects

With last night’s vote by the Board of Aldermen, the city moved one step closer to realizing the mayor’s downtown development plan, which would tear down the Coliseum and bring Gateway Community College and the Long Wharf Theatre downtown.

Meeting as a committee of the whole in City Hall last night, board members discussed the project for two hours before voting unanimously, with two abstentions, to approve the proposal for further consideration at a meeting of the full board. The board will hold a final vote on the proposal in February.

In addition, the board members voted unanimously in support of an amendment to the mayor’s proposal that would refer any substantive changes to the plan back to the board for review.

Alderwomen Joyce Chen ’01 and Migdalia Castro were the only members who passed on the vote. Both said they supported the Gateway and Long Wharf components of the proposal, but they argued for further investigation of alternatives to demolishing the Coliseum and more in-depth consideration of the mayor’s proposal for a hotel and convention center on the lot.

During discussion, several members of the board voiced concerns about the economic viability of the hotel and convention center, considerations influenced by prior testimony from concerned citizens. Chen questioned the other board members for voting on a major project without being “excited” about one of its key components.

“I’m not hearing, ‘Yes, let’s build a convention center, we’re really excited about this,'” Chen said. “People are saying, ‘Well, we don’t have that much to lose.’ Given that it involves demolition of a huge structure — I don’t think we should hastily move forward with a project that we’re not excited about.”

In response, a number of aldermen proceeded one-by-one to voice their excitement about the downtown development project. Finally, Ward 12 Alderwoman Shirley Ellis-West intervened, calling for a show of hands from everyone who was “excited” about the project. Nearly all of the assembled aldermen raised their hands.

Board President Jorge Perez contended that members should not be concerned about the hotel and convention center proposal because whether or not it is economically viable will be determined by the market when the city seeks offers from developers. If the hotel and convention center required public funding, that money would have to be approved by the board.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. praised the development project, saying its benefits were “self-evident.”

“I think there’s a real chance here to develop a major workforce institution in our community, which is a community college in a first-class facility appropriate to its mission to train and retrain folks to earn a living and support their families,” DeStefano said.

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