City welcomes new residential, retail tower

“College Square,” a 19-story mixed-use residential tower with retail and high-scale condominiums, was approved for construction at the corner of College and George streets on Wednesday night by the City Plan Commission.

The building, spanning an entire block of College Street, will offer retail on the first and second floors, 15 floors of luxury condos, public parking on the third and fourth floors, and underground residential parking. Given the city’s long history of failed government-led projects, some community members pointed to College Square as an example of good urban planning initiated by private developers

Robert Landino, the Hartford-based developer of the project, said College Square — the first residential building of its size to be built in New Haven since the 1970s — will offer a 24-hour presence that will revitalize the surrounding area and expand Yale’s off-campus population in the area.

“I believe that the development will provide needed services,” Landino said. “The building fills a void and creates excitement and vitality in a block that had a mixed use of random tenancies that really didn’t connect directly with the Yale campus.”

Every condominium in the development will be owner-occupied, a marked change from New Haven’s current rental-dominated landscape, Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell GRD ’78 said. The tower is a step in the right direction for the city, she said, because ownership is critical for the maintenance and improvement of communities.

“At this point there are a few developments that have upper- and middle-class priced units, but a lot of it is just people who are here temporarily and then move out,” Farwell said. “Getting an established population … really makes a difference in people’s ideas and commitments to making the area better.”

Construction is expected to begin next fall, with the building opening its doors in the summer of 2009. The demolition of the shops and parking structure currently on the land parcel will commence in June 2007, clearing an area that is currently underpopulated, Town Green Special Services District Executive Director Scott Healy ’96 said.

“It benefits no one to have a very large parking lot with relatively small buildings on the periphery that don’t really add a whole lot of pedestrian comfort,” he said. “Overall, it’s a very low density area, and as a result the tax revenue is much smaller than that of a fully built-up site.”

Landino, a New Haven native, said he has always felt that the Elm City would benefit from a mixed-use building, and he approached the land tract’s owners when he heard they were considering selling the parcel.

“I rode my bike growing up here, so I knew every nook and cranny of the city,” Landino said. “So as soon as I knew that this property might become available, I certainly knew that it was an important property for the city.”

City Plan’s approval of College Square comes at a time when New Haven is considering various mixed-use building proposals for the Shartenberg site — a 1.5 acre parking lot on Chapel Street that used to house the Shartenberg department store, which was demolished during New Haven’s urban renewal in the 1960s. The city is also in the process of moving Gateway Community College to a new downtown campus on Church street. That effort is the centerpiece of a $230 million downtown revitalization project that will start with the demolition of the New Haven Coliseum.

But Landino said public projects, such as the Gateway Project, are not as effective as private sector redevelopment. He said Connecticut cities lack money because they do not have large businesses to support them and because New England’s unique town-governed system leaves cities like New Haven to shoulder the burden of paying for public projects.

Farwell, a vocal critic of the Gateway Project, said few efficiently designed projects that generate tax revenues — such as College Square — have been undertaken in New Haven because the city often chooses poorly-planned projects.

“When public funds are used and you step outside the constraints and guidance of the market, you’re very likely to make errors because you’re not having to study things according to what’s feasible within the market,” Farwell said. “Many kinds of projects that aren’t based on those constraints tend to fail.”

But Healy attributed the city’s increase in development to improvements in the real estate market and falling construction costs, which he said did not allow for profitable investment in new construction until five years ago.

“It’s just a matter of circumstances,” Healy said. “The economics are so powerful in determining how people develop a city that frankly what you’re seeing now is how the economy has changed the downtown. There’s been much more of an uptake on property values and the return on investment, so I don’t find fault with the city.”

City Plan Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’71 said the vast majority of downtown New Haven’s 26,000 lots are owned by private individuals and corporations, leaving only a small inventory of land for the city to work with. As for the land that the city does own, Gilvarg said, New Haven has been getting lots of offers from realtors and developers.

“It’s a positive sign that the market is coming to us because they’ve heard positive things, that New Haven is a desirable place to live and to build in,” Gilvarg said. “There’s a new movie theater downtown, a new grocery store … all of those things contribute to a positive ambience which makes developers tickle.”

A design advisory committee composed of developers and city hall members will convene early next year to finalize the tower’s layout.

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