A 10th Square?

New Haven is about to get a 10th square.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced Thursday that he has appointed Northland Investment Corp. to develop the 4.5-acre site of the former Veterans Memorial Coliseum, as part of a plan that city officials hope will turn a currently derelict segment of downtown into a bustling business and residential district in just a few years.

The choice of a developer has been a closely guarded secret until now. Although Northland was officially selected earlier this week, economic-development officials were mum on the details before Thursday. And for good reason: The two developers were not notified until yesterday afternoon, according to an official from Northland. Several city officials suggested in recent weeks that the financial security of the firm would be the deciding factor. Northland will be formalizing blueprints with the city for the next four months, but current plans call for building a multi-tiered mixed-retail site featuring 80,000 gross square feet of office space, 978 feet of retail storefront and an elliptical residential tower.

The Newton, Mass., company will pair up with Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ‘65, whom University officials announced last week will be designing the school’s two new residential colleges.

Stern did not return a request for comment left on his home voicemail Thursday evening. He was not available for comment because he was travelling, said Director of External Communications Peter Morris Dixon of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP.

The group, recommended by an independent review committee this week, will look to the history of the 10th square as it sets in motion one of the largest downtown redevelopments in the city’s recent history, set to begin as early as a year from now, according to some city officials.

“Northland’s exciting ideas and designs for this site and the investment they are prepared to make to achieve this project demonstrate the strength and vitality of our downtown,” the mayor said in a statement.

a ‘NEW LANDMARK’

The Veterans Memorial Coliseum was a major cultural center during the 1970s and 1980s as it hosted hockey and basketball games and concerts, but its popularity declined slowly during the 1990s as renovation costs started to increase. On Jan. 20, 2007, the city knocked down the 35-year-old structure in an 18-second demolition project.

In applying for the commission, Northland presented its plans for the site as part of a larger rejuvenation of the historical “Tenth Square,” which used to be a merchant-rich area. Given the area’s proximity to Union Station, Northland officials said they hope to shift the center of downtown closer to the city’s rail lines.

Lawrence Gottesdiener, chairman of Northland, said in a statement that the company is “honored” to “create an exciting new city landmark.”

According to Northland’s proposal, the site — the largest vacant lot in downtown New Haven — will feature 550 residential units and about 1,000 parking spaces in its 1.3-million gross-square-foot complex.

The area will also feature a new home for the Long Wharf Theater, with 76,000 gross square feet in what the company calls a “highly visible location.”

The developer plans to use a New Urbanist aesthetic to create a mixed-residential-and-office complex in the curved plot formed by George Street, South Orange Street, State Street and North Frontage Road.

Supporters of the New Urbanist movement, which rose to prominence in the 1980s, encourage balancing housing units with work space and often emphasize curbing traffic congestion, increasing walkability within the grounds and adding retail in the area.

Stern is famous for his conservative — some have said unoriginal — architectural style, but in 2007 he also won the Athena Award from the Congress of the New Urbanism. The award recognizes “the legacy of pioneers who laid the groundwork for New Urbanism,” according to the CNU’s Web site.

‘STRONG TRACK RECORD’

Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy said in the city’s press release that Northland’s “strong track record of working closely with the community” made the developer stand out. In July, for example, Northland purchased Church Street South, a property containing 310 subsidized housing units along the train station, in order to develop the site.

City officials have stressed that the two finalists for the job — Northland and Colorado-based Archstone — were both equally qualified.

“We would have probably decided this a month ago if it wasn’t even-steven about the whole thing,” said Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, a member of the developer review committee, on Thursday night.

But some officials have suggested throughout the selection process that the deciding factor was financial security.

Archstone — which teamed up with, among others, former School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli’s firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects — was bought by Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., for $22.2 billion in October 2007. Lehman Brothers — which has been struggling because of the mortgage crisis — plans to sell off apartment properties to help pay its debt, the Wall Street Journal reported in June.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Lehman Brothers is looking to sell itself to prospective buyers after its shares plummeted 40 percent, to $4.22, down from $57.08 a year ago.

Michael Allard, regional marketing director for Archstone’s New York office, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday night.

According to the city press release, Northland was found by city officials to have a more “secure” financial base that “provides confidence of the firm’s ability to complete the project in its entirety.”

Marie O’Brien, president of the Connecticut Development Authority, an organization that provides financing to Connecticut businesses, cited Northland’s “economic and financial solutions” as the primary reason the company was chosen to take over management of the Hartford Civic Center Project, now known as the XL Center. She said she thinks Northland’s financial hardiness will ensure that the developer will be a success in the Elm City.

Northland, founded in 1970, owns and operates 101 properties and buildings in 14 states, valued at a total of $2.5 billion. City officials also cited the company’s relationship with the state as giving Northland the edge.

Northland is well-known within the state for its work on the Hartford 21 luxury apartment tower and the Civic Center. Hartford officials had supplied the city with several letters of recommendation for the developer.

“If there was any need down the road … [for] any sort of assistance from the state, they are in a very good position,” Clark said. “They are extremely well-known [in Hartford]. They would not have to spend a lot of time to figure out the garner of power over there.”

—Eileen Shim contributed reporting

Comments

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  • downtown stakeholder

    it is a shame to see that the bottom line always drives decisions. the design, attitude, and cultural identity have little bearing on what will now become a fantasy of era past and another kitschy work from a brick and mortar bore of an architect. new haven deserve better.

  • Anonymous

    Considering the success of NH’s previous urban planning, this is a sure thing…