After weeks of evaluating candidates, Mayor Toni Harp announced her pick for the new director of New Haven’s housing code and neighborhood development agency: Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, an Elm City native whose career in urban planning has spanned Baltimore, New Orleans and her hometown.
Neal-Sanjurjo will lead the agency, called the Livable City Initiative, through a period of transition as its focus shifts from anti-blight efforts to neighborhood development. At a press conference at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, Harp and New Haven’s Chief Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 praised Neal-Sanjurjo’s experience and ties to the community. Nemerson said Neal-Sanjurjo, who currently works as a planning consultant at the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation, can balance roles as a neighborhood organizer, policy expert and agency leader.
“I think [President Barack Obama] is one of those people who can do all of those roles, and Serena is another,” Nemerson said.
Neal-Sanjurjo will start work on Monday. She succeeds Erik Johnson, who took on the position in February 2010 and departed in mid-November to work at a non-profit in Southern California. Harp evaluated candidates for the position over the last several weeks and selected Neal-Sanjurjo this past weekend, Nemerson said.
Before Johnson’s departure, he, Nemerson and Harp discussed reorganizing and renaming the LCI. The agency was formed in the 1990s specifically to counter blight in the city, but that is no longer a major problem as New Haven’s economy has since improved. Nemerson said Neal-Sanjurjo would be responsible for choosing what course to set for the LCI.
“I’ve had some consideration about some structural changes,” Neal-Sanjurjo said. “My goal is to have the LCI be a neighborhood development organization. Our structure in some ways inhibits that right now because we have a lot of code enforcement.”
Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Anthony Rescigno said the LCI is important not only for shaping quality of life in New Haven, but also for attracting businesses and new development.
“It’s critical that all of these agencies do a good job so the business community feels like, ‘Ok, the city’s under control, things are really going well,’” Rescigno said.
Neal-Sanjurjo grew up in Dixwell, later moving to the Beaver Hills neighborhood and attending Hillhouse High School. She previously worked for the city from 1989 to 1998, first at the Office of Business Development and later as the director of the Enterprise Community, where she oversaw projects in six neighborhoods and helped bring Shaw’s supermarket to the Whalley Avenue spot now occupied by Stop and Shop.
From there, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she worked as director of community and economic development at the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation. Beginning in 2008, Neal-Sanjurjo headed the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, where she helped rebuild 500 homes and develop commercial property after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
“I like to think when folks go there and say they had a good time, they were looking at some of my work,” Neal-Sanjurjo said.
Since returning to New Haven to work at the Economic Development Corporation in August 2013, Neal-Sanjurjo worked closely with the LCI on the Hill-to-Downtown plan, an effort to connect the Hill neighborhood to Union Station and the city’s downtown area. Since the 1950s, the Hill has been cut off from those areas by Route 34.
One experience in Baltimore may be particularly relevant for her new job in New Haven: She started the Baltimore Main Street program, a neighborhood revitalization approach that emphasizes community buy-in. Since March, New Haven has been working towards establishing Main Street programs on Grand, Whalley and Dixwell Avenues.
Sitting in the LCI director’s office for the first time since she learned she had won the position, Neal-Sanjurjo said she was excited about engaging New Haven’s neighborhoods, and that she views implementing the Main Street approach in New Haven as part of that larger effort.
“I’m focused on neighborhood development and building consensus,” Neal-Sanjurjo said. “Without that consensus, your development doesn’t work.”
Neal-Sanjurjo added that one project she is looking forward to tackling is bringing new business to Dixwell Plaza, a shopping center across the street from the shuttered Q House. The plaza is currently occupied mostly by convenience stores and a few small restaurants. Its largest storefront is empty.