Courtesy of Hines

Old parking lots and a decaying office building will soon be transformed into brick facades, steel accents and market-rate apartments.

On Tuesday morning, city leaders and developers gathered to break ground on “The Whit” Wooster Square, a mixed-use community developers say will open by 2022. Mayor Justin Elicker announced the two-building project in January. According to city spokesperson Gage Frank, the project — which is being developed by Hines, an international real estate investment firm — will include 230 apartment units and 5,600 square feet of street-level retail space. The site is located in the Wooster Square neighborhood, and Frank said the current plans for the buildings include architecture inspired by the styles of the neighborhood.

“We are pleased to be launching a project that will do so much more than add new housing and retail space to the city,” Elicker said. “The Whit Wooster Square will create a vibrant hub of commercial and residential life in the Wooster Square neighborhood.”

The city has eyed developments in the Wooster Square area for some time now. In 2017, former mayor Toni Harp commissioned the Wooster Square Planning Study, which sought to find ways to balance future improvements while maintaining the character and history of the neighborhood. According to the study, objectives for any future developments were increased access to downtown, finding uses for underutilized lots and buildings and promoting “the cultural diversity of Wooster Square.”

Frank said the city followed an extensive engagement process with the local community and that the new project is in line with what was expressed in the study.

“The Hines team is delivering on a vision of lasting quality, consistent with the objectives of the Wooster Square Study,” New Haven Economic Development Administrator Mike Piscitelli said. “We look forward to building a lasting partnership with Hines over many years.”

Grant Jaber, managing director at Hines, told the News that his group met with both local alders and the local community management team throughout the design process, calling the process a very collaborative one.

Neither the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team nor Ward 8 Alder Ellen Cupo responded to a request for comment.

Jaber, as well as Frank, noted the proximity of the site to both Yale and Yale New Haven Hospital as part of its appeal. He emphasized that these permanent institutions employ several thousand people, making the Wooster Square area a coveted site for market-rate housing developments. Echoing Piscitelli, he said Hines has already had preliminary talks with the city about future projects.

“A place like New Haven draws a broad demographic for this type of housing which is really attractive,” Jaber said. “We are definitely open to more development in New Haven.”

Cordalie Benoit, president of the Historic Wooster Square Association and long-time resident of the neighborhood, fell in love with the “vibrancy” of the New Haven community from the moment she entered it. She said many Wooster Square residents have expressed concern over the effects the project of this size could have on the character of the community.

“Some of these people are second or third generation [Wooster Square residents],” Benoit said. “And there’s a population that believes their way of life is going to be eclipsed.”

She also emphasized that Wooster Square is a small neighborhood, with a population of less than 4,000 people. The project could introduce several hundred more residents into the neighborhood. Benoit also expressed concern that new units will be market rate as opposed to affordable housing.

“Market rate doesn’t mean the average person in New Haven’s capacity to pay a rental,” Benoit said. “Market rate means top dollar, as much money as we can get for this square footage. But affordable housing is needed in a community.”

Anna Grace Barry, who has lived in Wooster Square for over 3 years, mirrored Benoit’s concerns. Barry lives down the street from the construction site and said she has followed the recent developing plans closely. While she doesn’t fault the city for making new developments and investing in neighborhoods, she worries about issues of affordability.

“Having ‘The Whit’ is cool — it’s this shiny, grand thing,” Barry said. “There’s a lot of really good intentions behind the buildings. But in reality, market rate is unaffordable for most New Haven citizens unless they are Yale-affiliated.”

Jaber said that project is intended for members of the workforce at Yale New Haven Hospital, students at Yale’s graduate and professional schools, “empty nesters” or people who might otherwise have vacation homes but want to downsize to a more urban setting. He said he believes the project will be more accessible to those not already from Wooster Square or the surrounding communities.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on questions relating to the affordability of the development.

Benoit told the News she has no issue with money being brought into a community or with people from high income brackets moving into Wooster Square. Her hope, though, is that the developers continually work to collaborate with the existing community, the community she has loved since she was a girl.

“I would like [Hines] to not just see it as a place where they can put up housing they can make good money on,” Benoit said. “I’m not against them making money — I’m against them only making money. I would like to see them think about how [they] can help make New Haven a better place in 20 or 30 years.”

The median income in the Elm City is $41,142, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu