Just four blocks away from campus, there is a medium-sized park dotted with trees, benches and one broken splash pad. It’s also the center of a city-wide debate about the need for affordable housing and the significance of greenspace to local communities.
New Haven plans to sell Kensington Playground, a public park in the Dwight neighborhood, to a Boston-based developer for one dollar. In return, the developer will build 15 units of affordable housing on the site. The plan has met opposition from some Dwight residents, who see the park as a safe space for church-goers and children. As the final approval meeting for the apartment block approaches, residents have begun a push to rally city-wide support and defeat the land swap proposition.
“It’s not just about the green space,” Nia Campinha-Bacote DIV ’21 told Justin Elicker at last Wednesday’s “Mayor’s Night Out” event. “It’s about the Black and brown bodies in our neighborhood.”
Camphina-Bacote lives in Dwight, where more than half of the residents are low-income. That statistic comes from a profile conducted by the Dwight Central Management Team this January, which also found that over 60 percent of Dwight’s 4,000 residents are people of color.
Despite Dwight resident Patricia Wallace eliciting laughter when she offered the mayor a two-dollar bill to double the park sale price, Elicker remained unconvinced. He said it would be irresponsible to “switch gears at the 11th hour” on a project which he had inherited from his predecessor, former Mayor Toni Harp.
Both Wallace and Camphina-Bacote are members of Friends of Kensington Playground or FOKP. The group’s goal is to reverse last month’s unanimous decision by the Board of Alders’ Community Development Committee to approve the land swap. This may be one of their last chances to do so before the final approval meeting for the housing unit on Oct. 19.
According to group member Olivia Martson, FOKP is considering a lawsuit over the park. Currently, their strategy is to reach out to constituents of other districts in the hope that they can influence alders to vote against the land swap. They have already gathered more than 190 signatures on a petition to save the park.
But Kristin Anderson, a representative from the developer, said the signatures gathered through the petition are “overwhelmingly from people outside of the neighborhood.” Anderson is a project manager for The Community Builders, or TCB, a nonprofit with plans to transform Dwight neighborhood by 2022.
“I personally went door to door to talk with residents living on all the abutting streets,” said Anderson, who also told the News that dozens of residents living in Kensington Square provided signed support letters for the project during the approval process. “Another 40 of those residents signed another letter showing their support.”
Four of these letters were submitted to the City Plan Commission in September. Each resident signed a pre-written statement saying the land swap will “eliminate the crime and vandalism that currently takes place in the park.” Three of the signatories live on Kensington Street and a fourth lives on Chapel Street.
Kensington Park is only one aspect of TCB’s redevelopment plan. The real estate developer also wants to renovate the 18 other buildings they own that currently provide affordable housing in the area. Anderson said the project is crucial because there is a significant shortage of affordable housing in New Haven.
According to a report released by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force in 2019, 41 percent of families in New Haven are paying more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent and utilities.
But Campinha-Bacote said the city has created a “false dichotomy” wherein residents must say ‘yes’ to losing Kensington Park in order to get affordable housing. She said there are other plots where housing could be built instead.
“We too want affordable housing for our neighbourhood,” she told the News. “We can say no to the plan as it stands now. Not a ‘no’ to affordable housing but a ‘no to affordable housing in this way.’”
At a City Parks Committee meeting in June, commissioners were deadlocked on whether to give up Kensington Playground. Serena Neal-Sanjuro, the then-executive director of the Livable City Initiative, told commissioners that without including the park in the land swap TCB could lose the funding for the rest of the development project, as first reported by the Independent. The $30 million project is funded through a grant from federal low-income housing tax credits.
The park alternatives
As part of the proposal, TCB will put $80,000 into improving the city-owned Day Street Park one block away and will revitalize a second green space already owned by the nonprofit on Garden Street. Anderson said the city is also designating 0.78 acres of land previously slated for development as parkland in the Newhallville neighborhood.
“[It’s] an overall gain in park space for the city and in a neighborhood that does not have the same open spaces as the Dwight neighborhood,” Anderson said about the Newhallville parkland. “I agree that there should be more investment and maintenance in city parks, and I think this plan has found a creative way to do that and to leverage resources for the benefit of many.”
But Dwight resident and FOKP member LaQruishia Gill DIV ’15 pointed out that Newhallville is a nearly 30-minute walk from Kensington Park. That’s unsafe for the children of Dwight that could use that park space. Additionally, the green spaces on nearby Day and Garden Streets already exist, although they lack the formal play equipment found at Kensington.
“The statement seems a little bit disingenuous to say that they are going to double the park space,” said Gill. “They’re making it sound like we’re not losing any green space but the green spaces that are being uplifted as replacements are two separate, smaller locations than the space we had.”
Gill also emphasized the symbolic value she believes the playground holds for residents. She described it as a green space neighbours can care for and feel safe in on a street that has struggled with problems of violence and crime.
If the development plan is approved, the city will be responsible for improvements to Day Street Park using TCB funds. There is no set timeline for this project yet, meaning residents could be left without a large enough park for years. Campinha-Bacote and Gill said they fear that continued city involvement will reinforce a cycle of neglect towards local parks.
“Even if they are to improve the new park just around the corner, who is to say that won’t be neglected as well? Who is to say that in two years we won’t be having the same conversation?” said Camphina Bacote.
Project Narrative: Who is responsible for a history of neglect?
A document titled “Project Narrative” created by TCB describes Kensington Playground as both a “hot-spot for crime due to a lack of oversight and maintenance” and a “currently underutilized space.”
According to Anderson, exchanging Kensington Park for affordable housing will address safety concerns in the area surrounding the park and improve the more often used public spaces at Day and Garden Streets. But Gill told the News that taking away the park due to safety concerns is punishing Dwight residents for the city’s failure to maintain public spaces.
“The fact that this park was neglected is the city’s fault. At any other park in this city, you are not looking at the residents to pick up the trash and report crime,” said Gill, who said her church group often picks up trash at the park when they hold services there on Sundays.
Campinha-Bacote, who is a member of the same church group, said they first started taking park maintenance into their own hands a couple months ago after seeing signs in the park informing residents that it would be sold. She said she has noticed more children and people coming to the park as a result of their efforts.
TCB plans to plant several trees to replace the existing flora the project will demolish. Anderson said this will reduce the possibility of a phenomena described as urban heat island effect, wherein the loss of greenspace in an urban area leads to a local rise in temperature due to the loss of plant heat absorption.
“The new site plan will plant more trees as part of a rain garden on the northern portion of the site,” said Anderson. “The tree type, number of trees and amount of shade coverage goals were all approved by the city tree warden and Parks Department.”
Anderson said TCB’s analysis of tree canopy in Dwight found that the trees in the park are not providing significant shade coverage due to the type and spacing.
But Josh Randall, a Dwight resident and ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D. student at Yale, disagreed. He went out to the park to measure the environmental impact it has, finding that it stores 27 tons of carbon and removed 0.2 tons of pollution annually.
“For every tree you cut down, 40 percent of the total CO2 that it has trapped over its lifetime will be released immediately,” he said. “As soon as those trees get cut down, we’re going to see approximately ten tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere just from the trees. That has nothing to do with the construction CO2 cost or the emissions that use of cement cause.”
Randall specializes in plant physiology and urban spaces. He calculated that the young trees that TCB will use to replace the 22 old trees slated to be removed will not have the same impact on CO2 capture, even three decades from now. He also questioned some of the tree species chosen by TCB— including Dogwoods, Willows and Serviceberries — which he said are shrub trees, not shade trees.
When asked about residents’ concerns over the environmental impacts of the project, Anderson told the News that TCB’s plans will address concerns of increased CO2 in the environment by increasing overall tree canopy in the neighborhood by 20,000 square feet.
Yet Randall told the News he believes that the situation playing out with Kensington Playground is an example of environmental racism and a product of redlining in the Elm City. Redlining describes the discriminatory practice of denying residents housing and other government resources based on race.
“This neighborhood, and other class D redlined districts in New Haven have been found to differ from A redlined districts by 3.5 degrees (Celsius) as well as being hotter than the average by 1.3 degrees C,” said Randall in a statement. “The park acts as an important environmental service asset that this community desperately needs in the face of continued development, climate change, and the impacts of institutional segregation.”
What comes next?
In interviews with the News, some residents expressed fears that the city’s approval of this project amid vocal opposition will set a precedent for other companies eyeing the neighborhood for development projects.
“By allowing this to happen, it’s signalling that stuff like this can continue to happen — that developers can think ‘here is another neighbourhood that the city doesn’t care about’,” Camphina-Bacote told the News. “Even if the community members themselves are saying they don’t want this, [developers think] ‘I have the side of the city, I have the power to decide what happens to this neighborhood’.”
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org
Isaac Yu contributed reporting for this piece.
Correction, Oct. 12: A previous version of this story said that the city was planning to convert 78 acres into parkland in Newhallville. In fact, the city is planning to convert 0.78 acres into the parkland in the neighborhood.