A bloom of tulips may soon become one New Haven neighborhood’s final stand against the city’s decision to turn their park into a construction site.
At Monday’s Board of Alders meeting, a majority of alders voted in favor of a plan to trade Kensington Playground — a park in the Dwight neighborhood — for 15 units of affordable housing. It was the final approval meeting required for the construction project, which has been a topic of debate for more than a year. Next week, Mayor Justin Elicker will sign an order to put the $30 million project in motion. In the meantime, he’ll have to answer to a group of Dwight residents who are considering civil disobedience as a final recourse of their disapproval.
“We’ve been talking about planting tulip bulbs in Kensington Park right now because [they] will bloom and blossom when the park will be destroyed,” Dwight resident Nia Campinha-Bacote DIV ’21 told the News. Any planting of flowers would be illegal pursuant to Section 19-5 of the New Haven Code of Ordinances.
“It would be a symbolic act to show that life is abundant here and [the park] has the capacity to do that,” she said.
Campinha-Bacote is a member of Friends of Kensington Playground or FOKP –– a group that formed several months ago in opposition to the housing deal. According to FOKP member Patricia Wallace, the organization has requested a meeting with Elicker for mediation on the decision. In addition to planting tulips, FOKP has discussed singing songs about growth and holding hands around the park as the January 2021 construction date approaches. Campinha-Bacote said these acts are intended to show the city that Dwight residents still care about what happens to their neighborhood.
According to a profile conducted by the Dwight Community Management Team this January, more than half of the residents living in the area are low-income. Over 60 percent of the neighborhood’s 4,000 inhabitants are people of color.
Some residents, including Campinha-Bacote, criticized the alders’ characterization of Kensington Park as crime-ridden. Campinha-Bacote said it was the city who had failed to maintain the park’s facilities –– which she said was evidence of the city’s lack of care for the Dwight community.
“[During Monday’s meeting] several alders were making the claim that our neighborhood and this park is really dangerous — that nobody uses it and it’s a high crime spot,” said Campinha-Bacote. “There have been problems with drugs and crime, but the answer isn’t just to replace the park. It’s a structural problem.”
According to an article by the New Haven Register in 2016, former New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said the Kensington area had been problematic for decades.
But in a statement sent to the News, FOKP member Wallace said that, in recent years, the park has become a major success story for policing in New Haven.
“[Lieutenant] John Healy made [Kensington] his top priority when taking over this policing district,” said Wallace. “As a result [the park] is now a place we can use.”
In Monday’s meeting, the alders used terms such as “drug haven,” “space for illegal activities” and “problem park” to describe Kensington Playground.
Still, Ward 3 Alder Ron Hurt said that “while others are having a good time lollygagging around on our green space, there are some families out there who need affordable housing.”
While she voted in favor of the housing development, Aldermanic President Tyisha Walker-Myers challenged the narrative around Dwight neighborhood’s safety. She pointed out that some of those who spoke on behalf of Ward 23 had never even visited the park.
“I do not want people to think that all bad things happen in Ward 23,” said Walker-Myers during Monday’s meeting. “The type of things that happen there happen everywhere. It’s personal to me –– the park and the people that actually live there.”
Three alders spoke against approving the housing project in Kensington Park. Both Ward 10 and Ward 7 Alders, Anna Festa and Abigail Roth, brought up how the pandemic has made green space crucial to the wellbeing of residents.
Although Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 agreed that green space needs to be prioritized during the pandemic, he still voted in favor of the housing deal. Sabin said that he did so on the condition that no more New Haven parkland will be traded for development projects — “as [Ward 15 Alder Ernie G. Santiago] said to developers,” Sabin said.
Festa said there are boarded-up homes across the city which could be restored and used as housing instead. This would involve the entire city in the push for affordable housing, rather than concentrating efforts just in the Dwight neighborhood.
On the same night, the Board of Alders voted to sell a parcel of empty land on Humphrey Street to build 12 units of housing. Roth, who said her own constituents reached out to her to oppose the land swap, added that she is confident that there are other existing parcels of land in the city that aren’t currently green space.
“Affordable housing provides tax credits for developers, they collect their money and then they disappear, leaving residents to fend for themselves and live in sometimes deplorable conditions because they have been forgotten,” said Festa. “Who is to say that these units won’t become market-rate apartments in the future?”
But Kristin Anderson, a representative from the Boston-based developer The Community Builders or TCB, which is responsible for the Kensington Playground project, said the project’s deed restriction will guarantee that the housing is affordable for a minimum of 40 years.
TCB’s broader redevelopment plan for Dwight neighborhood includes the renovation of 18 other buildings they own. These buildings currently provide affordable housing in the area. The developer will also give $80,000 to the city to renovate Day Street Park, a green space one block away from Kensington Playground.
“There are many regulations and inspections in place that ensure the properties are well maintained throughout their lifetime,” said Anderson in an email to the News. “TCB has worked with the city and community to shape the project to benefit the residents who actually live in the neighborhood and use these public amenities.”
Ward 24 Alder Evette Hamilton told those at Monday’s meeting that the Board of Alders would be responsible for putting TCB’s “feet to the fire” to ensure that the housing in Dwight stays affordable and is maintained.
Campinha-Bacote said she hopes the digital record of the meeting will hold alders accountable to their promises. Although she acknowledged that the final efforts of FOKP may not change the fate of Kensington Park, Campinha-Bacote said her group plans to do their part to hold the city and TCB accountable by building up networks within the community.
“How do we do the job that hasn’t been done to connect our community to what is happening?” asked Campinha-Bacote. “When things like this happen again, we want to stop people from thinking the community is not being vocal.”
Kensington Playground is located on Kensington Street, about four blocks away from Yale’s campus.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org