Courtesy of Olivia Martson

A group of Dwight residents has filed a lawsuit against the Elm City, making a final stand against city plans to sell their local park — Kensington Playground — to a developer for affordable housing.

Boston-based affordable housing developer The Community Builders planned to begin construction on the Kensington Square redevelopment — which includes 15 new units of affordable housing and renovations to 18 existing buildings — this January. The lawsuit, filed last November by “Friends of Kensington Playground,” has delayed the $30 million project indefinitely. 

It claims that the park sale violates the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act and General Statute 7-131n. FOKP also asked for additional reviews of the project under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The developers decried the lawsuit as counterproductive in the city’s efforts to create more housing for the Dwight neighborhood. 

“[This delays] the renovations to the homes of the nearly 100 families that have been patiently waiting for years for the project to come together and start,” said Kristin Anderson, a representative for TCB. 

The city’s plan to sell Kensington Playground to TCB for one dollar began more than a year ago. The Board of Alders approved the swap last October, though Dwight residents continued to battle the decision with petitions, plans for civil disobedience and now a legal suit. FOKP crowdfunded over $6,000 in legal funds over three months in its efforts to save its park.

Connecticut law statute 7-131n requires municipalities with plans to take parkland to carry out a dedicated public hearing and present the public with parkland of equal size and value. CEPA requires state agencies to review “actions which may significantly affect the environment” and weigh alternatives to minimize impacts. According to local attorney Keith Ainsworth, who is representing FOKP, the city failed to complete both requirements.

Although TCB pledged funds to improve a green space on Garden Street and the city-owned Day Street Park one block away, FOKP claims neither of these spaces is of equal value to the community. 

“The lawsuit actually served as a vehicle for us to have a conversation with [TCB and the city] on a more formal basis,” said Ainsworth. “We gave them some very detailed materials on what other properties might be available to convert to housing — existing structures — and other locations which would not require the destruction of the park.”

The list of 16 alternative construction locations provided by FOKP includes properties on Beers Street, Howard Street, Edgewood Street and Elm Street. Ainsworth explained that the properties are either owned by the city, TCB or are available for acquisition at a reasonable price. 

During aldermanic Community Development Committee meetings last October, members of FOKP argued that affordable housing did not need to come at the expense of green space. 

Phillip Bruton, who lives less than one block away from Kensington Playground, told the News that the land swap reflects a legacy of structural racism in the city.

“When you talk about development in neighborhoods of color the first thing that goes are the parks,” said Bruton. “Most of [my] tax money doesn’t benefit the community. It benefits some other community.”

According to a profile conducted by the Dwight Community Management Team last January, over 60 percent of the neighborhood’s 4,000 residents are either Black or Latinx.

Dottie Green, a member of FOKP who lives two blocks from Kensington Playground, added that the fact that the land swap is occurring in a predominantly Black and brown community speaks to the subliminal nature of racism and classism.

“The camouflage of racism as community low-income housing has to stop,” said Green. “We want to be respected, we want to have a voice and we want good for our communities just as other communities get good automatically.”

Those arguments failed to persuade Alders to reject the proposed property transfer. According to Anderson, the proposal had already undergone multiple approvals by the time opposition formulated. That included a City Parks Committee meeting, several Board of Alders meetings and an order signed by Mayor Justin Elicker. 

“It’s been disappointing to see how the lawsuit from a few homeowners can delay a project that has support from residents who live in the neighborhood,” said Anderson. “[It] was approved through a robust public process.”

Anderson previously told the News that she went door to door to speak to residents living next to the park. She received four signed support letters during the approval process and said TCB also gathered more than 40 other signatures from residents in a second letter in support of the redevelopment.

But according to Patricia Wallace, a member of FOKP, the public process surrounding the land swap was anything but robust. She said she heard of no dedicated public hearing and no vote in the Dwight Central Management Team about the matter.

“TCB distributed flyers to their tenants but there was nothing else that was done to reach out to the rest of the people that live here,” said Wallace. “Public participation was not adequate and if you’re going to take something as important as the only public playground, that needs to be done well.”

Board of Alders president Tyisha Walker-Myers did not respond to a request for comment on the BOA’s efforts to source community input on the land swap nor TCB’s Kensington project. 

FOKP also requested a review of the deal under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act which requires federal agencies to “identify and assess the effects its actions may have on historic buildings” and “consider public views and concerns about historic preservation issues when making final project decisions.”

The group claims that Kensington Playground is eligible to be included in the Dwight Street National Historic Register due to its use by a person of historic significance. Charles W. Dickerson, a horticulturalist that published a book on agriculture, planted a garden on the site in the 19th Century. 

According to Anderson, the State Historic Preservation Office has confirmed that the construction would have no adverse impacts on the historical significance of the site in response to the request. But Ainsworth said FOKP appealed the SHPO’s decision internally, meaning the review is not finalized. 

Olivia Martson, Dwight resident and leader of the local preservation group “Friends of Dwight Historic District,” said the name “Community Builders” is ironic because TCB “has not been building community but taking it away.”

She said TCB has held a poor track record in the community for many years. According to the New Haven Independent, Dwight residents rejected a $2 million grant request from TCB and The Housing Authority of New Haven in 2016 at a meeting of the Dwight Community Management Team. At the meeting, residents lambasted TCB’s management of Kensington Square Apartments and their failure to keep the area around the apartments clean. The grant would have allowed TCB to build and renovate affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“[TCB] hasn’t been a good, engaged part of this city and this neighborhood specifically,” Wallace told the News. “When they did strategic planning they should have been out talking to the community to find out what the people in this neighborhood want.”

FOKP also filed another request for review under the federal National Environmental Policy Act. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, NEPA “requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions.” Although the deal concerns a state agency and a private entity, TCB is receiving federal funding for part of the construction and thus must comply with its requirements.

Ainsworth said the request is still under review and remains an open issue. 

Last November, Mayor Elicker joined the Mayors for Parks Coalition — a national group advocating to federally fund urban parks.

Natalie Kainz | natalie.kainz@yale.edu

NATALIE KAINZ
Natalie Kainz currently serves as the Multimedia Managing Editor. Previously, she was the editor of YTV — the video desk of the Yale Daily News — and covered Yale and New Haven relations as a staff reporter. Originally from Hong Kong, she is a Junior in Silliman College majoring in Political Science and Anthropology.