Dixwell Plaza Plan Unveiled, Embraced

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Erik Clemons: “This is about us being a part of the social contract.” Below: A preliminary sketch of the redeveloped plaza.

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An ambitious planned $200 million redevelopment of Dixwell Plaza would bring a new performing arts center, banquet hall, grocery store, museum, office complex, daycare center, retail storefronts, and 150-plus apartments and townhouses to the neighborhood’s fraying commercial hub.

The local team behind the project received nothing but praise from longtime community members who heralded developers for striving to keep — and build—inter-generational wealth in the heart of black New Haven.

Full house at Stetson for the reveal.

Over 100 people filled the Stetson Branch Library on Dixwell Avenue Wednesday night to learn about, and ultimately celebrate, those newly unveiled details of the Dixwell Plaza overhaul planned by the Connecticut Community Outreach and Revitalization Program (ConnCORP).

A for-profit subsidiary of the Science Park-based nonprofit Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), ConnCORP has been steadily buying up condos over the past year-and-a-half in the 1960s-era shopping complex on the western side of Dixwell Avenue between Webster Street and Charles Street.

Dixwell Plaza at dusk.

They’d been mum over the past 18 months about their plans for the 7.5-acre, suburban-style complex directly across the street from the now-under-construction new Q House.

Wednesday night, they took their intentions public.

ConnCORP CEO McCraven with local developer Yves-Georges Joseph II.

ConnCORP President and CEO Paul McCraven, ConnCAT President and CEO Erik Clemons, ConnCAT Chairman of the Board Carlton Highsmith, and ConnCAT Chief Operating Officer Genevieve Walker stood alongside the project’s development consultant, local builder Yves-Georges Joseph II, and dived deep on the team’s estimated $200 million rebuild of Dixwell Plaza.

They urged the dozens of neighbors who showed up for this first public presentation to give feedback on the still preliminary sketches, They invited people to help shape what will ultimately be built as the project moves from the ideas stage to more formal planning and fundraising, followed by rezoning quests, site plan reviews, demolition, and construction.

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The team plans to host three more community meetings at Stetson Library on March 11 at 6 p.m., April 22 at 6 p.m., and May 16 at 1 p.m.

ConnCORP still owns only five of the plaza’s 11 condos. It hopes to finish negotiating purchases for the remaining properties by the end of this year and to begin construction in early 2021.

Clemons said Wednesday that the idea for the ConnCORP-led Dixwell Plaza project emerged from him watching ConnCAT grow and succeed over the past decade by providing culinary school, medical billing, and phlebotomy job training for class after class of local students.

And yet, he still saw those same graduates struggle to stay in New Haven and afford to buy a home or start their own business.

Clemons with Stetson Branch Librarian Diane Brown and Elm City Communities Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton.

“What we do at ConnCAT and now ConnCORP is aggressively address poverty,” Clemons said. “I believe poverty is the civil rights issue of our time.”

He said that 85 percent of Dixwell residents are renters, 17 percent are unemployed, and 55 percent are low-income.

The mixed-use residential, commercial, retail, office, and recreational suite of buildings that ConnCORP has planned for the prospective Dixwell Avenue superblock are all geared towards addressing that core issue of poverty, Clemons said.

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Aerial view of Dixwell Plaza today.

A key focus of the project is also the investment of dollars and resources provided by black New Haveners like himself and McCraven and Highsmith and the rest of the ConnCORP team into the historic center of New Haven’s African American community.

“This is not about us making more money at all,” Clemons said. “This is about us being a part of the social contract. Because of the fact that we have been blessed, we need to share those blessings. That’s what this is about.”

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Highsmith: This is not coming from Yale.

The founder of the Specialized Packaging Group (SPG), a board member of KeyBank, and one of the key funders behind ConnCAT, Highsmith stressed at the top of the meeting that this planned Dixwell Plaza redevelopment has no connection to the university down the block.

He said he is frequently confronted with the question, “Is this a project of Yale University?”

“The answer is: No,” he said to applause.

Instead, Clemons said, the money required to make this all-new construction project a reality will come from a mix of private equity, subordinated debtnew market tax credits, and fundraising.

The Plaza Plan

McCraven: “None of this is in stone.”

McCraven said ConnCORP initially planned on focusing its Dixwell economic revitalization efforts at the long-vacant former C-Town grocery store building at 156 Dixwell Ave., which the company bought in February 2018.

After the ConnCORP team presented its plans for that building to the city, Then-Mayor Toni Harp encouraged the local developers to dream bigger.

So the team started canvassing Dixwell community leaders and residents as to what they would like to see in the neighborhood. They polled Dixwell Community Management Team Chair Nina Silva, Newhallville Community Management Team Chair Kim Harris, and DataHaven to better understand the demographics and history and economic makeup and needs of Dixwell.

McCraven said that they heard the same requests everywhere they turned: Dixwell needs jobs, retail, daycare, banking, housing, open spaces, public safety, cultural and entertainment venues, spaces to launch and grow a small business.

He said people they spoke to frequently referred to a long and proud history of African American residents and businesses in the neighborhood. People recalled a dynamic, diverse, and self-sufficient economy in the mid-20th century.

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So the ConnCORP team started brainstorming. They hired local developer Joseph and architect Peter Cook, who helped design the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., and started planning.

McCraven walked Wednesday’s audience through ConnCORP’s plans for the 11 different parcels that make up the soon-to-be-transformed Dixwell Plaza.

“It’s all preliminary sketches,” he cautioned. “None of this is in stone.”

The first building, closest to Webster Street, would consist of a performing arts center, a banquet hall, and a museum.

“We plan to do jazz concerts there,” he said. “The whole idea would be an entertainment and cultural center for the community.”

Further north in the complex would be a 20,000-to-30,000 square-foot grocery store and food hall.

“Not a big box like Stop & Shop,” he said, “but a big market that would serve the community.” That site would potentially contain commercial kitchens that local culinary entrepreneurs could use to for their own food-related businesses — something akin to the kitchen incubator space the city has been planning for years on building.

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Meeting attendees review the preliminary design sketches from up close.

An adjacent building to the southwest would be ConnCAT’s new headquarters, he said. “Our dream is to bring ConnCAT over to Dixwell” from Winchester Avenue and to expand upon the current job training offerings to include more computer-based skills as well as advanced manufacturing.

That building would include a roof-top daycare center, he said.

McCraven said that ConnCORP initially planned on building an above-ground parking garage to accommodate the office, commercial, and retail uses on the southern half of the super-block.

But after talking with local alders, who expressed concerns about a parking garage towering over the neighborhood, ConnCORP is now committed to building an underground parking garage accessible off of Webster Street, according to McCraven

Building underground parking is significantly more expensive than building above-ground parking, he said. Nevertheless, “we’re committed to making that happen.”

The Dixwell-adjacent middle of the block will house an art gallery and a landscaped plaza under the plan, he said.

And the northern half of the block closest to Charles Street will consist of a mix of rental apartments and townhouses. ConnCORP anticipates building around 150 to 180 housing units in total, he said, though the exact number of units and bedrooms per unit has yet to be finalized.

The northern half of the block would also contain an office building, ideally housing a mix of start-up businesses and anchor tenants. McCraven said they’re already in serious conversations with a Hamden-based biotech company that is interested in relocating to the Dixwell neighborhood.

“And implanted in all of this would be retail,” he said. Banks, food shops, fitness centers, bike stores, entertainment venues, clothing stores, pharmacies. “We’re pretty confident we can bring most or all of those things to this site.”

Clemons said that everything included in the project so far, though still preliminary, has been informed by conversations with community leaders and data scientists.

“Now we want to hear even more,” he said. “We want more input” from the broader public.

“How Could We Not Support Them?”

Rodney Williams (second from the right): “How could we not support them?”

Over the next hour, dozens of people present offered that input.

They pressed ConnCORP to make sure that the redeveloped Dixwell Plaza both includes affordable apartments and contributes to greater homeownership in the surrounding area. They called on the developers to make space for mental healthcare providers and to employ local minority contractors over the course of construction.

Even the most critical of comments was couched in an enthusiastic embrace of the idea that local black developers are spearheading such a large project in the city’s historic black neighborhood.

“This is one of the first projects I’ve seen come to the city where people who look like us are building it for us,” said small business contractor Rodney Williams.

The city more broadly and the Dixwell neighborhood in particular are currently rife with development dollars, he said, referencing the planned new nearly 400-unit apartment complex at 201 Munson St.

That money, those jobs, and the subsequently built buildings rarely trickle down to the mostly working-class African American population that defines the Dixell and Newhallville neighborhoods.

“How could we not support them?” he asked about ConnCORP.

A woman behind him agreed. “This is our time,” she said.

Shepard Street blockwatch captain Addie Kimbrough (pictured) also threw her support behind the project. “All they want to do is build and make Dixwell look like it used to,” she said. They deserve the neighborhood’s support.

“This reminds me of what Dixwell looked like when I came here” in 1959, said Claudine Wilkins-Chambers. Whatever help or support ConnCORP needs in order to make this vision a reality, she said, she’d be happy to do her part to provide.

Sean Reeves (pictured) recognized that most people are wary of change. “But change has to happen in order for our children to be successful,” he said.

And this project could very well lay the groundwork for the economic welfare of generations of Dixwell residents to come.

Katurah Bryant (at center in photo, in sunglasses) agreed.

“It’s refreshing to see that people who look like us want to engage us,” she said.

She added that she’s tired of seeing out-of-town developers and large-scale landlords based in other neighborhoods of the city scooping up all of the rental housing in Dixwell and Newhallville.

“It is going to be a beautiful thing for our community to look like a place where we want to live.”

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