“This is the time for Dixwell.”
With those words of praise and anticipation, alders moved ahead a plan to transform Dixwell Plaza into a mixed-use hub that would employ up to 550 people a year and generate up to $50 million in annual economic activity.
Local legislators took that unanimous vote Thursday night during the latest meeting of the Board of Alders Community Development Committee. The two-hour-plus virtual public hearing was held online via Zoom and YouTube Live.
Committee alders threw their support behind the city’s proposed sale of two publicly-owned Dixwell Plaza parcels—the current Stetson Library building at 200 Dixwell Ave. and the city police substation at 26 Charles St.—to ConnCORP LLC for $750,000. ConnCORP is a for-profit subsidiary of the Science Park-based job training nonprofit Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).
The proposed Development and Land Disposition Agreement (DLDA) would then require the redevelopers to build at least 150 new residential units—with 20 percent set aside at deed-restricted affordable rates—and at least 50,000 square feet of new commercial space.
Those would be just the minimum site improvements required of a team that has a larger mixed-use project in store for the fraying midcentury shopping plaza site on Dixwell Avenue between Webster Street and Charles Street.
“This is the time for Dixwell,” Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison said several times during Thursday night’s meeting. “On the right hand side of Dixwell Avenue, the Q House side, that’s already coming up. Now we need to clear up that picture of 1963 across the street.”
She praised the redevelopment team for working through potential Dixwell Plaza plans with the city for the better part of a decade.
“I really feel that ConnCAT has put not just time and effort but love into this project,” she said. “Thank you for stepping up. Thank you for loving Dixwell.”
The proposed DLDA now advances to the full Board of Alders for two readings and a final vote next month. The project must then get sign-offs from the Board of Zoning Appeals and the City Plan Commission. The city and redevelopers estimate that construction should begin in 2022.
A Revitalizing Vision
Just as they did during community meetings in early 2020, the local team behind ConnCORP explained Thursday night that their vision for Dixwell Plaza — redubbed ConnCAT Place on Dixwell — transcends the bounds of the proposed DLDA.
ConnCORP President Paul McCraven said that the project should include a job training center that will serve as ConnCAT’s new headquarters. ConnCAT currently hosts its phlebotomy, food service, and medical coding and billing programs out of 4 Science Park.
He said ConnCAT Place on Dixwell will also have a child daycare site, a grocery store, a food hall with restaurants and spaces for locally run food businesses, a banquet hall that would host receptions and concerts and other artistic events, a 30,000 square-foot outdoor plaza, up to 350 underground parking spaces, a fitness center, a slew of other retail storefronts, and a 150-unit multi-family apartment tower.
That’s just part of phase one.
Phase two of the proposed redevelopment would include a 350-seat performing arts center, a 50,000 square-foot office building, an above-ground 240-space parking garage, and 15 to 20 townhouses designed for affordable homeownership.
McCraven said that a preliminary economic impact study conducted by AdvanceCT estimates that the redevelopment project would result in 420 construction jobs, $232 million in economic output during construction, 450-550 post-construction jobs, and $40-$50 million in annual economic output.
McCraven, ConnCAT President and CEO Erik Clemons, ConnCAT Board Chair Carlton Highsmith, and Livable City Initiative (LCI) Acting Executing Director Arlevia Samuel all stressed Tuesday night that this redevelopment plan is about much more than just new buildings.
It’s about revitalizing the epicenter of a historic Black neighborhood that is in desperate need of good jobs, community spaces, cultural venues, access to fresh and affordable food, and opportunities to build intergenerational wealth.
“We’re looking to create not just a new home for ConnCAT programs, but a beautiful and culturally vibrant space that this community deserves,” Highsmith said.
“Given the fact that this historic, major artery has been allowed to be in disrepair and decline for decades,” added Clemons (pictured), “we saw that as unjust, as unfair, and we wanted to bring beauty and dignity to this historic place in New Haven.”
During community outreach sessions over the past few years, as the redevelopment team put sought input from Dixwell and Newhallville neighbors on what the community lacked and needed, Clemons said they heard the same requests over and over again. “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs,” he said. “And safety. Early childcare. Healthy food options. Arts and entertainment. Housing. And the need to beautify this historic region again.”
“ConnCAT Place on Dixwell is not a housing development,” he concluded, “but a development with housing. It’s really our aggressive attempt to address the insidious and persistent issue of poverty that has plagued this area for decades.”
Housing, Jobs, & Traffic
The redevelopment project was met with near universal praise by alders, city officials, local business boosters, and other members of the public who spoke up during Thursday’s public hearing.
“This is what we need right now on Dixwell Avenue,” said Beaver Hills Alder and Community Development Committee Chair Brian Wingate. “This is what we need for the city of New Haven.”
“We know that the need for affordable housing is very significant in this city,” said city public housing director Karen DuBois-Walton. “We know that the need for high-quality affordable housing is very significant in this city.” This project would bring exactly that, as well as a “potential for economic development and economic growth” that is “tremendous.”
“Economic opportunity is coming to our community,” added Dixwell/Newhallville community activist and small business contractor Rodney Williams. “And the team that they put together, they look like us. Very rarely have we ever seen something like this.”
Where the redevelopers received some pushback—or, at least, critical encouragement in the direction of neighborhood inclusion—was in the details around the planned affordable housing set-asides, parking, and employment.
The proposed DLDA would require the redeveloper to set aside 20 percent of new residential units—or no less than 30 units in total—at “affordable” rates. Half of that affordable allotment must be reserved for tenants earning no more than 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), and the other half for tenants earning no more than 60 percent AMI.
“As much as we’re in a health pandemic, we’re in an eviction pandemic,” said legal aid community organizer and People’s Collaborative of Dixwell (PCD) member Kerry Ellington. Even with the statewide eviction moratorium still in effect, she said, she talks with families across the city every day that are “facing displacement because of a loss of income due to Covid.”
She encouraged the alders and the ConnCORP team to increase the number of required affordable units, and to use the neighborhood’s average income rather than a region-based AMI.
Dixwell resident Crystal Gooding and Prospect Hill/Newhallville/Dixwell Alder Steve Winter—whose ward covers the future redevelopment site— zeroed in on the upwards of 550-600 parking spaces slated for the rebuilt site.
“It seems a little excessive for that area,” Gooding said.
Yves Joseph, a local developer who is part of the ConnCORP team for this Dixwell Plaza project, said that the group hired a company called Desmond Parking to analyze the site and the planned redevelopment. “Their expert conclusion was that 555 spaces was the minimum amount of parking we could get away with” considering the planned commercial and residential uses, Joseph said.
Winter, Beaver Hills Alder Jill Marks, and Wooster Square Alder Ellen Cupo asked about jobs: How will hiring and outreach work? What support will the city and the developers provide for training, certification, and neighborhood-based hiring?
Clemons said that ConnCORP will host four job fairs, two for each phase of the work. “In those job fairs we’ll identify those jobs that will be available, and then collect names and fit folks in those jobs as we see fit,” he said.
City Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli said that the city will hold three training cohorts specific to this project. “We’ll do two for construction jobs on the site, and we’ll do one for the contractors to make sure contractors coming out of New Haven area fully ready to work and are prepared for the type of construction that will be on this job.”
Winter and Williams pushed for ConnCORP to help the city with the construction job outreach as well as with the post-construction outreach.
“This project is too big to have just one contractor meeting,” Williams said. “We need to figure out how we land this plane on the contractors this time. Erik, you should be the pilot, and let the city be the co-pilot.”
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