DeStefano charts economic agenda for his tenth term
Last month John DeStefano Jr. was elected to his tenth consecutive term as New Haven’s mayor after fending off an energetic challenge from independent Jeffrey Kerekes. BNH Publisher Mitchell Young interviewed Hizzoner about his economic-development agenda for the next two years.
Looking to 2012, what is the biggest challenge for the city going forward?
The persistent national recession and how it affects the incomes of families in the city.
Do you see any strategies that the city can use?
The strategy is to not rely on what may happen on the national economy. Our challenges and our opportunities rely on a core of biosciences as an economic base and by institutional employers taken together to generate a strong service economy. That’s been reflected in employment and jobs in the city and in terms of an incredibly high occupancy rate in rental housing in the city right now. And low commercial [vacancy] rates. Challenges going forward are going to relate to how do we better connect New Haven residents to these jobs.
New Haven had a far different profile in 1993 when you first entered office as mayor. Why were interested in running for a tenth term, and what do you see as your biggest piece of unfinished business?
School reform. The goal for school reform, academic achievement and college-going are related to our economic development and wealth creation.
The key element is talent, and the most powerful feature of that is the  agreement with the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] and the School Administrators Association which implemented rigorous evaluation for our teachers and administrators. The agreement includes test scores in teacher evaluations. This has resulted in eliminating tenured teachers from the school district this year. And also resulted in a lot of poor teachers becoming good teachers and a lot of good teachers becoming great teachers.
Another feature of the contract has been incredible flexibility on work rules and hours and also a ‘portfolio’ approach to schools, which accompanies strong accountability measures. All schools are ranked in a very transparent fashion, by both absolute performance and relative performance. We’ve done turnaround schools where entire school staffs have had to reapply for their jobs and we’ve had the introduction of two contract operators into the district.
In many districts that have tried to implement some of these tactics, it has been very difficult politically. What made it easier in New Haven?
I think you had local union leadership that was committed to this. They had a strong and trusting relationship with the superintendent of schools [Reginald R. Mayo] who they knew well. The approach was to work together. The key elements of collaboration, a portfolio approach and a strong college-going initiative in New Haven Promise [a Yale-funded college-tuition program]. We’re in Year 2. We showed progress in Year 1 and we’ll see it in Year 2. My concern, and when you ask me why I was interested in running again, it is to institutionalize the culture in a way that in Years 5, 6, 7 and 8 we’re still making the kinds of gains that our kids deserve.
There is great emphasis on getting a college degree, but college isn’t for everyone. We see in a company like Chabaso Bakery in New Haven a large number of ‘working people’ who are making personal progress. How do we support these other routes to personal success?
First of all, every student needs to know that if they do have a college degree, they’ll make more [money], they’re likely to live longer and they are going to have more choices in their lives and that those successes will enrich the whole community. That said, not everyone will go to college. But we have to create the kind of jobs that can be held by [workers in] service and the trades, and that is by promoting the core economic base in biosciences.
When you see low vacancy rates, that’s a good thing; when you see population growth for the first time in decades that’s a good thing. The demand for plumbers, for breadmakers, for lawyers and other service-sector jobs will grow.
The second thing we can do is to create a direct link to employers. You see that with the building trades initiative the city has undertaken, where we train hundreds of people to go into the building trades. We have the largest number of unionized construction workers in the state. There’s a reason: We planned it, trained for it — we created a pipeline. The certification programs at Gateway Community College provide [in some cases] less focus on a degree but on the ability to enable people to obtain work. We’re working on a collaboration with Gateway and the school district for a unified high school/college program in trades, where some college-level work in the trades is appropriate.
In an interview after the election you took personal responsibility for ‘dropping the ball’ on community policing, now you have a new chief in Dean Esserman and a revised strategy for community policing. But how effective can a policing strategy really be in dealing with demographics and more inmates being returned to the city.
I do accept responsibility for the fact that five years ago we had five homicides in the city [for 2006], a record modern low, and we have 31 today. That is heartbreaking. It is unacceptable and as a community including the mayor we all need to take ownership to resolve that.
At the end of the day this is a small community of offenders who are committing these gun crimes on each other. We’ve lost the ability to engage them both aggressively and by conveying the message this is not acceptable behavior. I think we’ve also lost some part of our relationship with the community, which is perhaps not a direct victim, but they’re victims in that their children and they are exposed to this violence. We haven’t done a sufficient amount to engage [the community] to make sure they feel they can interact with us.
New Haven does have a large reentry population of previous criminal offenders. Isn’t that the core issue?
At any given time there are [in the city] about 5,000 people on probation or some form of parole. That is not every person with a felony conviction. The demographics of where this crime is occurring is mid- to late 20s. It’s ex-felons and there are some organized groups — gangs or whatever. Most of these, while they may be involved with drugs, tend to involve respect issues or boy-girl issues.
Outside of New Haven and Hartford, we haven’t heard much discussion about this. The talk has been jobs and the economy. Has that emphasis taken up all the oxygen that might otherwise go to address issues such as crime and public safety? Are you getting the resources you need from the state, for example?
The city has had the largest grand list growth in percentage terms in the state in the last three years: $6 million in new revenue generated by economic development. The state budget was more than fair to New Haven in an environment where they were having to raise taxes and make cuts. If you look at the arbitration award for [school] custodians that came out earlier this week, it was largely the agreement that was reached with leadership of the union and rejected by membership. It was unprecedented; we go from 25 job descriptions to four. We are enabled now to bring in a substantial amount of contracted workforce to the schools. It resets our whole pension-fund model, eliminates COLAs [cost-of-living adjustments]; it eliminates retiree dependent health benefits. This contract will save us $4 million next year over what we’re spending now. That arbitration award wouldn’t have happened, but the union took significant leadership in helping shape it.
In a host of areas we’re taking incredible strides in what are very difficult times for a lot of families. I don’t think you can find any city in the state that can match our repertoire of education reform, economic growth and resetting of employer-employee relationships.
We see very little support in the business community for a lot of the state economic-development programs. What do you hear from business and community leaders?
I think the governor has taken dramatic steps forward from the positions of his two predecessors. Two examples; the reorganization of DEP and Energy to DEEP [the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection and a commissioner, Dan Esty, who is well known to us in New Haven. He has demonstrated already a commitment to quicker and more reasonable environmental rules. In Jim Redeker you have a transportation commissioner who deeply understands promoting along transit corridors and the promotion of [public] transit over just highways. I think DECD is organizing itself, hopefully to move away from doing one-offs on projects to clear program guidelines on how they will support clusters and do so on a consistent and not one-at-a-time basis.
It sounds like you are very positive toward the start of this administration?
Dan Malloy is the fifth governor I’ve had the chance to work with. I worked with Bill O’Neill when I was [city] development administrator in the 1980s.
It has been a long time since we’ve had this kind of understanding, of ‘Let’s not make it complicated; let’s recognize we can’t invest everywhere’ and to invest in areas that will leverage the most amount of growth and that [play] to Connecticut’s advantages.
Downtown New Haven has been a restaurant destination for some time, but now it appears to becoming a retail destination, punctuated by the opening of the Apple store and the Elm City Market. What has that taught you about where New Haven is?
It’s occurring because of [population] density. When I became mayor there was not a supermarket on lower Whalley let alone downtown. A lot more people live in downtown New Haven now. I think that has a lot to do with promoting the institutional growth at the [Yale] Med[ical] School, and the hospital and the commercial development off of that. It’s related to growing transit, Shore Line East. It began 15 years ago, but it didn’t exist on lower State Street. It is interesting that 360 State Street that has the supermarket is right across the street from a train station. It is also interesting that a building that got its certificate of occupancy in late August 2010 is virtually fully leased, without any erosion of occupancy of other rentals downtown. I think the retail is the result of efforts to successfully promote density in growth in our core job base and our core employers and to integrate mixed-use development.
If you look at the Front Street project in Hartford, opposite the convention center, they built a great project but the space remains empty two years later. We had our own experience with that in Ninth Square, which took a decade and a half to fill up, in large part due to insufficient demand. [Gateway] community college at the end of Church Street will be important for retail at that end of town and the development of 100 College Street. The [former Veterans Memorial] Coliseum site is critical for retail development as well.
You mentioned 360 State Street. There is a conflict with developer Bruce Becker over the property’s tax assessment. Are you concerned that this sends a bad signal to other potential developers?
I don’t determine [property] values; the assessor does. I’m concerned that value be fair. I just mailed 50,000 reval[uation] notices to city property owners. I’m not just concerned about 360 State; I’m concerned about every property owner’s value being fair. There are administrative and statutory remedies and 360 State has the opportunity to take advantage of them, and they are and it will be resolved. I don’t think it has any impact on any developers. Not one of the developers we deal with commercial or housing has mentioned that as a concern to us.
Where does the Coliseum site development and the other major nearby projects down stand?
I don’t have high expectations for that site near-term. Where I do have high expectations near-term is initiating demolition of Route 34 at the end of 2012. Hopefully by the end of the spring  bringing 100 College Street, a commercial building, to host for-profit life and bioscience companies. I hope to work out with the state the expansion of Union Station, parking and remerchandising of it. I would like to have a deal sometime in the first quarter of 2012 on the redevelopment of Church Street South to give decent housing to those people who live there and ultimately replace that with a much more dense housing and mixed-use development. I think the Coliseum [site] will be good, but we’ll see.
One other thing [that has a] huge development dynamic is Science Park. To look at Science Park compared to just five years ago, it is extraordinary how it has changed. I think you’re going to continue to see an aggressive buildout of that whole Winchester complex.