City officials are keen to redevelop Church Street South, but the project’s Bay State owner stands in the way


 The reimagining of Church Street South has been a work in progress for, literally, decades.

City officials are hoping the latest iteration, crafted with community members, will finally take root in reality.

The Hill to Downtown Community Plan aims to reconnect streets and recreate neighborhoods between Union Station and the Yale medical area that were fractured during construction of the Oak Street Connector in the 1950s. 

In coming weeks, the Board of Aldermen will decide whether to make the Hill to Downtown Plan part of the comprehensive plan of development for the city.

Matthew Nemerson, the city’s new economic development administrator, describes the redevelopment of Church Street South, a housing project with 37 buildings and 301 federally subsidized units across from Union Station, as the “keystone” to the plan.

“It’s rundown, in very bad shape and needs to be invested in,” he says.

Northland Investment Corp. of Newton, Mass. owns the property.

Nemerson has repeatedly tried to contact Northland executives since joining Mayor Toni Harp’s administration at the beginning of the year. So far, they have not replied.

Northland did not return requests for comment for this story.

Church Street South was conceived in the 1960s, a time of radical downtown redevelopment.

City plan department Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg says Blue Cross/Blue Shield wanted to relocate to the site. When that didn’t work out and the city couldn’t attract a commercial user, the redevelopment agency contemplated constructing an ownership co-op there. 

The co-op never materialized, and the site became project-based Section 8 subsidized housing,  designed by an architectural firm headed by Charles Moore, then dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Constructed in 1970, Church Street South opened in 1972.    

In her book New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design (Yale 1976), author Elizabeth Mills Brown describes Church Street South as an attempt “to rethink current planning stereotypes with their strong suburban bias and to provide a civilized urban environment, preserving some of the traditional qualities of the urban context — permanence, dignity, festivity, interaction, variety.”

These days the concrete complex is crumbling.

In January 2011, five Church Street South residents, including one child, were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a leaky, poorly installed HVAC system.

The incident occurred after 48 of 120 apartments failed a July 21, 2010 city inspection with housing code violations ranging from missing smoke detectors to mold, bedbugs and rodent infestation.

Church Street South scored 68 on a September 20, 2010 Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) inspection of 25 units by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). A passing grade of 60 or higher is required for HUD funding.

Documents obtained by Business New Haven through a Freedom of Information request show HUD sent Northland a notice of default after a score of 26 on its January 29, 2013 inspection. The company appealed the results, and the score was changed to 62 following a reinspection on September 11, 2013.

During 2014, Northland will receive around $2,899,533 in subsidy for Church Street South, according to HUD spokesperson Rhonda Siciliano.

Asked whether city inspections have any bearing on eligibility for HUD funding, Siciliano replied, “HUD-subsidized properties are required to be in compliance with all applicable local and state regulations.”

She also said that HUD does not routinely scrutinize city inspection reports.

However, she added, “After HUD became aware of the city of New Haven’s property inspection results (which appeared in press reports about the carbon monoxide poisonings), a notice to the owner was sent on January 20, 2011 requesting the 2010 city inspection reports as well as a corrective action plan.”

In an April 30, 2013 letter to HUD, William M. Thompson, Northland’s senior vice president for multifamily and asset management, provided documentation in response to a March 27, 2013 letter from Suzanne C. Piacentini, director of HUD’s Connecticut Multifamily Program Center, requesting a detailed plan addressing security issues, reduction of vacancies and repairs to the property.

“Obviously we work with the property owner to correct deficiencies,” Siciliano says. “If things aren’t corrected HUD does have the option to terminate the contract with them, which is seen as a last resort, and is not a step that’s taken lightly. Northland has made improvements. There still are issues we’re working on. Some deficiencies can be considered minor. Health and safety issues are priorities.”

Health and safety deficiencies found during the 2013 reinspection included missing/inoperable smoke detectors, blocked/unusable fire exit and missing electrical covers.

Other “systemic deficiencies” must be corrected as part of an “ongoing maintenance program.”

In February 2013, 60 of 100 Church Street South units failed a city inspection. A February 20, 2013 housing code compliance notice from the city’s Livable City Initiative to Northland details dozens of violations ranging from peeling paint, damp ceilings and leaky roofs and vermin infestation to defective heaters, and includes a schedule for correction.

The property is due for a city and a federal inspection in 2014.

“The units [apartments] have reached the end of their functional life,” says Erik C. Johnson, executive director at the city’s Livable Cities Initiative (LCI). “Church Street South is a masonry structure with flat roofs prone to having water issues and antiquated heating systems. We recognize these are people’s homes, and some are two- or three-generation residents. Because of where it’s located, the unfortunate reality of it is [that] it is a poor gateway into the city from the train station that inversely affects job development. It is not a job generator nor is it a tax generator for the city. It also has a negative impact on the perception of the city for people who are coming in.”

Gilvarg says there have been “no less than five different attempts” to figure out how to redevelop Church Street South since she became city plan director in 1994.

Northland purchased the property for $4.8 million in 2008 from Community Builders, which had wanted to do “a complete rebuild” and relocate residents, Gilvarg says.

In 2008, Northland also became the city’s preferred developer for the adjacent Veterans Memorial Coliseum site.

“They expected to have this massive development stretching all the way from Crown Street to Church Street South and Trowbridge [Square] to Long Wharf,” Nemerson says.

However, the recession put a damper on redevelopment plans.

Two of three Northland properties in downtown Hartford went into foreclosure in 2009; a year later the third was in arrears on loan payments.

In 2011 LiveWorkLearnPlay of Montreal became the preferred developer for the Coliseum site.

LCI’s Johnson began discussing Church Street South’s future with Northland in 2010, when he arrived in New Haven. 

Later that year, the city and Meriden partnered with the state’s Department of Economic & Community Development in submitting an application for a federal HUD Challenge grant to develop a master plan for mixed-use and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) covering, in the Elm City, two sites adjacent to Union Station — Church Street South, on an 8.3-acre parcel, and Robert T. Wolfe, a 93-unit senior housing development on 2.5 acres. The grant application contained preliminary plans for “a mixed-use development with 600 to 800 residential units and 200,000 to 400,000 square feet of office and retail space. Between 20 [and] 30 percent of the residential units were to be for households at less than 60 percent of area median income.”

The grant was approved. New Haven’s share was approximately $1 million.

“We were going to use the money for Northland to facilitate predevelopment,” Johnson says.

By February 16, 2011, the Northland project had a $520 million price tag, according to a New Haven Independent story, which said early plans included “350,000 square feet of commercial space and 50,000 square feet of retail space with associated parking.” 

On May 31, 2011 the city and Northland signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop a master plan.

Johnson says negotiations reached an impasse over the number of affordable units in the new development and plans to relocate residents during its construction.

The MOU expired in May 2012 and has not been renewed.

City officials then used the Challenge grant money to create Hill to Downtown, a more expansive plan encompassing roughly 293 acres, including Union Station, Church Street South, Union Station, Tower One/Tower East and the Robert T. Wolfe apartment buildings, and the medical area with Yale-New Haven Hospital, Yale School of Medicine and other institutions.

 Hill to Downtown ties in with a transit-oriented development plan for Union Station, which proposes a re-merchandizing strategy for the station, including development of a restaurant and two new store spaces inside the station, a new two-story annex in the rear of the station and immediate development of a new garage with at least 630 parking spaces.

The Hill to Downtown Plan was developed with the planning and architectural firm Goody Clancy and with input from community members, gleaned from eight meetings and a field trip to Philadelphia.

A major objective is transforming Church Street South from an eyesore into “an active, connected and desirable destination at the doorstep of downtown,” improving connectivity within the district to downtown by reconfiguring roads and creating more open space and new shopping and entertainment venues in the neighborhood.

The redevelopment scenario for Church Street South envisions “predominantly mid-rise apartments, select high-rise residential blocks, town homes and public spaces, complemented by retail and office use.”

The plan envisions street-level retail along parts of Church Street, Columbus Avenue, Union Avenue and Orange Street, as well as a new public space at the intersection of Church Street and Columbus Avenue, to be known as “Union Square.”

Key development principles include 650 to 750 new units of housing, 150 affordable units, 70 to 100 three-bedroom units, 70 to 80 percent workforce and market-rate units, a community center, active and passive green space and a commercial building preferably along Union Avenue.

“You have to look at this project [Church Street South] in the context of the whole [Hill to Downtown] master plan,” says Nemerson. “What’s different between the 1950s and 2014 is now we see mixed-used housing as an important part of the community.”

With the construction of 100 College Street underway and development plans moving forward for the Coliseum site, Downtown Crossing and Route 34 (see story this issue), city officials are eager to resume discussions with Northland about Church Street South.

“I want them to know that our door is always open and I look forward to fruitful but complicated conversations with them,” Nemerson says. “They’re getting a lot of money from HUD and managing a decrepit parcel.

“They’re not doing anything legally wrong, but we’d like them to have a different relationship with us.”

Nemerson adds the city needs to “deal with” Church Street South for two reasons.

“One is New Haven is clearly a place that takes affordable housing very seriously, in part because very few other cites do,” he says. “We understand down to great detail all the challenges and all the responsibilities. When we see the condition of the site, the condition of the housing, and the squalor people are living in, I think people are embarrassed by it. Number two is as we move away from that embarrassment, we incorporate open space, parkland, walkability and maybe more in terms of diversity of apartment styles, with affordable and mixed-use.

“All these things are doable, and we’re very anxious to do them.  

Johnson and other city officials introduced the Hill to Downtown plan at a meeting month of the Board of Aldermen’s Community Development Committee.

“Once it is adopted [by the full board], we’ll use it to reopen dialogue with Northland,” Johnson says. “One of the critical elements is what happens with Church Street South. “We now believe there’s a partially shared vision from residents, politicians and city officials, and we want to get Northland, or someone else, to participate in that shared vision. I know the city is committed to working out incentives and infrastructure investments to facilitate the developer. All that is predicated on having a reasonable and motivated development partner. Our interest is in making it work.”

Johnson believes the redevelopment of Church Street South hinges on “finding what the relocation strategy is [for residents], who pays for it, and how the developer — whoever it is — wants to move forward with the city.

“The folks at Northland have to figure out whether they want to be in the game or out of the game,” he says. “We need to have a mature partner willing to assume some sort of risk.

“We want a partner that wants to do something catalytic to the property, not status quo.”