Published March 24. 2013 4:00AM
New London - More than a dozen years after the city first announced a redevelopment plan for the Fort Trumbull area that was to attract housing, office space, a hotel and public waterfront access, the first new construction in the 90-acre development site is expected to start this spring.
"There's a never-ending hill of stuff that needs to be climbed ... but we're still on track,'' said Karl-Erik Sternlof, first vice president of the Renaissance City Development Association (RCDA), the former New London Development Corp., which is overseeing the development area.
"Our target date has been spring and we have heard absolutely nothing that suggests we are not going to hit that closing date,'' Sternlof said last week.
Riverbank Construction has been working on a 103-unit townhouse-style development called Village on the Thames since 2009, when it was chosen as the preferred developer for housing in Fort Trumbull.
The first phase of the project will be 34 units on two of the four parcels designated for housing, according to developer Irwin Stillman.
"We're working toward a spring shovel in the ground,'' Stillman said. "We're working diligently and fervently. It's complicated, but we're making a lot of progress."
The news that the project is progressing came days after the mayor announced that a proposal for a Coast Guard Museum is getting closer to reality.
"Both of these projects are tremendous for the city's economic outlook,'' Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Friday. "We're very excited about both projects."
The city is also talking to a developer for a possible retail center at the intersection of Bank and Howard streets, on land that has been vacant for more than 30 years.
"This is a chance for New London to turn the corner ... but it's going to take time and hard work,'' he said. "We're going as fast as we can; none of these things are going to happen overnight.''
The only development so far in Fort Trumbull since 2000, when the municipal development plan was approved, is an 88,000-square-foot office building, which was refurbished in 2005 by the Boston development firm Corcoran Jennison. It had been part of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center complex.
The first housing units in Village on the Thames will be located on the outer edge of the 7-acre site on parcels 2B and 2C and will have water views overlooking Coast Guard Station New London and Fort Trumbull State Park. The entire project is on land that was once the NUWC site.
Construction of the first 34 units will generate about $110,000 in permit fees and about $34,000 a year in taxes during construction, according to the RCDA.
The remaining two parcels, 3B and 2A, will have 69 units and generate an estimated $200,000 in permit fees and nearly $70,000 in taxes during construction.
At a City Council meeting last week, a resident said he heard Stillman was going to build only 15 units and pull out. But Councilor Adam Sprecace and other city officials said they've heard nothing to indicate the project is not going forward as planned.
"This is the biggest development effort in New London in a long time,'' Sprecace said. "I'm excited."
Council President Michael Passero also said he believes the project is proceeding.
"I think that given the really difficult climate for getting financing on any project at all, the developers are doing a really good job at putting together a finance package,'' Passero said. "It's taking longer than expected, but we have every expectation that the groundbreaking will go forward."
Sternlof said the RCDA hopes to make an announcement about the project at its annual meeting in April.
"We're having a kitten over the desire to say this is great, it's actually going to happen, but we can't do that until we get all the commitments ... and they sign all the paperwork,'' he said.
In 2000, the NLDC presented a development plan for Fort Trumbull and the City Council approved it, which in essence leveled nearly all the buildings in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for new multi-use construction. Some of the properties were taken by eminent domain and some of the owners fought the takings, which sparked a legal debate that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, the court ruled that the city had a right to take property by eminent domain for economic development.
Eventually, a riverwalk was completed that gives the public access to the water, but no hotel or office space materialized. Corcoran Jennison, the company that refurbished the existing office building and was the original preferred developer for the site, is no longer involved in the project.
The city granted Riverbank Construction tax abatements in 2011 under the City and Town Development Act, which provides distressed municipalities with broad powers - including offering tax breaks, issuing notes and bonds, delegating powers to development agencies and earmarking capital reserve funds - to attract new development.
Ned Hammond, the city's economic development coordinator, said when the project is completed in 2023, the city could collect more than $2.3 million in taxes, despite the abatements. If there were no abatements, the taxes would be about $2.9 million, he said.
The Planning and Zoning Commission has approved special permits and a coastal site plan review for the project, which is expected to cost $18 million to $20 million. The one-, two- and three-bedroom units will be in the Greek Revival and Italianate styles, with garages, green space and formal and informal landscaped areas. The project will connect with the Fort Trumbull Riverwalk and Fort Trumbull State Park and has been designed to take advantage of views of the Thames River, the park and the downtown skyline.
Plans also include parking for 217 vehicles.