When the New Haven Coliseum was demolished in 2007, few felt much regret: Many considered the building an eyesore, a failure of urban renewal. And besides, the venue hadn't been open in five years.
Now, a Montreal-based developer hopes to bring people back to do more than park on the site with a $300 million-plus development of apartments, shops and restaurants, a hotel, offices and public gathering spaces.
The developer, Live Work Learn Play, will unveil its plans for the redevelopment to the public Thursday night. The plan is another component of the massive Downtown Crossing project, which aims to reconnect downtown New Haven with Union Station and Yale-New Haven Hospital, divided by the construction of the Route 34 connector nearly a half-century ago.
"We really felt that New Haven has just begun realizing a great future potential," Max Reim, LWLP's co-managing partner and founding principal, said from his office in Canada. "With all the new development that is going on, it is the pattern of a city making itself a new regional hub."
LWLP envisions the redevelopment of the 4.5-acre Coliseum site -- now a paved parking lot -- unfolding over seven to 10 years, beginning with groundbreaking in early 2015.
The as-yet unnamed redevelopment proposes as many as 524 residential units; 75,000 square feet of retail space, enough room for 35 shops and restaurants, the majority local; a 160-room hotel with meeting space; up to 200,000 square feet of office space that would ideally be leased to one tenant for a corporate headquarters; and a parking deck and underground parking throughout the complex.
It is expected that in early phases of construction, the majority of residential units would be apartments, but condominiums are possible if the market strengthens, Reim said.
LWLP also plans 25,000 square feet of "green-eco" rooftop space for community farming and parks. The farm, Reim said, would operate year-round, using a retractable roof in the winter. The farm would supply organic vegetables to restaurants in the development, Reim said.
In all, there would be up to 1 million square feet of space and as many as 1,800 permanent jobs could be created, Reim said.
LWLP is the preferred developer of the Coliseum site and is negotiating with the city on a contract. Reim said financing would be mostly through private equity investment, but LWLP is negotiating with the state on an incentive package.
Alan J. Plattus, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and founder of the university's Center for Urban Design Research, said the challenge for this redevelopment is to ensure that it extends the successes of the recent renaissance of the bordering Ninth Square area. Even more important, it has to further strengthen the longer-term goal of reconnecting downtown with Union Station and ultimately, the city's waterfront, Plattus said.
"You need to make sure this is not configured as the end of downtown," Plattus said.
Although Plattus said he has not seen all the details of the redevelopment, he said he was disappointed that plans did not include an attraction, such as a relocated Long Wharf Theatre. The theater was included in a proposal by the first preferred developer for the Coliseum site, Northland Investment Corp.
"From a planning point of view, you always want to have a raisin or two in the cake," Plattus said.
LWLP, formed in 2005, focuses on mixed-use developments. Reim said LWLP was involved in the early development of Storrs Center near the University of Connecticut and worked on a portion of the massive Great Pond development in Windsor.
LWLP also completed a $71 million, 140-unit residential complex with street-level retail in Montreal and helped plan for the revitalization of downtown Rockford, Ill., and its waterfront area.
Reim said he was attracted to the Coliseum project because it involved "stitching back together" the city using the 10.5-acre Route 34 area between the Air Rights Garage and State Street. A similar challenge is one faced in LWLP's home base of Montreal, Reim said.
Route 34, intended to link New Haven to Orange and Derby and make it easier for people to visit and shop in New Haven, was built during the urban renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s and wiped out an entire neighborhood. The connector was never completed and Route 34 earned the dubious nickname "highway to nowhere."
The larger Downtown Crossing seeks to reverse the dividing of the city. Plans call for the connector to be turned into a boulevard, with a portion being routed underground in a tunnel. Offices, housing, restaurants, shops and parks would be built above the tunnel -- over as much as two decades -- providing an economic boost for the city, economic development officials in New Haven say.
Apartment vacancy in New Haven has ranged from 2 percent to 4 percent in recent years. New Haven's rental vacancy rate is among the tightest in the country, making it attractive to investors who can raise asking rental rates. Office vacancy has hovered near 10 percent, the level at which new construction is justified.
As LWLP brings its plans for the Coliseum site to the public, groundbreaking for the first office building at Downtown Crossing is fast approaching. On June 17, Alexion Pharmaceuticals is expected to begin construction on its $100 million corporate headquarters in the city. Alexion could qualify for a $51 million state package of incentives if it expands its workforce in the city.
Reim said he views the Coliseum redevelopment as part of the bigger picture, but he also views it as a destination as well.
"This is not an in-fill or a pass-through," Reim said.
Kelly Murphy, the city's economic development administrator, said the Coliseum redevelopment will mark a crucial step in linking downtown to Union Station.
The city hopes to encourage the connection to Union Station by rejoining the two ends of Orange Street, now split by Route 34, hopefully with the help of a federal grant. Orange Street runs along the northwestern side of the Coliseum site.
"It's not a pleasant experience going from Union Station to downtown," Murphy said. "It's dark and empty. But as you build up a million square feet and add residential units, that will start to change."
A presentation and discussion of the proposed plans for redeveloping the Coliseum site will be held Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Hill Central School, 140 DeWitt St., New Haven.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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