A Townhouse Plan and an Electric Boat Purchase Could Undo Some Ill Will In New London's Fort Trumbull area

The empty expanse that was once the working-class Fort Trumbull neighborhood in New London is an ever-present reminder of the painful eminent domain battle that took dozens of homes — and the redevelopment that didn't follow.

But new plans for 80 townhouses in the area could offer some hope of a long-awaited jumpstart — an effort that could be helped by last week's announcement that Electric Boat will buy Pfizer Inc.'s nearby research and development headquarters.

The plans could put some lingering ill will behind the city.

"Everyone wants to move forward and make sure all that hard work and indeed pain is put to rest," said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Although the townhouses wouldn't be built where the properties were taken and demolished, the new construction would be squarely in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The 6.5-acre tract targeted for the townhouses once was the site of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which also has been razed.

Developers Robert and Irwin Stillman, who have offices in New York and Westport, are now in negotiations with the New London Development Corp., a nonprofit community development agency, and could be announced within a couple of months, city officials said.

Irwin Stillman declined to comment for this story.

But some who believe the homes should never have been torn down in the first place — but integrated into redevelopment — say the urge to move ahead too quickly needs to be resisted.

"The idea that [EB parent] General Dynamics is going to be our savior can be realized if we take our time and do our homework," said Richard L. Humphreville, a high-end cabinetmaker in New London. "We have a break; let's not blow it."

Humprheville said the notion that Pfizer was going to spawn a bioscience renaissance in New London was ill-conceived. And, whle Electric Boat's prospects look good now, the submarine maker is vulnerable to the changing political winds of government defense spending, he said.

Those who defend past redevelopment efforts in Fort Trumbull acknowlege mistakes made in taking of the properties, but they also say progress was impeded by a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court eminent domain battle, and later, the economic downturn.

"We're trying to move forward in a positive way," Mayor Robert Pero said.

Although some had hoped the townhouses would be condominiums to be purchased, the weak housing market will likely dictate that they be rentals. When the market improves, they could be converted for purchase, said Martin T. Olsen Jr., a city council member who chairs its economic development committee.

Sheridan said the townhouses will have a ready-made market in the office workers employed by EB in New London, many of them engineers and other professionals.

As a condition of securing a $15 million state grant in moving 2,300 workers to New London from Groton, EB has agreed to add another 700 jobs.

"There's a trend among young people to live closer to work," Sheridan said. "Having those kind of professional high-end jobs in the former Pfizer building will encourage that trend. It will no doubt lead to further housing development."

Humphreville said the city should hold off until a study in conjunction with Yale University's urban architectural program is completed. Some say those ideas could be melded with the plan adopted a decade ago for redeveloping the area.

Once, the vision was for a hotel and conference center, 80 units of housing, a bioscience park and other amenities. Until 2008, there was a preferred developer for the project, Boston-based Corcoran Jennison. The firm lost the status when it couldn't get financing for the housing.

Corcoran Jennison did complete the renovation of an existing building into offices, but never broke ground on any new construction.

Pero said Fort Trumbull could now be on the cusp of the long-awaited redevelopment — and the hoped for commercial development, possibly the hotel, marina and office space could follow in the coming years.

Just one day after the EB announcement last week, one commercial real estate broker in New London said she was already getting calls from companies who want to lease space near the EB complex.

Susan Howard, a broker at U.S. Properties, said she had gotten requests from two firms in Stamford, one looking for 6,000 to 9,000 square feet and another, 2,500 square feet. Another company in Essex wanted to lease 6,000 to 7,000 square feet.

"One of them does work for Electric Boat, the others just want to be here," Howard said.

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