Robert Landino's dad's gang helped tear down New Haven. Now it's the son's turn to reshape his hometown's landscape.
Landino (pictured at left), who runs Centerplan Development Company, is behind two $50 million building projects in town right now, neither of which is receiving public subsidies:
His $50 million "College & Crown" project has broken ground and will fill the block of College Street across from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Its five-story buildings will house 160 luxury studio and one- and two-bedroom rental apartments as well as 20,000 square feet of street-level retail. A Stamford Wrecking crew the other day finished demolishing (pictured above) the one-story College Plaza storefronts that occupied a corner of the block surrounded by surface parking lots.
His $50 million plan for building on a 5.39-acre surface lot on Legion Avenue is currently the subject of public hearings and approvals. The block-long lot would house a new headquarters for the not-for-profit Continuum of Care mental-health agency, a pharmacy, a medical office building or hotel, and a parking garage.
The latter project is the first part of a broader effort by the city to bring new life to 16.2 fallow acres along Route 34/Legion Avenue. The idea is to fix a mistake from a half-century ago, when government razed a neighborhood there during the bulldozer-happy "slum clearance" days of urban renewal. In the name of eradicating poverty, New Haven spent more money per capita than any other American city tearing down buildings and demolishing neighborhoods.
Landino knows about those days. His dad, the late Al Landino, served as City Hall's development chief during much of that time under then-Mayor Dick Lee. He started in 1963, after the leveling of Route 34, but continued shepherding projects through.
His dad stuck with Lee through Lee's 1969 retirement. Robert, born in 1960, received an early education in urban planning.
"My dad was part of the Great Society. Oakland and New Haven were the laboratories for urban renewal," Landino recalled in an interview in the Independent's offices along with his development partner in the current New Haven projects, Yves George-Joseph. "We heard about it at the dinner table."
Eventually Al Landino heard about it, too. From his son.
Robert Landino, who's 53, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in New Haven's middle-class Beaver Hills neighborhood. He walked to school at St. Bernadette's. His father Al came to New Haven with his family from Italy, originally settling in a rundown building on Grand Avenue. That building met the wrecking ball as part of urban renewal-and Al was glad, according to his son. That meant progress.
Young Robert had a hard time understanding that. "I argued with my dad throughout my adolescent life about urban renewal," he recalled. He criticized the crowded new public-housing projects that his father helped get built around town to house families displaced by urban renewal. "You didn't grow up where I did, which had no running water, horrible conditions," Robert remembered his father responded. His father argued that the dense new projects "got the most bang for the buck," creating lots of clean apartments to give poor families a better chance in life.
Robert didn't plan to follow in his father's urban-development footsteps. "I was an English major heading for a journalism major," he recalled, "when I decided to switch to engineering." He became a civil engineer, built a successful career while also serving time as a state legislator from the Essex area. He no longer lived in New Haven. His work did bring him back: He worked for the developers of the Ninth Square revival in the 1990s, for instance.
Eventually he decided to become a developer himself, founding Middletown-based Centerplan Companies. He has overseen the building of more than a million square feet of offices, stores, and housing over the past four years. Along the way, he kept an eye on the new wave of urban renewal taking place in New Haven, where planners claimed to have learned from the mistakes of Al Landino's era: They now sought walkable, human-scale projects that mixed fun and work and living, rather than mammoth unfriendly single-use car-oriented projects such as the Chapel Square Mall, Knights of Columbus Museum (formerly a "human services" building, believe it or not), the New Haven Coliseum.
Seven years ago he bought the block on College Street for about $7 million. He wanted to build a $140 million 19-story tower with 272 high-priced residential condos. He won necessary approvals from the city. He cleared out tenants from the small commercial plaza.
Then the recession hit. Banks were reluctant to finance luxury condos. Landino decided to sit on the property until the market changed.
Meanwhile, he looked west, to the cleared land on Legion Avenue. Three years ago he approached then-Mayor John DeStefano with a plan to start building there. The mayor said no thanks.
Then Landino heard that Continuum of Care was looking to build a new headquarters to consolidate its fast-growing offices. City Hall wanted to keep Continuum in town. Landino's Centerplan formed a partnership with Continuum. They negotiated a deal with the city to buy the 5.65-acre lot across from Career High School to build the office-retail project.
Matthew Nemerson, who today holds Landino's father's old job as top City Hall development official, applauded the younger Landino's work in New Haven. "As a planner, engineer, politician and developer how could we ever find someone who better understands the intersection of public and private needs, history and the future and the necessary compromises of planning, design and ROI [return on investment]? We need to celebrate and embrace people who can make money while making the city a better place," Nemerson said.
Landino said he sees his mission as building back up an area destroyed by his father's generation in city government.
Robert said he grew up critical as well about the strategy behind the destruction of neighborhoods, though he didn't remember Route 34 in particular coming up during his arguments with his dad, who died in 1995. "We never talked about the fact that it split the neighborhood. Oh, we'd have some good conversations if he were around today."
While he still sees the clearing of all that land as a mistake and the construction of projects like the original Quinnipiac Terrace and Farnam Courts as mistakes, he said, he came to understand why his father felt differently.
"I thought about my father's life experiences," Landino said. "He thought he was doing something great. So did every academic."
Some suggested the plan repeats mistakes of the urban renewal period by not including housing, and by including parking. In a community meeting Sunday, Landino's team and city officials made promises to put more greenery on the block; include solar panels (he has a company that does that); and limit the amount of parking as much as feasible. Mayor Toni Harp promised that the other 16.2 acres of fallow Route 34 land stretching to the Boulevard will include plenty of housing, with the public involved in drawing up the plan. Meanwhile, other citizens have repeatedly applauded the project for beginning to bring activity back to the area, not to mention jobs and a projected $950,000 in annual tax revenues.
Meanwhile, the real-estate market picked up. It would still prove tough to obtain financing to build condos on the College Street lot, which borders Crown, High, and George Streets. But New Haven's downtown rental market was hot, as evidence by the success of the 360 State tower blocks away.
The College Street block lay waiting, leased to a private parking-lot operator. Eighteen months ago Landino and Joseph returned to New Haven with a revised, scaled-down plan for market-rate rental apartments with ground-floor retail on the block, at about a third of the height of the previous version.
This one provoked little to no opposition. The main help the builders needed from the city was permission to have less parking than allowed by law, just one space per apartment. And the builders decided to put almost all the parking spaces underground. Two pluses in New Haven's current new urbanist, urban renewal-weary political landscape. College & Crown won easy zoning relief. Work has begun; Landino aims for a late-summer of fall 2015 opening.
Landino's father's legacy hovers over this project too: The Lee administration brought market-rate apartment buildings to the land it cleared in that area: University Towers, Madison Towers, and Crown Towers.
"He'd be thrilled" with the College & Crown project, Landino said of his dad. Landino said he hopes to lure young professionals, hospital workers, Yale-related renters to his new project. He just might lure some of them from the towers built a block or two away in his father's day.
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