NEW LONDON — That Ørsted, the Danish wind giant, chose two floors in an 1833 three-story brick building at 42 Bank Street above Muddy Waters Cafe as its base of operations in New London, speaks volumes about how the city of New London approaches the economic possibilities of the recently announced wind energy project and the $93 million State Pier redevelopment project slated to serve it.
It is a gorgeous afternoon, and Felix Reyes, director of planning and development for New London, has offered to take us on a quick tour of central downtown that stretched well over an hour, walking from the top of State Street, down to the harbor where we considered the view of rail passengers, and along Bank Street where we stopped at the future headquarters.
“Ørsted came to New London, and to me, and said where do you want us to be? We showed them all over and this was their final choice — that’s a global company coming in,” said Reyes.
“The way I see it is from where we’re at right now, it’s more important to see progress, because you can get frustrated and set yourself up for disappointment if you say by 2025 we want X Y Z. That’s hard to control,” said Reyes. “No one has a crystal ball.”Felix Reyes, Director of Planning and Development in New London
Ørsted is part of a public-private partnership, with Eversource, with the terminal operator Gateway, and with the Connecticut Port Authority to create up to 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy that will be installed 65 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
Other than its location near the State Pier (the Bank Street office will have a magnificent view of the harbor), New London is located halfway between Boston and New York, which was key to Ørsted signing the lease, according to Reyes.
“This is one of the first big companies where we say that theory is actually coming to fruition,” he said. “They get off the train and have meetings and they can walk [to the office]. Boston folks and New York folks can have those face-to-face meetings.”
“And one is you have to preserve what you have — it’s like taking care of your grandmother — they lived a life and at some point they’re due the maintenance and capital improvements that are required “Felix Reyes, Director of Planning and Development in New London
For a city that made history a decade ago as part of a Kelo v. New London the landmark United States Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the demolition and unrealized redevelopment of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood — if recent interviews with Mayor Mike Passero and Reyes are any judge — New London is not counting on the next big thing.
“The way I see it is from where we’re at right now, it’s more important to see progress, because you can get frustrated and set yourself up for disappointment if you say by 2025 we want X Y Z. That’s hard to control,” said Reyes. “No one has a crystal ball.”
As we walk, Reyes stops occasionally to point out a work in progress, a notable misstep, an irony that educates. He narrates a self-conscious balancing act of “very numbers-based” development, as Reyes puts it, with an appreciation of New London’s less quantifiable sources of value and wealth.
“There’s been gaps in judgement on what brings value to the city,” Reyes explains, pointing down State Street. “And one is you have to preserve what you have — it’s like taking care of your grandmother — they lived a life and at some point they’re due the maintenance and capital improvements that are required — the adaptive reuse project at St. Mary is a perfect example — if you look at the condition of that building, give it five or ten more years and there’s nothing left”.
“You’ve got folks living with less wealth, more poverty, but I like to think every neighborhood is rich in its own way. Some of the rich aspects of some of our more distressed neighborhoods really are around Market Avenue, Garfield, Elm Street — and the funny thing is, that’s where I grew up.”Felix Reyes, Director of Planning and Development in New London
That project — the subject of a June 5 story by CT Examiner — is expected to provide social services, as well as 20 units of housing — at a cost of $7.1 million, which includes significant subsidies from the state.
Even after years in the private sector, Reyes does not hesitate.
“Because if you look at EB … they need affordable housing too,” said Reyes. Given the numbers his office has received, Reyes expects 30 percent of the jobs created will still qualify for affordable housing. “We’re talking about a drafter or a janitor or a maintenance guy.”
For a man who has spent much of his adult life as a project manager and senior project manager for Fifield Piaker Elman Architects, Jones Lang LaSalle, Citizens Financial Group and LendLease, Reyes explains part of his skillset as a matter of working between different communities of expectation, as a shuttle diplomat, a number cruncher, a bearer of hard truths.
He draws on what he describes as the unique richness of growing up in a diverse working class neighborhood in New London — the child of a retired New London post office employee, with a mother who worked in corrections.
Reyes speaks with affection for neighborhoods others might dismiss simply as impoverished. “You’ve got folks living with less wealth, more poverty, but I like to think every neighborhood is rich in its own way. Some of the rich aspects of some of our more distressed neighborhoods really are around Market Avenue, Garfield, Elm Street — and the funny thing is, that’s where I grew up. I was born and raised on Elm Street — it’s a blue-collar type neighborhood, the houses are not all in great condition, but people have pride there.”
But his go-to solutions sound a lot like his colleague Jason Vincent, director of planning for the Town of Stonington, what Yale Urban Design Workshop proposed for Old Lyme. Since last year, Reyes has helped shepherd through a number of changes to zoning regulations in New London which could be a punch list for the Halls Road Improvements Committee in Old Lyme: Reducing setbacks, increased density, loosened height restrictions, less stringent parking requirements, and to be able to build by the water — something that came up often in our meeting with Mayor Passero in May, and in a recent zoning hearing for Smiler’s Wharf in Mystic.
“Those are all major contributors to making sure these projects happen,” Reyes explained, “because you have to be a little bit malleable, a little bit flexible to change those things when the right project comes to the table.”
In a town with significant pockets of poverty, Reyes describes a careful balance between attracting foot traffic and disposable incomes, and protecting the people already living in New London.
“I get the gentrification pushback all the time,” said Reyes. “What we’re trying to do is: whatever we have that’s existing — that’s affordable. We need to preserve that. That’s number one. And anything that’s new that the market can bear, that’s an opportunity to bring in market-rate apartments. It’s new construction.”
Over the long term, Reyes is ambitious. 10,000 new residents is a number he has in mind. But for the present, he’s more focused simply on progress and momentum. He expects the city to break ground soon on the long-stalled Coast Guard museum. Over the last year, the city has added just four additional businesses to the existing thousand — no great leaps, Reyes admits, but the right direction.
Looking down State Street at the blocks of historic buildings that reach the water in the distance, Reyes grounds his work in history.
“What I see in downtown is a snapshot of 100 years ago that still exists today, with our churches, the Garde theatre, the Cronin building, the Crocker House, City Hall. What I see is a kind of time capsule — you don’t get this visual perspective in any other towns,” he said. “It’s a reminder of where we’ve been and it’s a reminder of where we need to go.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the offshore wind energy project will be located not in Long Island Sound, but south of Martha’s Vineyard.