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September 30, 2021

Urban Renewal: Residential development boom set to transform New Haven’s Wooster Square

PHOTOS | Liese Klein The new Olive & Wooster rental apartment complex in Wooster Square is slated to welcome tenants as soon as next month.

He won’t take a stand on which city makes the best pizza, but New York developer Darren Seid is a big fan of New Haven.

“I see a lot of promise,” Seid said of the city, describing it as ideal for new residential projects due to its universities, transportation network and vibrant biotech industry. With New Yorkers continuing to migrate north, he added, “I don’t see how someone doesn’t move to New Haven.”

Seid has high hopes that new arrivals to the Elm City will consider his brand-new Olive & Wooster apartment development, slated to welcome its first tenants in November. The 299-unit project near the heart of the Wooster Square neighborhood offers luxury rentals ranging from studios starting at about $1,900 a month to four-bedroom apartments starting at $5,700 a month.

Online marketing for the complex is in full swing, with ads featuring attractive young people scarfing pizza. “At #OliveandWooster you’ll be located in the heart of Little Italy with all of your foodie needs close to home,” reads one promotional post.

A rendering of the completed Olive & Wooster complex, the first project planned by New York developer Darren Seid.

As of late September, Seid was lining up businesses for about 8,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space at the complex and is heartened by the strong interest from potential tenants. His company, Epimoni Corp., built Olive & Wooster with a New York-based partner, Adam America.

“I could not have picked a better location,” Seid said. “With the charm and the beauty and history of the Wooster Square neighborhood, I could not be more excited about that project and where we fit into the community.”

Little Italy building boom

Those venturing to New Haven’s Wooster Square pizza hub in recent months have noticed the extensive construction at the neighborhood’s gateway along Olive Street. Hard hats are swarming to complete Seid’s Olive and Wooster project, along with another luxury development just around the corner on Chapel Street.

“It’s become a very popular place to live,” said Carlos Eyzaguirre, deputy economic development administrator for the city of New Haven.

A former resident of the area, Eyzaguirre has seen Wooster Square transform over the decades from slightly rundown to a magnet for both renters and buyers.

Upcoming development in the area includes The Whit, a set of luxury buildings at 630 Chapel near Seid’s complex. Set to be completed soon after Olive & Wooster, the 230-unit rental project is being developed by Hines, a Houston-based firm.

A view from the corner of the Olive & Wooster rental complex, which features balconies overlooking the neighborhood.

Farther down Olive Street, a 31-unit complex is taking shape on the lot once occupied by the Tobin & Melien law firm. That historic structure will remain and anchor an L-shaped residential project set back on the street.

On the commercial front, workers have broken ground on a state-of-the-art distribution center at 50 Ives Pl., on the far side of Wooster Square at the site of a former chemical factory. Due to its past, the 4.4-acre property was best suited for another industrial use, Eyzaguirre said. The new structure will feature trees and an attractive design.

Retail-wise, outdoor dining structures erected at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have proven to be a boon to the neighborhood’s pizza and other Italian restaurants, drawing new fans even as social media has made New Haven a foodie destination.

Under new ownership as of 2018, Sally’s Apizza erected a huge outdoor dining structure that is hopping on warm weekends. The restaurant has also launched a statewide expansion plan, with a 4,000-square-foot location set for Stamford and plans afoot for a Greater Hartford Sally’s.

New businesses have also been drawn to Wooster Square: Albanian immigrants trained in Naples opened Zeneli Pizzeria e cucina Napoletana in 2019 and have built an outdoor dining area right on Wooster Street.

Entrepreneur Chidi Onukwugha launched Kaiyden’s coffee shop at 595 Chapel St. in late September, drawn by Wooster Square’s beauty and history.

“I truly feel connected and I feel very welcome,” Onukwugha said.

His neighbor on Chapel Street, architect Ben Ledbetter, moved to Wooster Square in April after years downtown. He said he loves not only the architectural landmarks that dot the neighborhood but the convenient parking for his business.

History of diversity

Although now known mostly for its Italian enclave, Wooster Square actually made history earlier as a project of William Lanson, a pioneering Black engineer and developer who bought land in what was once called the New Township area of New Haven. A statue of Lanson was erected on the Farmington Canal Trail last year.

Italians from the Amalfi coast were drawn to the neighborhood in the early 1900s thanks to its proximity to major factories, and the tight-knit enclave survived urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s due to an early incarnation of community activism, Eyzaguirre said.

“It’s really become more diverse,” Eyzaguirre said, citing changes in demographics citywide.

Wooster Square’s recent building boom, matched by new apartment complexes rising or planned across downtown and beyond, testifies to the continued strength of the region’s rental market, said Jed Backus, president of the New Haven Middlesex Association of Realtors.

Rental complexes in nearby towns are at capacity and the market is only beginning to stabilize after a frenetic spring and summer.

“There is a supply-demand imbalance, and that’s rippling out from New Haven,” Backus said. With its traditional base of homes carved up into rentals and older apartment buildings, New Haven and Wooster Square are basically catching up to existing demand with new projects like Olive & Wooster.

Occupancy for rental units in the city remained at around 90% at the end of September, said Economic Development Officer Kathleen Krolak.

Drawn by the universities and biotech jobs, migrants to New Haven are seeking luxury rentals with amenities and the potential of a car-free life, Backus added. Cities out West and in other regions have trained younger renters to look for new construction with pools and gyms on-site and cafes and restaurants nearby.

Wooster Square’s development signals the approach of a new New Haven, Backus added.

“New Haven is right on the cusp of being something that’s fully walkable and livable,” Backus said. “It’s right on the verge of being able to sustain everything.”

Opportunity knocks for developer

For Seid, the developer, Wooster Square met his criteria as an attractive area with unmet demand and available lots when he was first looking for deals outside of the five boroughs in 2017.

“Everything that I learned about New Haven excited me more,” he said.

Seid is so enthusiastic about Wooster Square and the Elm City’s prospects that he submitted a site plan in late September for a second project just down the street, at 20 and 34 Fair St. That project would create 186 units at similar price points, with the added attraction of lots of open space and an adjacent tree-lined greenway open to the public.

“We’re going to create something there that’s going to be attractive to the community,” Seid said. “I feel honored to be a part of it, honored to leave a mark on New Haven and Wooster Square.”

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