Register-Retail Switcheroo Gets 1st OK

Register-Retail Switcheroo Gets 1st OK

December 05, 2011
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The New Haven Register assigned half a dozen staffers to a City Hall meeting, but only one was there to report on the news. The rest were making it.

The daily newspaper’s brass turned out in force Wednesday night at the monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission. They won commissioners’ approval for a proposed zone change designed to help the company unload its largely empty highwayside Sargent Drive headquarters so it can move into a nimble 21-century digital newsroom downtown.

The matter now moves to the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee for final approval.

The Register is asking the city to convert its 13-acre property at Sargent Drive from Light Industrial (IL) zoning to General Business (BA). The change would allow the newspaper company to sell its building to a retail outfit. Register publisher Tom Wiley said several retailers have “serious interest” in the space. He declined to identify them.

The Register has been shopping around the former Gant Shirt-factory property it has occupied on Sargent Drive since the early 1980s. Since downsizing its newsroom and outsourcing its printing operation, as part of a new “digital first” strategy to adapt to 21st century publishing, the paper no longer needs its 200,000 square-foot building. It plans to move to a smaller space downtown.

But first it needs to sell the building. That has proved difficult under current zoning, which limits building to uses like manufacturing, Wiley told City Plan commissioners. Lots of comparable industrial spaces have been for sale and sitting empty for months, even years. No industrial buyers have come forward to snap up the property. So the company wants permission to make it available to retailers who might be interested. (Read a background story about that, and the Register’s community outreach in the Hill, here.)

Wiley showed up at the meeting along with the Register parent company’s vice-president in charge of real estate, Joe Miller; broker Tim Fegan; and three Register editors. A Register reporter was also in attendance, covering the meeting for the paper.

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Back in the ‘80s the whole area around the Register building was essentially an industrial park, said local attorney Carolyn Kone (pictured), speaking on behalf of the Register. The landscape has changed over the decades thanks to zoning decisions, Kone said. The neighborhood is now characterized by a huge IKEA store and other retail, with the exception of Assa Abloy.

Since the Register shut down its printing presses, it is only using about 19 percent of the 193,000-square-foot building, Kone said.
“My energy bills are knee-buckling every month” even without the printing presses, said Wiley. There’s enough room in the building for the 213 remaining employees to have almost 1,000 square feet per person, Wiley said. “So it feels empty.”

The company can’t move to a smaller location downtown until it unloads the huge building, Wiley. “I can’t afford to buy the empty-nester’s house until I sell the family mansion.”

He said ideally he’d move the paper to a spot like the old Cafe Bottega on the corner of Temple and Chapel streets. The new digital newsroom will be a home not only for the paper but for a “media hub” housing Register media “partners” like SeeClickFix perhaps, Wiley said.

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Miller (pictured) said the goal is to sell the building to a single retailer. But failing that, the Register could convert the building into a small shopping center, lease retail spaces out to a few smaller businesses, then sell the whole center.

Commission Chair Ed Mattison said the change makes sense. “It’s certainly true that light industrial is not coming back” to the area, he said. It might even make sense to make the change on a larger scale.

City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg said her department is planning to look at more zoning changes to the area in the future.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the application.

Wiley said the Register aims to be out of the building by next summer. He and broker Fegan said it is too soon to say how much the building would sell for.