Shaw’s Landing, a proposed development on the shore of Shaw’s Cove, would place 50 new luxury waterfront condominiums near downtown New London.

New London is playing catch-up and it might turn out to be a mighty sprinter.

The tiny waterfront community has lagged behind the rest of Connecticut’s real estate boom, but a Pfizer research facility that opened there four years ago combined with recent downtown revitalization have helped the 6-square-mile city become a contender in the residential real estate market.

Home sales in New London have been increasing over the past year, according to local real estate agents, and the median home price there increased by 17 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to statistics from The Warren Group, parent company of The Commercial Record. But the biggest mark of the city’s success could be the promise of 50 new luxury waterfront condominiums near the downtown area.

Oaktree Green, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consortium of architects and finance experts, has announced it will build the condo development, called Shaw’s Landing, on the shore of Shaw’s Cove, off the Thames River.

The developers hope to break ground on the project in about a month, said attorney Lee Cole-Chu of New London-based Cole-Chu & Co. He added that 35 units, which make up the first phase of the project, are scheduled to open in about a year.

But just a couple of years ago, a developer wouldn’t have considered putting condos downtown, said Realtor Mary Poola, who works for Rachel Thomas Properties in Niantic.

“I think New London has experienced a rejuvenation in the past year,” she said. “It’s sort of catching up.”

The construction of the Pfizer research facility there was the precursor for the city’s success.

“We got lucky [that Pfizer came here],” said Richard M. Brown, New London’s city manager.

The pharmaceutical company’s central research facility is in nearby Groton and when Pfizer wanted to expand, it couldn’t find any suitable land there, Brown said. So company officials looked to New London. The city recently had acquired an old mill site and was about to sell it to a different buyer when Pfizer came into the picture. The original deal fell through, so the city sold the land to Pfizer.

Pfizer’s presence downtown has given the city an “air of optimism,” Poola said, and has spurred the revitalization downtown.

“It’s changed the canvas,” she said.

‘Sleeping Giant’

Improvements are going on all over the city. The state has been making improvements to Fort Trumbull State Park, which is just south of the downtown, and the local government has been trying to develop parcels of land near the park.

“There’s been a lot of money put into New London,” Brown said.

And that trend is continuing with the construction of Shaw’s Landing. The complex will have 50 units when completed and will have one-, two- and three-bedroom condos that will sell for $175,000 to $425,000, Cole-Chu said. The complex also will offer amenities like an on-site fitness room with a flowing lap pool and all the condos will come with state-of-the art wiring to enable the latest technology.

“This is for New York/Boston sort of amenity levels,” Cole-Chu said.

Cole-Chu expects the condos to entice people who are already loyal to New London. The state-of-the-art units likely will attract highly educated people who work for Pfizer, he said. The complex is about a 15-minute walk away from Pfizer’s New London site and the company runs a bus between the New London and Groton locations that passes by the complex, Cole-Chu said.

The condos also will attract people who want to live near the water, he said. The complex is near a large marina. Many empty nesters who live in $500,000 or $1 million homes nearby and are looking for a simpler lifestyle will find the condos appealing, he said.

“[It will be] people who would rather sail than mow lawns,” Cole-Chu said.

Some young professionals likely will move into lower-priced condos in the complex, Cole-Chu said.

Construction on the complex will probably begin later this month, Cole-Chu said. The complex’s developers aren’t sure when the second phase will begin, he said, but that phase will include several commercial spaces.

The developers started allowing people to reserve units two weeks ago and, so far, seven of the 35 that will be finished in the first phase are reserved, Cole-Chu said. The units are going at a rate of about one every other day, he said.

“There’s been a lot of interest in it,” he said.

That kind of success is being seen all over New London lately.

Jim White is a broker with U.S. Properties in New London. He mainly works in commercial real estate, but occasionally markets residential properties. Residential real estate has been doing extremely well, he said.

“In most cases there are multiple offers,” he said.

One client with whom White has been working has bid over the asking price on three different properties, but has been outbid every time.

Until a year or two ago, New London wasn’t seeing the kind of success in the residential real estate market that was driving the economies of other cities across the state.

When asked why, Poola said part of New London’s problem was “scholastic.”

“They have battled with the inability to be as well thought of scholastically,” she said.

The city government has been working to try to improve the schools, but it’s coming along slowly, Poola said.

“That’s not an overnight project,” she said. “New London needed extra pushes.”

Those pushes have started to come in the form of downtown revitalization. The presence of the Pfizer building has pushed other people to invest in the downtown, she said.

“When one person invests, others invest,” she said.

Now, New London natives are becoming prosperous and investing in bigger houses and people from other parts of Connecticut and from different states are coming to New London to take advantage of housing prices that, although they are rising, are among the lowest in the state.

“New London is extremely affordable and is a great housing value,” Brown said.

The water views and the big-city, artsy feel of the downtown also have helped, Poola said. The city is also on Interstate 95 and Amtrak and Greyhound can take residents to New York City or Boston, she said. New London will continue to thrive, Poola said.

“It’s a bit of a sleeping giant,” she said.