Back To The Future On Lilac Street

New Haven’s population is on the rise, along with a 17-foot-skinny new Newhallville home that may offer a glimpse of the densely packed neighborhoods of the city’s past—and future.

The new house is going up at 32 Lilac St. between Newhall Street and Winchester Avenue in Newhallville. Workers this past Wednesday installed a pre-fabricated concrete foundation for the one-family home, which is notable for its narrow footprint. The house will be only 17 feet wide and sit on a 35-foot-wide lot.

The house is the latest product of a partnership between Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) and the Yale School of Architecture. Each year, first-year architecture students design and build a house that NHS then sells to a qualifying buyer.

Livable City Initiative head Erik Johnson said the city took a more active role in the process this year, offering the narrow lot on Lilac Street as a challenge to the Yale architecture students. It’s part of an effort to find viable new models for how to build on the many “sliver” lots in New Haven, which proliferated after changes to zoning laws in the 1960s and ‘70s, Johnson said.

The zoning changes stated that any new residential lot needs to have 50 feet of frontage on the street. But many existing houses were built on lots with only 36 to 40 feet of frontage. Those are grandfathered in; if houses on those lots are torn down they can be rebuilt. But zoning regulations also require that new houses have 8- and 10-foot side yards, which makes building a new house on a narrow lot a difficult proposition without zoning relief.

“The majority of housing stock is non-conforming,” Johnson said. “So as we’ve taken things down, people have not been able to put housing back in place without a zoning and review process. ... The city has sold a lot of former building lots as sliver lots.”

The city now owns 80 to 100 sliver lots. “A couple hundred” more in the city are privately owned, Johnson said. They are sometimes sold to adjoining property owners for use as larger side yards. Or they can remain empty, as a “gap-tooth” in a row of houses. Other times, dilapidated houses can stay standing because “no one knows what to do when the house comes down,” Johnson said.

As the city’s population increases, narrow lots may increasingly be used for building, returning the city’s neighborhoods to the density they once had.

Starting in 1950, when around 164,000 people lived in New Haven, the population began to decline. The most recent decennial census, however, showed a population jump, from 123,000 to 129,000 people.

“Now we’ve come almost full circle,” said Jim Paley, head of NHS. The sliver lots that were once occupied, “well maybe we can build on them” if the population continues to increase, and housing demand grows with it.

The result would be neighborhoods and houses that look as they used to half a century ago. Johnson said he presented that challenge to the Yale architecture students: Design and build a house that is on the same scale as the houses that used to be there, build it on a non-conforming lot, and make it “marketable enough so that the city work with other people to replicate” similar houses “as we try to find new infill housing options.”

Johnson said he was also looking for the Yale house design to blend in visually with the neighborhood more than it has in the past. Yale building projects from previous years can be easily spotted around town, looking sometimes like landed spacecraft amid early 20th-century homes.

“One of the criticisms in the community is—these houses are nice but not necessarily contextual to the neighborhood,” Johnson said.

“We shied away from some of the more, shall we say, esoteric designs,” said Paley.

As the architecture students set about designing the house, they built a cardboard scale model of the neighborhood surrounding 32 Lilac St. They left the lot itself as an empty slot on the model, so that different prototypes could be inserted into context.

Architecture professor Alan Organschi (pictured center-left, with faculty member Adam Hopfner) said each of the 50 students in the class came up with a design for the empty lot. Of those 50, eight were selected for further development by teams of six students. Finally, a single winning design was chosen by a jury that included architecture faculty, representatives of the city and NHS.

The winner is known as the “hearth” house. The team sought to offset the narrow length of the house by creating a center of activity in the middle of the house, said Alissa Chastain, one of the students who worked on the house.

The three-bedroom house is designed to filter light down from the second floor, has sliding doors opening onto a side patio, and movable walls upstairs to allow the space to be reconfigured.

On Wednesday, Adam Hopfner, the head of the building project, stood on the bank of a hole in the ground on Lilac Street as the first panels of the pre-fab concrete foundation were lowered into place. The windows of the house next door were covered with plywood, and three more boarded up houses were in sight on the block.

Hopfner said the new house will go up in just 16 weeks, with architecture students providing much of the labor. He said students also worked to secure about $100,000 in building supplies donations from manufacturers of things like faucets and cabinets. The house will cost under $100 per square foot to build, which Hopfner said is quite low. It would be replicable at around $100 per square foot, he said.

Paley said the house’s total development cost is about $220,000 and it will sell for about $150,000. NHS makes up the difference with subsidies, usually from the state housing credit tax program, Paley said.

“This is the first step of a new relationship with the Yale school of design,” said Johnson. “We’re trying to be smarter about how we can do infill housing.”

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posted by: Bill Saunders on May 20, 2013  5:36pm

There is no way in the world this house ‘cost’ $220,000 to develop.
I call BS on this, and the need for state subsidies.  Maybe the first step in a new relationship with Yale, is for Yale to cover the ‘difference’  for ‘student playtime’ rather than the taxpayer. 

On a slightly more positive note, the design fits in better with the neighborhood than past efforts.

posted by: Esbey on May 20, 2013  6:32pm

If this turns out well, can the city start building a dozen of these a year on its own sliver lots, to build population and density at the same time as affordable ownership? 

And can we change zoning so that such houses can be built “by right”? That’s the way to get more built by the private sector.  We probably still want either appropriate (eight foot?) setbacks from surrounding property or else permission of the neighbor.  Two eight-foot setbacks plus a seventeen foot house means you could build by right on a 33 foot lot.

posted by: CreatingUrgency on May 20, 2013  7:14pm

Really strange though is the fact that a Habitat for Humanity house lies vacant just a few blocks from that spot. Why? The Taurus Cafe.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 20, 2013  8:49pm


It is becoming very clear

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 20, 2013  8:53pm


I am confused.  I don’t see the value in developing homes that are financially, 1/3 underwater to begin with.  You know, I lived with that level of devaluation of my home in the nineties,  and paid dispoprotianate taxes.

Is Newhallvilleville the next gentrification center????
I think it is.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 20, 2013  9:22pm

How could a pre-fab house cost so much? The design work is done for free through the architecture school, right? Are there special energy efficient systems and appliances being installed in the house, which is bringing the initial cost up, but will add value and save money later? Is that a metal roof and real wood? If so, that can drive up costs quite a bit, but they will last much longer than their synthetic counterparts.

I second the call for zoning reform. When large portions of the city’s building stock is non-conforming that’s history’s way of telling you that the zoning ordinance may need to reflect the city it is serving rather than arbitrary non-contextual standards.

posted by: Esbey on May 20, 2013  9:24pm

Bill S., the story says that future versions of the house can be replicated at $100/sqft.  I don’t know the square footage, but my guess is that the houses could be sold at cost or better at that level of construction cost, which is quite low.  A 1500 square foot house for $150k could sell even in Newhallville, that is not a “gentrified” price.  I read the story to say that the $220,000 included all development costs (which might include engineering and detailed construction drawings) which would not be necessary if the house is repeated.  But the story is vague on that, so maybe I am wrong.

posted by: Curious on May 20, 2013  9:27pm

What’s The Taurus Cafe?

posted by: Curious on May 20, 2013  9:33pm


Well if Newhallville has this whole new community spirit rising, per the other article today about blacks taking ownership of their community, then why doesn’t the black community DO something about this place?  Get the zoning changed, something…

posted by: HhE on May 20, 2013  10:19pm

Curious, many black people did.  Many residents went to Hartford to speak out against The Taurus.  Then Lt Reddish lead his Officers in a very effective way to contain The Taurus.  While the state did suspend their license for a while (because of payment in kind irregularities), the state later decided to grant The Taurus a liquor license.

posted by: Roger A. on May 20, 2013  10:19pm

“The zoning changes stated that any new residential lot needs to have 50 feet of frontage on the street. ... zoning regulations also require that new houses have 8- and 10-foot side yards, which makes building a new house on a narrow lot a difficult proposition without zoning relief.”

In spite of the fine efforts here by NHS and these students, it sounds like the city desperately needs to rid itself of these artificial, and seemingly arbitrary, limitations that are contributing to the devaluation of the land in the neighborhood (I am assuming they were imported from suburban standards back in an era when “density” was a bad word). If you are going to build 17-foot wide houses, at least allow very narrow lots to build them on rather than leaving all that sideyard space empty for no apparent purpose!

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on May 20, 2013  11:58pm

Side yards of 8 to 12 feet aren’t of “no apparent purpose.”  They allow light and cross ventilation into a building instead of having many of the rooms shadowed by being cheek by jowl against the neighbor’s house.  Both of these features should save energy by decreasing the need for artificial light and for air conditioning.  They make it far simpler and safer to paint and maintain the side of the house, and to run ladders up to the windows in case of fire.  They allow easier access to the back yard, making it more likely that the back yard will be landscaped and cared for (try landscaping a back yard in a fully attached town house, where all gardening equipment and supplies including bags of mulch, plants, etc., must be carried through the house to get to the back yard).  They make it easier to store safely (and therefore to use) bicycles, strollers, etc., making life without a car more tenable.  All of these advantages add up to a higher quality of life in a low-to-middle-income neighborhood.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on May 20, 2013  11:59pm

Also:  the house is not “pre-fab.”  The article never claims that it is pre-fab.  The concrete slabs for the foundation are pre-fab in that they are not poured on site.  That’s all.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 21, 2013  12:31am

Granted Esbey, all of that may be true.  But I still question the state subsidy. I think Yale can donate the $70,000 needed to make this trial balloon fly. 

Or is that blurring the lines between charity and investment???

posted by: Curious on May 21, 2013  7:58am

If it’s a residential area, can’t they go to the BOA and push to get the zoning changed so there can’t be any places serving liquor there?

posted by: westville man on May 21, 2013  9:11am

I have seen many posts on NHI about building “denser” neighborhoods.  I have to admit i dont understand why. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on it? It seems to me that many of our lots are small enough already.  Many of our original 1 family houses have been chopped up into 3 families already.
One of the few Destefano ideas i agreed with was splitting the sliver lots in half and deeding them to abutting landowners, thereby providing space to recreate or plant gardens.
Is it that we dont want families in New Haven anymore or is it that today’s families don’t want an area for their children, pets, etc to play?
I dont understand it- i keep hearing (dating myself here) Cat Stevens song in my head- “Where do the children play?”.  Can someone explain the reasoning to me?

posted by: Esbey on May 21, 2013  9:46am

Westville Man, it isn’t hard to figure out.  Very few homeowners took up the sliver lots offered to them by the city; they weren’t even worth paying taxes on.  Why?

1. Many folks prefer back yards to side yards for their kids.
2. Many folks don’t have kids.
3. Many folks don’t have much money and prefer a house with a smaller yard to no house.  Thus, as you note, we already have multi-family homes where several families share a building lot. 
4. Many folks live near public parks and playgrounds.

I would turn the question around: why should zoning laws *force* homebuyers to pay for side yards they don’t want?  (No one is proposing stopping folks from buying houses on wide lots, if they want.)

posted by: HhE on May 21, 2013  9:57am

Curious, as I understand it, The Taurus is an “existing, non conforming.”

westville man, I find your critique to be very well said.  I think the idea is to create more places for people to live without plowing up the trees, and to create an urban environment where people use shared spaces like community gardens and playgrounds, thus creating a more walkable, civically engaged community.  I think Jonathan Hopkins could do a far better job of explaining this, as well as its merits and flaws.

Bill Saunders, Neighborhood Housing Services’s business model (if that is the right word for a non profit) is to build or comprehensively remodel houses (to a high standard) , and then sell them off to people of limited means who want to be home owners.  NHS makes up for the loss from grants.

When we talk about “affordable housing,” we need to keep in mind that someone has to pay for it.  (I write this in a house which is effectively subsidised through the tax deduction I take on mortgage interest payments.)  This can take the form of Section 8, an increased rent burden on fellow apartment building dwellers, or donations and grants. 

Another way “affordable housing” is made available is through cheep materials and poor workmanship.  I believe that is a false economy. 

As far as gentrification of Newhallville:  that will take some doing.  I do know a number of people of color, who reside in Newhallville, who are all for it.

posted by: swatty on May 21, 2013  10:19am

“As the city’s population increases, narrow lots may increasingly be used for building, returning the city’s neighborhoods to the density they once had.”

Unless we realize that we have freaking empty house all over the city rotting on their foundations!!

Cost $220,000 and sell for $150,000? What kind
of lesson are we teaching our young architects? 

Alan Organschi must be new to the reality of business in the real world…time to get out of the ivory tower already. 

You can’t make this BS up!

posted by: anonymous on May 21, 2013  10:22am

Westville, the city needs another 15 or 20 mixed-income buildings like 360 State Street. These 10,000 or so new housing units would fill up very quickly if built, and would contribute enormously to the city’s (and even State’s) tax base. 

However, these should be built around Downtown and the train station, not in areas such as Newhallville that are farther from jobs and transportation.  Newhallville would benefit from smaller scale mixed-income structures, filling all the empty lots and gas stations with beautiful homes and small apartment buildings.  More development is the only thing that can provide the resources necessary to provide a network of plentiful, well-maintained public spaces and parks.

Unfortunately, areas like Dwight and Fair Haven are adding more new gas stations as we speak - something that will permanently cripple those areas, not to mention something that would be illegal in many other countries (for pollution reasons).

posted by: Walt on May 21, 2013  10:49am

Investing $220,000 in a non-zoning-  compliant house, next door to a partially boarded-up house in a neighborhood where boarded-up houses are not rare seems a bit cock-eyed to me.

Expecting at best to sell for $150,000 while costing at least &70;,000 more makes no sense.

I’m with Saunders and others who question this deal

And how did we OK   such misuse of tax money and reach the $220,000 cost when many materials, and supposedly much labor was donated and the land was alredy owned?

Looks fake to me.  Someone made a bundle it seems.  Does govt audit these programs and claims?

posted by: westville man on May 21, 2013  11:06am

Esbey,  Thanks for telling me that it isn’t hard to figure out.  That’s helpful.
I didnt simply mean ‘sideyards”- as i understand it, we are talking about backyards too.
the typical taxes on a sideyard sliver lotwould be maybe $100/yr, if there’s any increase at all. 
I understand all of your reasons and they certainly make sense.  I’m just wondering how small is small?
If there are some folks with children who can give me some insight on this, that would be helpful too.

posted by: Curious on May 21, 2013  11:22am

Anon, 10 or 20 buildings like 360 State would cover five to 10 city blocks.

Please select which ten blocks of downtown you would like to replace with housing.

posted by: Esbey on May 21, 2013  12:11pm

Westville Man,

I apologize for the “not hard to understand” remark.  My bad. 

I was discussing side yards because that was the zoning issue I was advocating for (shorter legal lot widths) and because in practice I think most of the sliver lots would function that way if added to an existing lot.

I am also surprised that folks won’t take extra side yard space for a small increase in taxes, but it is apparently true and I think speaks to how folks value that space.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 21, 2013  12:31pm

I lived in both Fair Haven with a our small backyard and over the suburbs when I was a kid with a giant yard. The size of a yard is really irrelevant. Our small yard in Fair Haven was more than enough to pass a ball around,put up a small swing set and have parties. The thing is, there’s no middle ground in yard sizes, it’s not as if when you marginally increase a yard size you’ll get more marginal use out of it. A rather small yard can basically accommodate most people’s needs, and you’re never going to be able to reach a yard size where kids can say truly run around or play frisbee or something in a city.

posted by: Curious on May 21, 2013  1:35pm

This is not about someone making money on the deal.

It’s about New Haven finding a crappy piece of land to give to Yale so their architects can play on it.

posted by: anonymous on May 21, 2013  1:47pm

Curious, finding 20 locations is fairly simple. At a bare minimum, the city already has designated at least 8 sites for new and/or replacement housing: The equivalent of two in the area between Union Station and Church Street South, one at the old TK’s on College & George, two on the land reclaimed from reconfiguring Route 34, two on the former Coliseum site, and the Wall Street lot. Add the giant two-story parking garage on Park & George and the enormous SNET parking lot at Orange & Audubon, and you have 10 possible sites. Narrow State Street and you have several more sites.

If we want our neighborhoods to remain affordable, we need to build more housing downtown. A lot more of it.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 21, 2013  2:23pm

I also find it interesting that, while mention is made of the building cost and the replicability, no mention is made of the land cost.

Is someone expecting a windfall of free, non-confroming lots???

posted by: anonymous on May 21, 2013  4:17pm

Yale Flees Newhallville:

Luckily this project will be continued, although in a different neighborhood.

posted by: Stephen Harris on May 21, 2013  6:17pm

Although this project isn’t going forward the commentary over density and lot widths is interesting. I think what’s needed is comprehensive zoning reform to address the fact that the current code, for the most part,  is out of date,reflecting the planning ideas of yesterday. I hope the new mayor understands this and acts to modernize the code.