Adam Marchand wished he could have said yes to a bigger garage.
Marchand and his fellow City Plan commissioners Wednesday night voted to approve a controversial 763-space garage at one of the biggest new development projects coming online in the city, a $50 million office-retail project that Middletown-based Centerplan Development is building on the 5.39-acre megablock bounded by MLK Boulevard, Sherman Avenue, Legion Avenue, and Dwight Street, at 243 Legion Ave. across from Career High School. Marchand said he shared concerns about the environmental aspects of building garages, but argued that the benefits of new development outweighed them.
The commission also said yes to two other needed approvals for the project, the first piece in an envisioned rebuilding of “Route 34 West,” a 16.2-acre stretch of Route 34 that government bulldozed a half-century ago to build a highway that never materialized. One yes: The Commission approved a site plan for the entire development. The other yes: It recommended the zoning board allow Centerplan to have 79 parking spaces where 154 spaces on the initial part of the megablock. Centerplan intends to put a new home for the offices of Continuum of Care, Inc., a pharmacy, a restaurant, and a medical office building or hotel, along with the 745-space garage.
The project has already received its main approvals. These new approvals enable the developer to move forward and build it.
As throughout the approval processes for this project, the public testimony at Wednesday night’s meeting focused on that garage. Some neighbors and environmentalists argued that it will add to already intolerable pollution in the neighborhood. ( (Click here for a previous story detailing the plan and the public’s concerns, and here for a story about the developer. Click here for a story about how it won over key alders for the project’s main approvals.)
“Why do we need this garage?” Marchand, who’s also a city alderman, asked Centerplan’s attorneys, Stephen Studer and Rolan Young Smith. “Market demand, market demand is what you keep saying. What is the content [of the argument]?”
Studer and Smith resopnded that the development on the area would require more parking, and that tenants often need guarantees of parking spaces before they agree to move in. (The developers originally envisioned a bigger garage, then reduced the size in response to public opposition.) Bill Fries of Centerplan said his company would prefer to have less parking if it were possible to still make the project work.
“Quite frankly, we wouldn’t build more spaces than you need because every space in a garage is very costly,” Fries said. “It costs us about 30 to 35,000 extra dollars per parking space we build.”
Architect Chris Bockstael (pictured) showed the commission a visual rendering of the proposed garage and the other buildings as seen along Legion Avenue. The goal is to make the parking garage blend in with the other buildings and the rest of the neighborhood and to fit in as best as possible, he said. (Click here for a story and reader discussion about that aspect of the plan.)
“We hope you have a hard time understanding which one is actually the parking garage,” Bockstael said as he showed the commission the visual rendering.Marchand did indeed ask Bockstael to point out which one the garage was.
Ultimately, the vote was unanimous for the special permit, afters some discussion among the commissioners.
Marchand said that he felt torn about his vote for the special permit because he agreed with “much about the comments of opponents.” He said he decided to vote for the special permit because of the development it would bring, including new jobs and tax revenue for the city.
In fact, he said he wished there needed to be more parking spaces.
“I would actually love to see even more development on that parcel, including residential development. Of course I’m not the one footing the bill for it since I’m not the investor, but there’s a lot of space on the northwestern corner,” Marchand said. s seen on the map, currently, that corner is for surface parking. “If it were up to me, I would have a garage with even more capacity so we could have more development on the land.”
Marchand also said that he did not share neighbors’ concerns about the garage continuing to divide neighborhoods and preventing them from reconnecting with each other. Even without the garage, there likely wouldn’t be a way to walk across the huge block from Dwight to the Hill, he argued. He said itwas hard for him to imagine somehow creating a stoplight or a crosswalk in the middle of the block.
Commissioner Kevin DiAdamo also expressed reservations about approving such a large garage.
“If you look at the garage near the Yale-New Haven Hospital, the scale of that was a real disaster,” DiAdamo said. “But at the same time, I’m weighing the fact that I don’t know if there’s an alternative for this: If we deny [the parking garage], the project’s going to essentially fall apart.” While the city is eventually moving to become less reliant on cars, that time has not come yet, he said.
Commissioner Leslie Radcliffe, who lives in the Hill, said that as a newer commissioner, she could provide a “fresh pair of eyes” in evaluating these plans.
“We have to stay focused on what the issues are… There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle,” Radcliffe said. “And the garage we’re talking about is an integral part of that puzzle. Without the parking, the studies have shown that the business are not going to come.”
A “monstrosity” or “springboard for development”?
Currently, the site is a paved surface parking lot administered by Park New Haven. Livable City Initiative Executive Director Erik Johnson pointed out that while currently the whole site is parking, parking will cover only 1/3 of the land once Centerplan builds on it, making the new plan is “less invasive than what’s currently there.”
According to Mark Fortucci of developer consultants Fuss and O’Neill, the site plus some relocated surfaced parking down the street will add up to 857 spaces in total compared to the current 602 spaces, meaning the new plan is “not as significant of an increase” when acknowledging the existing parking lot. Still, the planned four-story garage would be a new structure and contrast the current existing surface parking. Opponents argue that the city should focus more on mass transit and walkable and bikable streets to get people to jobs or stores.
City economic development chief Matthew Nemerson (pictured) testified in favor of the plan, arguing that it will help improve and deal with the consequences of planning decisions in the past.
“The developers, the staff, planners and people who have been working on this for many months have come up with the very best compromise and a site plan that will do as much as possible for various constituencies, given the limitations we have,” Nemerson said. “Perfection is the enemy of the good, and I think this is a very good plan.”
Monica O’Connor of Continuum of Care explained that her group has had to rent 50 additional parking spaces annually because of the shortage of parking at its current locations. Sometimes, people with disabilities going to Continuum have to park over three or four blocks away and walk to the center because of the lack of nearby parking. This shortage impacts not only patients but staff and visitors as well.
Neighbor Elaine Quinn called Continuum of Care a “magnificent” agency, but said she found the parking garage particularly problematic. She said there iss no need for the “monstrosity in the middle of our neighborhood.”
“[Developers] wouldn’t [build this garage] in Manhattan. You wouldn’t do it in Boston. You wouldn’t do it anywhere else, and you sure as heck wouldn’t do it downtown or in East Rock,” Quinn said. “They do it where they think the people don’t have the voice to go against it, here.”
Anstress Farwell of the New Haven Urban Design League said she felt excluded from the planning process, along with two other people who testified. Neighbor Lena Largie pointed out that there already exist a number of other parking garages in the vicinity.
“Think about who’s going to be here at the end of the day – the residents – and who’s going to just come through during the day and then leave,” Largie said. “I ask that tonight, you give the residents a little more respect.”
The special permit was the first of three issues the commissioners voted on; afterwards they voted to approve the site plan, and finally they voted on the Board of Zoning Appeals parking exception. All votes were unanimous.