Sarah Stewart turns out oil-on-linen paintings in the factory complex that once turned out erector sets for the nation — and now New Haven’s zoning rules are catching up with the economic transformation there.
Stewart has neighbors by the dozens occupying warrens in the old brick buildings in the complex at Blatchley Avenue and Peck Street. Other tenants include martial arts and ballet schools, yoga instructors, a theater company, several architects’ offices, a political think tank, and an array of other uses that could hardly be called “IH,” or heavy industrial, which is the area’s current zoning designation.
That’s why on Wednesday night at a regularly scheduled public hearing, the City Plan commissioners voted unanimously, and without a peep of public comment, to amend the zoning map from IH, or heavy industrial to IL, light industrial. As did the Board of Alders Legislation Committee at a meeting Thursday night City Hall.
If approved by the full board, that change will legalize what Deputy Director of City Plan Tom Talbot called “conversions going on for years with questionable zoning legality.”
And it will catch up with reality in a city once known for manufacturing and now known for its emerging “creative economy.”
The new zoning moniker makes legal most of the current activities at Erector Square, which has become such an artists’ hub that it has its own City Wide Open Studios weekend.
With a previously amended list of IL permitted uses, “a whole variety of commercial and even residential uses” could also be permitted, Talbot said.
That was good news to Brenda Carter, a political researcher for The Reflective Democracy Campaign. She rents space at Erector Square along with other tenants like Bregamos and Collective Consciousnessness theater companies as well as Peg Olivera’s 108 Monkeys, a yoga and mindfulness training organization that works to reduce tensions among school kids and other populations — even bargain-hunting shoppers at local green markets.
When told about the impending change Carter said she hadn’t heard about it and wasn’t sure what it would mean.
She did know, however, what she wants to see added to the Erector Square complex. “I’d like to have a coffee shop,” she said.
Actually a coffee shop was permitted already under the IH zoning, Talbot said at the hearing. (Lori’s, which had been at Erector Square for several years, has been shuttered for months.)
“Make that a coffee shop slash bar,” Carter added.
Talbot said the change makes sense because the Erector Square area is six acres of a larger ten-acre IH zone. Erector Square’s four acres have somehow become tucked into and become adjacent to a residential area. The zoning change will enable the current buildings and activities of Erector Square to “blend in” far better with the residential area, he said.
“In its present zoning it’s realized its limits,” said City Plan Chair Ed Mattison.
“Nobody’s making Erector Sets,” replied Talbot.
“It’s part of an effort to regularize zoning and the whole goal is to get creativity going,” added Mattison.
The specific trigger for the change was interest expressed by the not-for-profit Music Haven goup to expand into space at Erector Square, said City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg.
Since that use is technically not permitted in an IH, the process to get permission, if one dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, is “onerous,” said Talbot.
“The owner/applicant wanted more variances for more uses, so we recommended we go with a [zoning] map change,” Gilvarg said.
The staff recommendation to the commissioners also called for them to address the fate of the remaining acres in the IH zone related to Erector Square. Staff “recommends efforts to incorporate this area into either this newly created district, an adjacent RM-2 district or even possibly a nearby BA district.”
“People around here are not doing any heavy industrial stuff, so I’m fine with the change,” Steward said
Industrial designer Andrew Cryan, who has his own studio in the complex and also works for Kent Bloomer Studio, an architect also housed at Erector Square, agreed.
“Broadly speaking,” he said, “the community here is a nice thing.”