Mini-Apartment Boulevard Battle Brews

Markeshia Ricks PhotosThe president has his war room. Boulevard neighbors have Doris and Edward Zelinsky’s dining room table. 

The Zelinskys and 14 of their neighbors gathered there this past week to strategize about how to stop a national bank from selling out an iconic piece of their neighborhood to a Long Island developer known for building micro-apartments. They argue that it will crowd too many apartments into the building and reverse a positive family trend in their area.

They plan to bring their case next week to a public hearing of the Board of Zoning Appeals, which will consider whether to grant developer Eyal Preis a special exception to create seven apartments in an existing residence at 1377 Ella T. Grasso Blvd.

The dispute raises the question of how best to preserve homes and build up the Edgewood area. It also touches on a citywide debate over where to promote dense development in New Haven, how to preserve affordable housing, and what role if any micro-units — tiny apartments — should play.

Define “Vibrant”

 

The home is zoned RM-1, or low-middle density, district. Preis plans to create one three-bedroom apartment, two two-bedroom apartments, and five one-bedroom apartments. The square footage per apartment varies from as little as 575 square feet to as much as 1,890 square feet.

At least that’s the latest version of his plans.

Previous versions of the plan indicated that he sought to create nine units and needed relief from the BZA for parking, but that has since been taken off the table. To get the exception, Preis must convince the BZA that his plans are “in accord with the public welfare,” according to Section 63(d) of the city’s zoning ordinance.

Preis said in an email that his proposed plan takes a “currently vacant ... increasingly in disrepair building, with boarded-up windows” and makes it an asset to the community again.

“Our plan will restore the building and bring a vibrant residential community to the neighborhood,” he argued. “We think our project will fit quite well with New Haven which is a growing and changing city. By restoring an old home, which is currently derelict, and bringing back the original residential use of the structure, we see a positive return for the neighborhood and the city.”


Preis said based on his reading of the zoning regulations for the RM-1 district, conversions like his proposed one can have one unit per 1,000 square feet of existing gross floor area. The house is more than 9,000 square feet, but only 7,000 of that counts for gross floor area, he said. He needs a special exception because he wants to build more than three residential units.

The neighbors gathered at the Zelinskys said that whether for seven or nine apartments, such an exception would be out of character for an area brimming with single-family homes, and specifically for a historic home that was never a multi-family house, let alone a multi-unit apartment building.

They’ve circulated a petition that they hope to submit to the BZA in December. They also plan to be out in droves to testify against the proposed exception.

Built around 1900, the three-story single-family home was formerly a part of the Old Alms Farm House complex. The house was last owned and occupied by now-deceased attorney William Gallagher. For many years, the once head of the state bar association had his office on the first floor and lived upstairs. When he died in 2013, the house ultimately was thrown into foreclosure when it was discovered that Gallagher owed clients nearly $2 million.

For the last four years, the house, which is now owned by Wells Fargo Bank, has been vacant and left to rot, neighbors said.

Then Preis stepped into the picture.

“The bank has shown the house several times over the years” but found little interest, Doris Zelinsky said.

Banksters

Neighbor Stephanie Fitzgerald questioned how hard Wells Fargo, which has a reputation in the neighborhood for letting its properties sit, has worked to find a buyer who wanted to live in the house and possibly rent the first floor. She knew a neighbor who was interested in the house and tried to reach out to the bank but could not get a response, she said.

That sounded familiar to Zelinsky. Neighbors once had to formally intervene in the foreclosure of another house on the block because Wells Fargo had failed to maintain it.

Even now, the house at 1377 Ella T. Grasso Blvd. has been vandalized by graffiti and copper thieves — a common problem in New Haven with properties owned by and controlled by liens held by negligent out-of-state banks.

Neighbors said that they hope to convince BZA members that an out-of-touch bank and an out-of-town developer with no ties to the community might not have the city’s best interest in mind.

Preis’ proposed plan for parking to accommodate the new units on Boulevard includes paving the side yards around the house and creating an entrance on Maple Street and an exit onto Boulevard. That is another sore point for neighbors, particularly those who live in adjacent properties.

“I can’t see how they’re going to fit seven cars in that backyard,” said Michael Hanson, who would be living next to that parking lot. “What happens to the quality of life for neighbors who live there?”

At the strategy meeting, neighbors zeroed in on what they don’t like about the proposed development: too many units, out of character with the neighborhood, and subjecting neighbors to the ills of a parking lot.

Trina Learned, who serves on the city’s Historic District Commission, challenged her neighbors to be solutions-focused. She said as a commissioner she often hears concerns, but what she’d rather hear is an alternative.

“Do you know someone who will buy the property?” she asked. “Is there someone else who could use it?”

The prevailing preference among neighbors is that it either be used as it has been — office space on the first floor, living space above — or that it be a two-family home. Learned encouraged neighbors to reach out to organizations like Neighborhood Housing Services that might be interested in taking on such a project. She also volunteered to pull the historic documents on the house and the neighborhood to present to BZA members.

“Our neighborhood is not obvious,” she said. “A lot of people drive down the Boulevard and don’t see it as a neighborhood but it is.”

Neighbors like Learned and the Zelinskys and others at the table have raised their children in the area. They said the kind of density proposed by Preis belongs downtown, not on the Boulevard.

Neighbor Michael Hanson said that he has noticed more families — families with young children—in the area. He said the city should encourage that trend. “Halloween was a blast this year,” he said. “I had like 55 kids come by for candy.”

Preis said he would like to market the apartments to “professionals, such as a medical secretary, a doctor, a young couple with a child,” which he called a “net positive for the neighborhood.”

Preis said the proposed conversion includes façade improvements and no expansion of the existing building. Seven parking spaces, including one van-accessible handicapped space, would be provided behind the building. He said his plans now call for closing off the existing paved area and curb cut along Maple Street, returning it to lawn and a walkway. Preis said that modification will add back two additional on-street parking spaces that don’t exist now. He noted that the original zoning exception that allowed the office required 29 parking spaces, so he argued his proposal will limit the number of cars.

“We think our project will fit quite well with New Haven which is a growing and changing city. By restoring an old home, which is currently derelict, and bringing back the original residential use of the structure, we see a positive return for the neighborhood and the city.”

“Due to the size of the proposed units, we do not expect our tenants to have more than one vehicle and will include a prohibition on more than one vehicle in our leases,” he said. “In short, we believe that we have proposed a plan which will not have any adverse impact on the parking situation in the neighborhood, and in fact will result in additional spaces being available.”

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posted by: newhavendad1 on December 4, 2017  8:06am

The neighbors had 4 years to try to find someone else to buy the building and renovate.  I wish that New Haven had more families that would lovingly restore these beautiful 19th Century mansions…but that’s just not the reality.  When a building has been vacant for 4 years and someone comes around who wants to do some good and fix it up, we should be happy.  If this city and state were booming, then maybe we could be picker. But as it is there are so many vacant and boarded up properties and whenever a developer wants to do something the neighbors find a reason to complain.  That wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that apparently all of the NIMBY people have way too veto power over minor zoning changes.

posted by: Hill Resident on December 4, 2017  8:29am

3 bdrm units = 5-6 tenants; (2) 2bdrm units = 6-8 tenants; (5) 1 bdrm = 5-20 tenants. This one structure (unless owner puts occupancy limits to 1 person per bedroom) could potentially house 24 tenants!!! Too dense.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on December 4, 2017  9:12am

I was at the WEB Community Meeting where they were handing around the petition but wasn’t sure if I should sign it, as I knew nothing about it. This doesn’t sound like the Strong School situation in Fair Haven, where a rookie developer is trying to charge insane rents for tiny apartments. 575+ sq. foot apartments is not that unreasonable in New Haven.

I also think a neighborhood like Edgewood can do just fine with a mix of apartment complexes and single-family homes. Edgewood clearly can’t support ONLY single-family occupancies. This house has been empty for a while. And there are other apartment complexes in Edgewood as well. Perhaps they’re just filled with the, ahem, “wrong” kind of people.

I don’t know why Wells Fargo is apparently so hard to get a hold of? Usually banks like when you want to spend money with them. I haven’t dealt with them specifically, but all the more reason to get the house into the hands of a private owner.

Are we a city or is this the surburbs? Because I kind of like living in a city, where you will get higher density. And this project seems quite in character with a city.

posted by: Realmom21 on December 4, 2017  9:29am

New haven dad1 that is so far from the truth. Reality is when you are trying to deal with a bank on a foreclosed property even professionals sometimes have to wiat months just to find the right person to speak with and then they want you to use a profession communications system that isn’t people friendly and that specifically tells you they have up to 48 hours to respond . That response is often a note simply saying we have received your email. A short sale as anyone who has dealt with one can take nin months wit a qualified existing buyer. The bank doesn’t even assign this to a specific person until they deam it worth being on the radar. That is often done buy the owner about to loose the home. They are able to initiate a level of interest. so In order to show a property IE solicit interested parties or generate and interest you are continuously fighting and up hill battle with an entity that doesnt care . You can try to sell something you dont have access to. Something you have minimal legal knowledge of. Ie what is it they actually are willing to sell for. Realtors dont even chase foreclosed properties unless they have reached the interest of the lender because you can spend a year just trying to get the listing and for the bank to nickle and dime you in to fronting money for the utilies etc until the not promise sale occurs.

posted by: brownetowne on December 4, 2017  9:42am

Do we live in New Haven or No-Haven?  This seems like a positive project and I understand why neighbors would be concerned but don’t think they should be outright opposed to this proposal.  This structure is sadly a victim of its own size and grandeur as it is not well suited for a modern urban single family and it likely requires a substantial investment of time and money.

I’m not sure why there’s a bias against sub 1000sqft living spaces and the people who would live in them.  I have occupied small apartments of this size and they provided ample space for me and my partner as well; If my family was relocating to New Haven an apartment at this address would be an attractive option.

What is somebody going to do with 9000sqft?  If I somehow inherited this structure I would probably 1) move into it myself 2) subdivide parts it and rent it out 3) subdivide more of it and use it as an air-bnb.  So, there you would have the same situation as is being proposed here.

This block of Ella T Grasso Blvd is currently not a heaven-on-earth and an influx of professionals who are interested in living in this historic mansion could be a good thing for the neighborhood.  Why all the negativity to change?

posted by: mikewestpark on December 4, 2017  11:17am

I offered to buy this property, however when my offer was submitted I was told that the property had just been put under contract.  Even though the property was owned by the bank for 4 years, I can tell you that it was not on the open market for 4 years.  If this deal falls through I will buy the property, and not chop it up.

posted by: EPDP on December 4, 2017  12:05pm

Doris Zelinsky is the same person who constructed an ugly “spite fence” on her vacant lot a couple of years ago in Rhode Island in order to spite her neighbors.  And here she is leading a protest against a legitimate multi family apartment in her neighborhood?  See the spite fence article in the Cape Cod Times: 
http://www.capecodtimes.com/article/20150719/NEWS/150719415

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 4, 2017  12:13pm

Under the existing zoning regulations, the building can be converted into three separate apartments as of right. What is the rationale for needing to go denser than this? Is it economically infeasible to create only three units in this building? While this large home may be able to comfortably fit 9 apartments, I’m unconvinced at this point that it necessitates a special exception.

In terms of the yard paving for parking, I agree that this would be out of character with the neighborhood. Can the city mandate use of permeable paving (http://stormwater.wef.org/2013/10/pervious-permeable-porous-pavers-really/)?

posted by: Colin Ryan on December 4, 2017  12:19pm

realmom21 is 100% right about breaking through to the bank. It’s often extremely difficult every step of the way from determining who needs to be contacted, how to contact them, actually making contact, and then receiving any sort of a response that would facilitate moving a sale forward. This is a very large part of the reason that these properties languish.

But that conversation is in the past. The property was purchased a year and a half ago. Although I don’t want to see this house have it’s layout oddly chopped up into apartments, the owner is within his rights to add units assuming he has the square footage. It’s not clear though where the 7000sqft is coming from to build the 7 units. The main house is 5443sqft. Then there’s a large unfinished basement with 2443sqft. And then a garage with another 1290sqft. So where are these apartments going?

posted by: LookOut on December 4, 2017  1:26pm

We own a home a block away so I’m very familiar with the neighborhood and the property.  A few points;

>  single family homes do not sell in this area.  A number of places have been converted and refurbished in the past couple of years.

> people living in this area are looking for small 1-2 BR apartments.  Large places often sit empty

> I toured this property (it is not that difficult to get a look).  The asking price is/was way to high to justify either a single family or 3 unit apartment.

> I am shocked that residents tolerate a few nay-sayers blocking progress.  I can tell you that a developed property is much better for the neighborhood than a vacant, rotting building.

posted by: 1644 on December 4, 2017  1:38pm

If Mike is seriously interested, it seems that their may actually be an alternative to either carving it up or letting it rot.  His offer is certainly something zoning should know:  the location does present a hardship that mandates so many apartments.  That fact alone should be reason to deny the variance.
Between:  New Haven is part city and part suburb.  East Shore is pretty inner-ring suburb, with the same housing stock as East Haven.  Westville is classic trolley suburb, with lots of single family houses on moderate lots.  Hillhouse/Prospect Hill was pretty much the first suburb, but much of it has passed to institutional development or condominiums, although there are still a lot of single family homes on moderately sized lots.  Edgewood and Dwight have suffered from economic decline.  They are classic opportunities for gentrification, with beautiful homes.  The city, however, would need to embrace gentrification and take a less humane attitude toward copper thieves, graffiti artists, and other non-violent criminals.  My wife’s family lovingly renovated several houses in the Dwight/George Street area in the 1980’s, only to have the market evaporate with the crack epidemic. So, rather than being occupied by folks who would contribute to the economic vitality of New Haven, they are owned by a non-profit, whose residents suck up city and state services and the houses are off the tax rolls.

posted by: M Short on December 4, 2017  2:50pm

New Haven does need more development, but cutting larger houses up into tiny apartments is probably NOT the answer(Walter Camp House).Anyone who is saying ‘this place is screwed so we might as well let people do whatever they want’...sorry. I’m not with you. As a person who feels I know my small neighborhood and its best economic development outcomes very very well, I respect what these neighbors believe. I doubt they are NIMBYs so much as they are the people in there doing the hard work of holding neighborhood fabric together without much help. That’s going on all across the City. Go to a management team. People sticking together, trying to make a difference with not much help and not much resource. So I’m inclined to side strongly with the group Zelinsky is coordinating with, and advise that everyone knows well that the New Haven zoning code is antiquated, and the only reason that its left in place is so that there is a checkpoint developers have to stop at where our various political interests in town AND the community residents will have a chance to either negotiate or block the development. Look at the Novella versus the Residence Inn in the Dwight neighborhood. Both met zoning challenges led by neighbors…one developer…Salvatore…met with neighbors, settled issues individually, worked to become known to those concerned about his work..and was eventully approved. Another - the Residences development - was going to meet opposition anyways, but did not do ANY of that work Salvatore did. Various interests AND the community all opposed the development and it didn’t happen. We COULD decide what we wanted and make a zoning code and general urban plan where people didn’t have to grapple with groups like this. But I don’t favor that while I see the general trends and actors so skewed against what I think is best for neighborhoods. What we most need is a B Corp Social Enterprise fund that makes a market return and competes with such developers in the neighborhoods.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 4, 2017  4:12pm

Snake-Oil and Three Card Monte Being sold.These apartments are nothing more then a friggin prison cell.

What is micro-housing?
Micro-housing is the umbrella term for a housing option that is smaller than average. These homes are the modern-day equivalents of rooming houses, boarding houses, dormitories, and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, and they come in two main flavors:

1)Congregate housing is like a dormitory. The rooms are “sleeping rooms,” rather than complete dwelling units, and renters enjoy private bathrooms and kitchenettes in their units,

2)A Small Efficiency Dwelling Unit (SEDU) is a slightly undersized conventional studio apartment. It has a complete kitchen and bathroom and closet space.

Look at what happen in Seattle.

Seattle became a leader in micro-housing development. But as this momentum grew in the Emerald City, NIMBY opposition arose, followed by restrictive regulations. Now these regulations have combined to effectively kill the concept, taking thousands of affordable units off the pricey Seattle market.


https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottbeyer/2016/09/13/seattle-is-regulating-away-micro-housing/#5bc091b84618

posted by: newhavendad1 on December 5, 2017  8:12am

@ Browntowne - yes, thank you. Well said!
@ EPDP - that’s the definition of irony. Ms. Zelinsky got burned by strict zoning in Cape Cod and didn’t like it then. But when someone else wants to develop…
@RealMom21 - I don’t actually know anything about how to work with a bank to look at or buy a foreclosed property.  So maybe you’re right.  I still think the owner can make apartments if he/she wishes to.

In an ideal world there would be tons of families with the money to buy an old mansion and restore it to former glory…but it’s just not reality. (Unless MikeWestPark is for real.)

Everyone was so upset when the Duncan got closed down - those were tiny apts and hotel rooms w/ shared bathrooms. But some of those same people are upset about introduction of apts on the Blvd.

posted by: JCFremont on December 5, 2017  8:21am

If someone where to buy this house and restore it as a one family residence the city will come in and reassess the property. I remember the story of the young couple that restored a large mansion in Fair Haven so beware. Few older houses in area’s of mix economic levels are going to be purchased for any thing other than dividing it into rental space. The architecture in the Edgewood Ave. area is similar to that of the renamed Nohu and Sohu around Orange Ave. The maintenance and mortgages of the buildings do not discriminate by neighborhood. Question is, can the rents on Ella Grasso keep up with costs? The developer may see that “volume” with the “micro-units” is the only way to make this project work.

posted by: Esbey on December 5, 2017  9:56am

575 square feet is a normal-sized apartment for one person, this has nothing to do with the debate over “micro” apartments.  When I google “micro-apartment” I get unofficial definitions like “less than 350 sq ft”. 

On the other hand, micro-apartments are great.  If folks want to live in them, why do you oppose them?  Because you don’t like it when people have someplace to live? 

Affordability requires either (1) lower private costs or (2) subsidies. Government subsidies,are disappearing and it is not going to improve, so lower private costs are the only solution left.  Everyone who opposes attempts to lower private costs (smaller units, cheaper materials, pre-fab units, taller buildings, etc.)  is opposing affordability, straight up. Own it.

posted by: Ryn111 on December 5, 2017  10:24am

@Hill Resident - is that NIMBY math or what!? Can you at least admit your assumptions are SLIGHTLY exaggerated? I am still backing out the 20 people in five 1BR apartments….

@3/5 - contradiction upon contradiction. THE RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH! How does one solve that? Increase supply! This is part of the solution!

People can argue on the validity (costs/return and neighborhood character)  of 3 vs 9 units but the majority of people seem to agree - occupied and in use is better than vacant.  Also i wonder how limited neighborhood “character” can be restricted. There are multiple multi famlily buildings withing a block of this property.

Also - worth a read. 3/5th i know it wont make sense to you! I can hear you huffing FAKE NEWS from West Haven now.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/01/business/economy/single-family-home.html

Would love to see how these residents would respond to this:

https://apnews.com/ef4f98874615421bb4ec593020f1e7e1/portland-pilot-program-puts-homeless-residents-backyards

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 5, 2017  6:42pm

posted by: Ryn111 on December 5, 2017 10:24am

@3/5 - contradiction upon contradiction. THE RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH! How does one solve that? Increase supply! This is part of the solution!.

True Increase supply but do what what Newark N.J. is doing.which is inclusionary zoning.

  The “Inclusionary Zoning for Affordable Housing” Ordinance, which is an amendment to Title 41 of the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations, will require developers who are creating or rehabilitating housing projects of more than 30 units to set aside 20 percent of them as affordable housing. It mandates housing affordable to those in a different income levels ranging from 40 percent of the area’s median income to 80 percent. The marketing of the affordable units must give priority to Newark residents. Unlike New York City and other cities with inclusionary zoning, the Newark ordinance applies to all new residential development throughout the city, not just in designated areas. And, unlike other cities, the affordable units must be provided on site and not in other locations. The affordable units may involve home ownership as well as rentals. The Council also passed a measure to encourage developers to partner with Newark minority and women contractors as co-developers and to provide affordable housing. Such developments will receive tax abatements. It is part of Mayor Baraka’s strategy of creating more affordable housing throughout the city and enabling small Newark contractors to become developers in order to provide jobs and strengthen the city’s economy.Developers, with the approval of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, can make a voluntary cash payment into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in lieu of constructing all or part of the income-restricted
units required by the legislation.

https://www.newarknj.gov/news/mayor-baraka-hails-passage-of-inclusionary-zoning-ordinance-groundbreaking-measuring-will-promote-development-of-affordable-housing

posted by: mikewestpark on December 5, 2017  8:02pm

@ newhavendad1. I am for real.  I’m currently in the process of rehabilitating the home on the corner or Elm and Brownell.  It took 3 years to get the property from Wells Fargo.  I’m keeping it a single family home and will sell it after I bring it back to its former glory.  I also live 2 blocks away so it is more of an investment in the neighborhood than anything else.  Dealing with banks and the foreclosure market is a difficult and tedious process and its not a simple as just “calling the bank,” as some would believe.  The banks benefit from a tax write off, mortgage insurance and then, finally the sale.  All the while the property sits unattended until the bank decides the sale is in their best interest.  The banks don’t care about your neighborhood as their commercials would lead you to believe.  They only care about their profit and shareholders.

posted by: Smitty on December 6, 2017  12:11pm

I agree with newhavendad1, brownetowne and LookOut

If its converted to micro apts GREAT! Plenty of People need an affordable place to lay their head at night and would happily occupy the units. Stop being mean. People just need a place to call home whether they have a full family or not.  Its better than having no choice but to need to go on a 4yr waiting list for subsidized housing just to have affordable housing.

Too dense? If people choose to move in I doubt they will think its too dense for them. Afterall they will be the ones living there right?  Where you choose to lay your head at night as long as it isn’t too dense for YOU….

posted by: edgewooder on December 6, 2017  8:40pm

I also live nearby, within blocks. There are people in the neighborhood with balanced ideas about how to develop this property so that people can live in a few nice-and-yet-reasonably-priced apartments, while the remaining features of the actual space are put to genuine, good-for-the-neighborhood and city use. I’m one of those people. I went to see the property, tried to follow up multiple times, knew about mikewestpark’s offer (so it is for real), and then suddenly heard this other stuff was suddenly in motion.

posted by: Evil Incarnate on December 7, 2017  9:32pm

“Hill Resident” needs to work on basic math.  How does a1 bedroom unit have maximum of 4 bodies while a 3 bedroom have a maximum of 6 bodies?

Fact is the the 1 bedroom max calculation is correct and the 3 bedroom calculation is wrong.  For purposed of occupancy load, a living room counts and can function as a bedroom, which means a potential 2 additional bodies or a max of 6 per 2 bedroom and 8 per 3 bedroom unit.  If Hill Resident was doing an consistent calculation of occupancy load, five 1 bedroom units would be a maximum of 10 not 20 bodies.

Or to put it another way, the difference between one 3 bedroom and FIVE 1 bedroom units is 4 bodies.  24 bodies?  False news!