Historic Downtown Rehab Hits Parking Challenge

Thomas MacMillan PhotographsWhat happens if you want to renovate a downtown building constructed years before people drove cars, and turn the building into apartments? Better find off-street parking.

Or you have to get a special exception from the city.

Fernando Pastor, who represents the Pike International real estate development company, opted for the second option. He appeared before the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) Tuesday night to ask for zoning permission to create new apartments at two properties in the 800 block of Chapel Street, between Church and Orange streets.

The board did not vote on the petition. It referred the matter to the City Plan Commission.

The buildings—at 813 and 841 Chapel St.—were put up over a century ago, when the need for off-street parking was just a glimmer in Henry Ford’s eye. Nearby buildings on the block are all contiguous with no empty space between. There’s just no place on the properties to park a car, Pastor told members of the BZA.

That’s the case for many—if not most—buildings downtown, but city zoning regulations nevertheless require that new dwelling units include one parking space each.

Pike would need 12 parking spaces between the two properties, either on-site or within 300 feet of an entrance. Pastor is asking the city to permit him to have zero.

The building at 813 Chapel St. holds the Karma night club, Golden Rock Grill, a check-cashing store, and yoga and dance studio on the second floor. Pike wants to put in up to eight one-bedroom apartments on the vacant second and third floors.

At 841 Chapel St., which is currently vacant on all three floors, Pike plans up to four one-bedroom apartments.

In his pitch to the board, Pastor pointed out that the units will have access to rooftop “terraces.” Zoning requirements state that each unit must have a minimum of 250 square feet of “usable open space.”

After the meeting, Pastor said the apartments will be unlike anything now on offer downtown. “We’re creating space into the building, bringing value to the architecture.”

He said the apartments won’t be “high-end” but will have hardwood floors, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. He said he doesn’t know the rental rate Pike will ask for.

The City Plan Commission will take up the parking question next week in advance of a final BZA vote next month.

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posted by: JuliS on April 12, 2012  8:21am

of the four people that live in my apartment, one person has a car, and the rest of us bike or walk, and occasionally use zipcar or take mass-transit. many people that gravitate towards living in a city don’t rely on cars. i absolutely think this parking requirement should be more flexible. if tenants are firm on needing spaces, they won’t rent from him. others without cars, or those with a parking agreement elsewhere, will.

posted by: streever on April 12, 2012  8:35am

The city should eliminate their out-dated parking requirement ( constructed at a time when transportation planning was very, very immature ) immediately.

I have been advocating for this for years.

Parking requirements are ridiculous: they do not protect the rights of anyone, they merely allow city boards to hassle and harass applicants.

Traditionally, these requirements have been used to deny applicants that are not liked by municipalities.

The city has no obligation to provide on-street parking to residents, and needs to get out of the parking spot game entirely, and admit that they can’t even manage a parking lot successfully.

If the city knew how to manage parking, we wouldn’t have sold the lot on Broadway—which was making very little money—to Yale.

The city is not a business entity, and it needs only concern itself with:
1. Fairness and equity for all residents
2. Making New Haven an attractive place to live and work
3. Standing up for our rights in regional and state-wide policy and development

The sooner we get out of the asinine business of providing parking spots, the better. Our low-income working residents pay taxes that support parking spots for people who own $800,000 homes in East Rock with no off-street parking: meanwhile, the city badgers and pushes a developer offering 5 units in a single property to raise rent & have a less profitable building by building a parking lot so that his tenants won’t “steal” the on-street parking from the people making 250,000/year next door.

posted by: S Brown on April 12, 2012  8:45am

All parking minimums should be repealed. There’s no legitimate public purpose for the city to dictate the need for private property to contain private parking. Especially downtown where street parking is already regulated.

The market will take care of it. If the residents wish to park their cars, they will either demand housing that includes off-street parking, or they will find a space to rent themselves in one of downtown’s numerous parking garages. I believe that’s how nearly every other city with a dense downtown does things.

I might add that this would be good business for the city, which owns many of those garages and could profit from increased demand for parking.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on April 12, 2012  8:55am

I think the City should make a reasonable exception to this rule.  There are plenty of grad students and downtown employees who don’t require parking, and as long as the building’s owner makes it clear that apartments do not come with parking, I fail to see any compelling reason to squash the further revitalization of downtown over some regulations which aren’t perfect for everybody.

posted by: yz on April 12, 2012  9:00am

Yes yes. Why do we need such parking regulations in our zoning laws when we are a city. Certainly some people who intend to live in cities don’t intend to own automobiles.

posted by: Curious on April 12, 2012  9:36am

This seems like a no-brainer in favor of the exception.  Less dead space, more residents.

Why does that exist, anyway?  *** city zoning regulations nevertheless require that new dwelling units include one parking space each.***

What if people choose to live without a car, why should parking be mandated?

posted by: robn on April 12, 2012  10:22am

The city shouldn’t remove the burden; they should make it more flexible; by rule, not appeal. Allow alternatives to the parking requirement such as an escrowed monetary commitment to car sharing, transit passes or alternative parking in town.

posted by: streever on April 12, 2012  10:32am

Typically, these requirements are used to give zoning appeals boards “lee-way”—which runs counter to the entire point of a zoning board.

Zoning Appeals Boards typically operate in such a fashion, with arbitrary decision-making, but they are theoretically vested with making code-based decisions when the code fails to meet the overall goals of the city.

This happens because of changing priorities, outdated codes, and bizarre “special exceptions” that don’t fit neatly into a full zone—old properties, for instance, built before code.

A decision made by a Zoning board should do the following:
1. Illustrate why the property is exempt from the ordinance applicable
2. Bring the property MORE into compliance than it was before
3. Not impinge on neighboring property owners

Because of this standard, there is not a lot of leeway in how zoning boards operate, but cities often want to have more (less constitutional and less transparent) control over building applications.

Therefore, cities keep arbitrary rules like parking requirements, with arbitrary standards for lifting them.

For my part, I once used the excuse of parking, in denying an application. I did it because I received incorrect counsel from City Plan: I was told that I could not vote against Toads proposal because of my concern that they had no fire escape for their proposed roof-top smoking lounge (with only ONE access/exit, on a second floor, with a 10 foot high proposed fence)

Well, to me, that sounded like a death trap. I voted against the proposal because of that, but was told by City Plan that I HAD to say it was because of the parking.

I wish I hadn’t folded and had stuck to my guns, but you live and learn.

I would love to see arbitrary rules like this eliminated.

posted by: anonymous on April 12, 2012  11:44am

Parking minimums should be eliminated citywide ASAP, as many other US cities have been doing in recent years. They are an absolute horror.

posted by: DingDong on April 12, 2012  11:45am

Mandatory parking requirements are just the nanny-state government telling private property owners what to do with their own property.  They’re unconstitutional!  Let the market decide!  Where’s that Waterbury libertarian guy when you need him?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 12, 2012  12:47pm

We cannot encourage a development pattern that yields enough revenue (taxes) to sustain the city AND store and circulate the amount of automobiles that this development pattern would need according to conventional metrics.

posted by: anonymous on April 13, 2012  12:42pm

Jonathan is correct. Parking minimums make no sense, and our city simply can not afford to maintain them. Wonder why New Haven is (like many other cities) on the verge of going bankrupt? This has a lot to do with it.

posted by: Stephen Harris on April 14, 2012  8:29am

I think this is a good example of adaptive reuse. Buildings that are able have a variety of uses over their lifespan is a key component to a dynamic downtown.

I think the parking requirement for residences downtown should be abandoned. It’s not practical since most buildings abut each other. If a certain type of zoning relief (in this case parking) becomes a routine occurrence for any development proposal it’s a good indicator that the regulation doesn’t work.

posted by: HhE on April 14, 2012  9:22pm

I can see off street parking minimums in some areas of our city, but certainly not Downtown.  Many people who live downtown or would live downtown, live carless. 

I guess the 1050s car standard is the most up to date thing in our medieval city.