Westville “New Urbanist” Vision Advances

Thomas Breen photoCity of New HavenCity planners voted unanimously to approve the creation of a new zoning district for Westville Village that they hope will serve as a model for how to use zoning regulations to encourage dense, diverse, mixed-use economic development throughout the city.

During the most recent regular monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission on the second floor of City Hall, the commissioners gave the thumbs up to a proposed zoning ordinance text amendment seeking to establish a new Village Center Mixed Use (BA-2) zone. The proposal also updates the city’s zoning map to move Westville Village from a General Business (BA) zone to the new BA-2 zone.

The proposed zoning amendment will now be sent to the full Board of Alders for discussion and a vote before any changes to the zoning ordinance can be made.

For the past two years, the Westville Village Renaissance Association (WVRA) has worked with neighbors, local alders, City Plan staffers and students at the Yale Law School’s Community & Economic Development clinic to develop land planning recommendations designed to encourage pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial development.

WVRA Executive Director Lizzy Donius submitted five letters of support from neighbors who couldn’t make the meeting, and outlined some of the key provisions of the zoning amendment.

“The BA-2 zone removes the Floor Area Ratio limit and allows a maximum building height of 50 feet,” she told the commissioners at the meeting this past Wednesday night. “This will promote higher density construction while the height limit ensures that the neighborhood retains its village feel.” The new regulations maintain BA-1’s building height minimum of 25 feet.

Yale law student Kendyl Clausen said that the BA-2 zone also reduces parking requirements for new buildings from one to 0.5 spaces per residential unit, and allows for on-site parking requirements to be located a maximum of 650 feet from the subject property. BA-1 regulations currently require that on-site parking be located within 300 feet of the property.

Clausen said that changes to the use table will allow for small-scale, pedestrian-friendly commercial development like barber shops and dance schools to be allowed as of right. She said that convenience stores, pawn shops, pay day loans, and drive-in establishments will be prohibited.

Click here to read a previous article with more details about the zoning amendment.

“I am really eager to see all the wonderful things that could happen” because of this amendment, said City Plan Commission Chair Ed Mattison. “The only thing that I would say from many years of doing this zoning stuff is that it doesn’t happen immediately, and it doesn’t happen without a lot of effort. You have to convince other people with money that this is something that can be made to work, and that’s a continuing effort. You can’t quit.”

The lone dissenting voice at Wednesday night’s hearing came from Yale chemist Robert Hale. Hale said that he agrees with the “new urbanist” principles of the proposal. He called a zoning amendment specific to Westville the wrong way to go about achieving them.

“The zoning code is already long,” he said, “and I think we need to be mindful of the detrimental effects of adding on more language.”

“Moreover,” Hale continued, “there are unsettling implications of designating a special zone just for Westville. I think that unintentionally implies that Westville may be more deserving of a certain urban form than other parts of the city.”

He said that the proposed regulations for the BA-2 zone should be rolled into the current BA and BA-1 zones, so that commercial stretches of State Street, Congress Avenue, Chapel West and Dixwell Avenue can similarly benefit from rules that promote greater density.

He also said that the commissioners should consider including language in the zoning amendment, if it passes, that allows for Single-Room Occupancies (SROs) to be constructed within the zone as of right. A form of affordable housing that allows for individuals who cannot afford or do not want to live in their own home or apartment to live independent, SROs have become an increasingly hot topic in New Haven in the past few months after the sudden closing of the Hotel Duncan last year.

“Although Westville is a very special place,” Mattison said, “there are other places that could benefit from the same treatment. My feeling ultimately, though, was that this would be a pilot project. It would give us the opportunity to see whether zoning changes can indeed” successfully encourage dense, mixed-use neighborhoods.

He also said that SROs were a topic near and dear to his heart, and that, while not going so far as to include any specific language about them into the proposed zoning amendment, he hoped that alders and his fellow commissioners would consider how best to use zoning to promote affordable housing development going forward.

The Board of Alders voted earlier this month to create an Affordable Housing Task Force, which has not yet met and is still awaiting appointments from the mayor.

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posted by: BenBerkowitz on April 2, 2018  3:20pm

Curious if the city has any ability to cease operations of the new billboard on Whalley at the top of the hill above the village. It is a safety issue if nothing else as it blinds drivers at night.  Paul, a story on this would be welcomed. I had no idea how intrusive it was until I saw it in person though I have seen it referenced in comments on other stories.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 2, 2018  6:26pm

Ben, I think the answer is no. One of the bedrock principles of zoning law is that zoning changes do not operate retroactively. If a structure or use is legal when it goes into operation, it is not subject to subsequent changes in the zoning ordinance. Similarly, with rare exceptions, changes to the Building Code apply to new construction, not existing structures. The legislature could allow municipalities to regulate these billboards on public safety grounds, but this would almost certainly apply prospectively.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 2, 2018  6:47pm

Prof. Hale is undoubtedly sincere. But he is a chemist, not a city planner. (Having got a C in college chemistry, I respect chemists. On the other hand, I have a Ph.D. in city planning.) It would be straightforward for any SRO provisions in the zoning ordinance to apply to BA-2 zones and nothing blocks the Board of Alders from doing so. And the BA-2 proposal was specifically advertised as affecting Westville. It would have been unwise for the commission to expand the proposal to other neighborhoods without holding a second, noticed, hearing.

Although I live in East Rock, I recognize that Westville is a unique neighborhood. When the legislature authorized municipalities to create “village districts” under their zoning laws, the sponsor specifically cited Westville as the type of neighborhood that would be suitable for this treatment.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 2, 2018  6:54pm

The lone dissenting voice at Wednesday night’s hearing came from Yale chemist Robert Hale. Hale said that he agrees with the “new urbanist” principles of the proposal. He called a zoning amendment specific to Westville the wrong way to go about achieving them.

I see why he agrees with the “new urbanist” principles of the proposal.

Gentrification and New Urbanism

http://bcplanningblog.blogspot.com/2009/06/gentrification-and-new-urbanism.html


Crossing Over: Sustainability, New Urbanism, and Gentrification in Austin, Texas

https://southernspaces.org/2015/crossing-over-sustainability-new-urbanism-and-gentrification-austin-texas

posted by: Steve Harris on April 3, 2018  6:01pm

This is a great forward looking zoning change. I think we should replace the BA with BA-2, perhaps with some minor tweaks where needed, everywhere. 

I argued for new urbanist regulations when I started working for the City in 1998. Good things come to those that wait.

posted by: Steve Harris on April 3, 2018  6:07pm

The Villlage District statute doesn’t have to be used. The BOA already has broad authority to enact Form Based zoning.

The Village District law is unnecessarily cumbersome which is why almost no one has enacted it.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 3, 2018  6:36pm

I am generally more supportive of form-based zoning and am not necessarily opposed to the BA-2 district, but I do have some concerns. I’m interested in questions like: Who develops? For whom? With what financing? Who is the steward?

Lately in New Haven, it seems like out-of-town and out-of-state developers have been investing private equity financing (sometimes from overseas sources) into market rate residential complexes with private amenities and chain commercial tenants in order to induce demand through intensive marketing campaigns in the hopes of attracting renters willing to export a large chunk of their paycheck to a corporate property management company.

If the premise of the zoning change is to promote this type of development, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I wonder if there might be an alternative that is less concerned with building form and is more concerned with who develops, how, and under what circumstances.

For instance, if one of the goals of the rezoning is to encourage more residential development to enliven the village center and support businesses and community life, then enabling every property owner in the adjacent neighborhood to build an accessory dwelling unit or convert a garage into an apartment has the potential to create far more housing than a few infill buildings in the village center. Furthermore, the rental income would stay in the neighborhood rather than being extracted by a large scale out-of-state developer and management company.

Perhaps these things are not mutually exclusive, but I wonder if concerns about urban form, which I think are important, needs to take a secondary role to concerns about who is able to develop, who is likely to develop, what is to be developed, with what financing, and other fundamental questions about what kind of community Westville wants to be.

posted by: ADAK on April 3, 2018  7:05pm

Now someone come buy up the empty land and build something worthwhile, please.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 3, 2018  11:13pm

Steve, you’re correct on your first two points regarding village districts.  But over 30 CT municipalities have created village districts. Most are rural towns, but they also include Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford. While I was involved in developing the Village District law, I’m not advocating its use in Westville. But it is an option.

Jonathan, I don’t think there is any legal authority, under CGS § 8-2 or special act, for municipalities to regulate who develops properties. The exception would be when the municipality owns the site, e.g., the former Coliseum.

posted by: Steve Harris on April 4, 2018  6:04am

Kevin, I was unaware the Village District was used that much. But I still think it’s unnecessary.

Jonathan, it would be great if local developers stepped forward but that can’t be dictated by the City. But I don’t think that matters anyway. The important thing is that new Haven is moving forward.

Mike Piscitelli; now is the time to finish the job and replace the entire zoning code. It’s anachronistic. When is the RFP going out?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 4, 2018  11:21am

Steve, thanks.

With regard to your last point, the last time I spoke with people at City Hall I was told that hiring a consultant to prepare a re-write would cost more than a million dollars - obviously money the city doesn’t have. City Plan staff are very competent, but don’t have the time to do this work. You, Jonathan Hopkins, and I, inter alia, would enjoy re-writing the zoning ordinance and might even do a competent job of it. But I don’t know how well we would capture the range of views and interests that exist in town.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 4, 2018  12:37pm

Steve,

Agreed. It’s possible and perhaps even likely that if granted the ability to build an ADU, existing property owners are just not interested in taking out bank loans or dipping into savings in order to convert garages into apartments, advertise for tenants, collect rent, and other responsibilities of landlords. But I don’t think we’ll truly know if that’s the case until we have a public conversation about what impact zoning regulations have on who develops and what effect that development has, and the alternatives, if any exist. For instance, I can imagine two ways of providing 60 residential units in Westville. One way would be in a 5-story podium and stick-built building with units strung and stacked along double-loaded corridors with a large parking lot on the ground floor and in the rear lot of the building. Another way to provide 60 units would be by 60 residents converting their garages to apartments. I know how I feel about those two options, but I’d be interested to know how Westville residents feel about it and how that might shape land-use planning priorities for the neighborhood.

Kevin,

Agreed, but prohibiting/restricting single-family residential properties from building ADUs or converting garages to apartments while allowing 50 foot tall buildings on vacant lots in the Village center certainly influences what kinds of structures can be built and by whom.

posted by: Steve Harris on April 4, 2018  5:20pm

Kevin,

I’ve read that million dollar price tag too and don’t buy it for a minute. I’ve worked in planning and zoning for 22 years and have never seen a consulting fee to rewrite a zoning code come anywhere near that amount.

It would be expensive and take perhaps 1.5-2 years. But a million?! Sorry.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 4, 2018  8:19pm

Steve, I also wondered about the cost estimate. But even if the actual number was $100,000, I doubt the rewrite will be funded anytime soon.

posted by: 1644 on April 6, 2018  1:55pm

Jonathan:  I think most single family homeowners in Westville would prefer to keep their quiet streets quiet without the added density of ADU’s.  Westville is the type of place where neighbors know each other, in part because they are long-term residents.  Renters tend to be transient, so adding a transient population would change the entire character of the neighborhood.  Besides, garages are useful places to store stuff, including cars.  As it is, I worry bit that parking for village dwellers will bleed into the unrestricted street parking in the single family areas, but overall, I say, let the density be in the village, where inhabitants can support the bars and restaurants.  Let the single-family areas remain single family, where kids and dogs can play in the backyards, and neighbors stay for decades.  New Haven already has lots of neighborhoods crowded with duplexes, three story walk-ups, etc.  Let Westville stay Westville, a streetcar suburb.

  Note: one can also see how carving up big houses has destroyed value in the Dwight and Edgewood neighborhoods, although some of that is traffic.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 6, 2018  6:53pm

1644,
Great points and I suspect that many people share your perspective. There are also many in the neighborhood that would welcome some of the characteristics found in a neighborhood like East Rock, such as the markets on Orange Street, shops, restaurants, and bars on State Street, and more active use of sidewalks and parks. Here is a map of garages, carriage houses, and other outbuildings that have been converted to other uses in East Rock: https://newhavenurbanism.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/adus-in-east-rock.jpg

I’m concerned about two phenomena. One is real estate investors with no ties to the neighborhood buying up residential properties and milking them for rental income that doesn’t stay in the local economy. The other is out-of-town developers building large rental complexes with private amenities that similarly export rental payments out of the neighborhood. Allowing owner-occupants to create an accessory apartment somewhere on their property might be a way to address those issues, while maintaining the single-family character of the neighborhood. In my opinion, it’s better to have an owner-occupant rent out an apartment on their property, then for an absentee landlord to rent out a house to a group of undergraduate students from Southern or UNH.

I’d be interested in attending a public meeting where the costs and benefits of absentee real estate investment and owner-occupant-landlords are debated and comprehensively discussed.

posted by: 1644 on April 7, 2018  11:53pm

JH: 
1. Your fear of houses being rented out to students assumes Westville is declining.  While property values are going down,  the neighborhood shows no sign of blight.  In fact, things look better than they did ten years ago.  Besides, we have zoning rules about how many unrelated people can loves together to bar against the group rental phenomenon.  As far as East Rock & Prospect Hill, yes, I have observed how single family houses have been carved up into apartments & condominiums, and gardens built on.  A lot happened in the 1980’s after the city was severely blighted in the 1970’s.  Today,  New Haven is resurgent and demand for large homes is resurgent as well. 
2. As for corner stores, Westville had more 40 years ago, but the advent of supermarkets has meant that local stores, dry cleaners, etc., have often been converted to residential uses after a long period of vacancy.
3.  NHI has been running stories about the thesis that students from wealthier families are needed in the schools for poorer students to learn.  While the thesis is questionable, why would New Haven want to destroy its existing stock of housing for better-off families?  That would be neighborhoods with backyards where kids can play, and a finite set of neighbors one can get to know.
4.  As one who rents an apartment above his garage, it’s not that profitable.  After taxes and insurance, there not much left.  Moreover, as we are dealing with a troublesome tenet now, and CT’s laborious eviction process,  my wife has vowed never again to rent.  Yes, we can cover insurance and taxes on the garage, but it’s not worth the mental stress of being stuck with a troublesome tenant.
5.  Are your afraid of absentee owners of single family homes renting them out?  Again, that’s not profitable except in very depressed areas where houses are cheaper than Westville.
6. If you haven’t done so, take a walk around Alden, Chapel, McKinley etc. to understand how special Westville is.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 8, 2018  12:24pm

1644,
Thanks for the conversation - I’d like to pick your brain about your experiences as a landlord if you’re willing. Feel free to email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
I wonder if it’s better for a neighborhood to have a dispersed network of responsible homeowners such as yourself controlling the rental market through accessory apartments on their properties then for that market to be controlled by out-of-state developers and corporate property management firms? Do you trust yourself and your neighbors to do a responsible job of vetting, casually surveilling, and evicting tenants if need be than an absentee landlord or management company? Perhaps these are questions we can discuss by email, if you’re interested. Thanks again.