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Zoning Rewrite Seeks Density Without Towers
by Allan Appel | Oct 24, 2013 12:13 pm
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Downtown
A package of new zoning rules for New Haven introduced by city planners aims to create a busier and fuller downtown without higher buildings.
No more “garden apartments.” Smaller side-yard requirements so row-house style multifamily townhouses can sprout up. Reduced “open space” requirements allowing you to put more space on the roof. A reduced parking requirement, of one space per unit.
Those changes appear in the package of proposed zoning ordinance text amendments for RH-2 zones, primarily affecting downtown, heading to the Board of Aldermen for consideration—and public hearings—now that they have passed the City Plan Commission. The commission passed them at its regular monthly meeting last week.
City Plan zoning guru Tom Talbot characterized the language and definition alterations in the law as a “major change” in how the city views high density.
The changes reflect an attempt by city planners to catch up to current practice: to make it easier for developers of mixed-use buildings and commercial-to-residential conversions to work in downtown RH-2 (aka high-density residential) districts without having to go to the Board of Zoning Appeals for special exceptions and variances for parking, height, side-yard, and requirements in each and every instance.
Or, as the City Plan report states: “The bulk and yard standards [in current RH-2] require extensive yards between buildings and setbacks from the street and require extensive open space, all of which break the ‘street wall.’ The RH-2 district requires one parking space per dwelling unit, on site or within 300 feet; relief from this provision in walkable, bike-able, transit-served central New Haven is frequently sought from the BZA.”
“A number of the changes you propose just reflect our practice. We’re catching up with reality?” City Plan Chair Ed Mattison asked at last week’s meeting.
City Plan chief Karyn Gilvarg (pictured) and Talbot concurred. “We’re trying to extend a more traditional element, with longer and lower instead of tall towers, without saying [to potential builders], ‘You ‘ll need this variance, this variance and special exception.’”
Gilvarg referenced current high-density buildings in the affected areas, such as the Madison Towers and University Towers (pictured at the top), tall buildings surrounded by streetscape-disrupting parking along York, George, and Park.
Such “towers in a park” configurations are “fine in a cornfield,” Gilvarg quipped, but inappropriate for downtown New Haven development today, where variants of “new urbanist” philosophy (promoting human-scale buildings, dense mixes of commercial and residential business uses on the same properties, walkable and bikable streets) have become more popular.
Aldermanic representative Adam Marchand wanted to know if the changes were being forwarded to address a specific project in the pipeline.
The answer was no.
Then Mattison looked around the room wondering, with a touch of anxiety, where the public was. Not a single speaker for or against the changes had shown up.
In recent years projects inspiring the proposed changes have sparked impassioned protest, such as the reaction to Randy Salvatore’s proposed 136-unit apartment building at the corner of Chapel and Howe.
The RH-2 standards underlie requirements for building residential and mixed use even in the BD (or general business) zones. So the proposed changes will affect development in the non-residential areas as well.
That’s why Talbot called the language and definition changes “major.”
That’s also why Mattison grilled Gilvarg on how much outreach the department had done.
The answer: In effect, her department is stretched very thin. She has personally run out of nights and weekends, she said. “We have not done extensive outreach.”
“I’m a little concerned people will say ‘You snuck it past us,’” replied Mattison.
Talbot said the department is being proactive. When there’s a specific project, the public flocks in, but general zoning changes attract little attention. “You’ve heard a lot of this already.”
Mattison was persistent: “I’d like to see what some interested parties have to say. It feels a a little ‘inside the beltway.’”
“You have a special meeting on Nov. 30. Someone can try to do outreach before then,” Gilvarg said. She also pointed out that the change, once passed by the commissioners, must go to the Board of Aldermen, where it will have a public hearing.
“If the Board of Aldermen doesn’t think the cake is fully baked, it can pass it back.”
With that assurance, the commissioners’ reluctance was overcome, and the measure passed unanimously.
Marchand said he expects the matter to go to the aldermanic/alderic/alderian legislation committee, which would hold public hearings on the zoning changes, likely next month.
Tags: zoning, new urbanism
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Why have a parking requirement at all? Many cities are doing away with them altogether.
Because parking costs get built into development cost, the only impact of a parking requirement is that you get unaffordable rents, fewer housing units, and less money for schools and youth programs.
Pretty succinctly circumscribed around mostly Yale property. So is this driven by them and if so why?
Also, it would be nice if changes like these were presented to the legislature with before and after bulk diagrams. Its the same level of scrutiny usually demanded by most zoning processes. Our Alderpeople would be better informed with pictures rather than words.
What’s wrong with taller buildings? It creates interest from the highway and the appearance of success. Skylines = good!
The areas close to Yale are ripe for higher density because that’s where people want to live. And it’s where newcomers will locate. Why shouldn’t Yale control its own neighborhood? After all, we hear howls and shrieks any time Yale offers an opinion on one of the other NH areas, so I don’t see why everyone in NH thinks they should be able to tell Yale what to do with their property.
Along the lines of the “Harp Express” is the fantasy that if only some money is pumped in, Dixwell and The Hill will blossom into mini-downtowns, and everybody will be handed a job. No more likely than Wall Street firms moving into the South Bronx.
Of course, I’m of the opinion that the Mayor and Alders should wake up every morning and call Yale to ask what they can do for Yale, rather than the oft-expressed reverse.
Hey I would’ve went and testified in favor if I knew it was happening. It’s definitely a good step. I would say though a tower is not necessarily bad if you remember that a tower also does not need a lot of space around it, nor 1 for 1 parking. Aside from the obvious(higher density of residential/office spaces), stylo may have a point. I have to be as superficial as “skylines!”, but an interesting skyline could in fact draw people off the highway who are otherwise just driving by between NYC and Boston.
The main reason for taller buildings would be to fit in more housing. As people live ever-longer lives and existing houses age, we need tens of thousands more housing units to be built here in the near future (nearby NYC needs about 500,000 to 1,000,000 more units - otherwise the number of homeless families there will soon exceed 100,000).
As Jonathan Hopkins points out, this can be done just as effectively with compact 5-10 story buildings, if they are designed appropriately. But to get to the point where that type of development is feasible on a mass scale, we may first need to fast-track about a dozen more towers like 360 State Street.
This should be done by eliminating parking requirements entirely, continuing to use State incentives for workforce housing, enacting real zoning reform, making the development process more predictable, and improving public transit.
A tower is included in the Union Station plan. Makes sense as there’s not much land to spread out. Must be time to upgrade or demolish University Towers. I’d certainly rather see something closer to the proposed Coliseum development that a rehab of what’s there or replacement of the same.
Why isn’t the development appropriate for the bulldozed neighborhood (our own Fort Trumbull) that used to be where the wasteland of Route 34 is now?
If Contrarian is serious about getting Yale to contribute its fair share, there are copies of the 1985 Tax Commission Report showing how it could/should have been done.
This is the tax policy that dare not speak its name!
@A Contrarian: couldn’t agree more RE: the pipe dreams for Hill and Dixwell. Focus investment and development downtown and success will creep into residential neighborhoods. Anything else is unrealistic and, worse, dangerous.
“Focus investment and development downtown and success will creep into residential neighborhoods.”
If this was even remotely true it’d already be happening considering that’s been the plan for 25 years.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 24, 2013 3:11pm
I’m not a big fan of high rises because they clutter the skyline and dwarf pieces of civic art like spires and clock towers. While skyscrapers can make a city appear more “city-like” from highways, they are often quite destructive in their urbanism at the scale of the pedestrian.
Paris acheives immense density with only 7-story buildings, which don’t block the views of spires, towers, domes, sculptures/obelisks and other pieces of civic infrastructure. Washington, D.C. also manages high density with a maximum building height limit.
Requiring developers to provide outdoor open space and parking in addition to unreasonable setback requirements often forces highrises to be used in order to acheive density. While open space is important, that can be provided through city parks, greens, squares of private shared courtyard spaces.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 24, 2013 3:23pm
The city can grow in two ways - through horizontal expansion or vertical densification. Historically, both of these things happened simutaneously.
During New Haven’s maritime, canal and manufacturing eras (1750-1860), horizontal expansion occurred in the form of satelite villages like the Newtownship (Wooster Square), SoHu, the Hill, and the West Village on the periphery of the Nine Squares. Simutaneously as these places expanded the footprint of the city, inside the Nine Squares densification of existing infrastructure occurred.
Again during the city’s industrial era (1860-1950), horizontal growth came in the form of streetcar suburbs like Edgewood, Westville, Beaver Hills, Whitney-Orange, lower Howard Avenue, etc. and working class neighborhoods like Newhallville, Fair Haven, Goatville, etc. Simutaneously, the old satelite villages and the Nine Square densified with new buildings and expansion of existing buildings.
However, after zoning was passed (initially in 1926, but its real impact wasn’t until decades later), new growth was mostly restricted to horizontal expansion, which put most of the new growth out of reach of the city.
Since about 1950, the only growth that has occurred in the city has been in the downtown core, the fringe of the city in places like Route 80, or on Long Wharf. The old working class neighborhoods were either demolished during urban renewal or have seen population loss, and the streetcar suburbs have been mostly stagnant.
I think it would be great to see the number of housing units in Westville, Beaver Hills and East Shore double through the construction of basement and garage apartments. I’d also like to see corner cafes and garage studios/workshops appear too. The zoning code should make sure that neighborhoods retain their character through physical appearance, not over-regulate uses.
Example of a garage studio in Beaver Hills:
Example of a garage apartment in Edgewood:
Jonathan Hopkins: I agree with your major points. If NH had an Emperor, a grand plan might emerge. As it is, we may be in for a Queen and whatever that may bring.
Paris is my idea of successful large-scale redevelopment, but, frankly, I prefer the eclectic disorder of London with at least pockets of the past remaining.
I don’t understand why the apartments & work studios aren’t allowed now. The character of a place is easily destroyed and, once lost, nearly impossible to replace. Agree that character is much more a function of appearance than use.
@JHopkins—I always enjoy reading your comments. But I don’t get your points about height.
The “urbanism” of the upper West Side of Manhattan is destroyed by height? Plenty of urban-loving folks pay big bucks to live in those “destroyed” neighborhoods. In contrast, the Washington DC height restrictions yield bad buildings and very little urban feel in many neighborhoods. Do you really think that DC has a better urban feel than NYC? That is the test of “height restrictions vs. no height restrictions.”
Paris achieves its overall high density with small apartments in block after block after block after block of charming but really horizontally huge 6-8 story apartment buildings. These massive 19th century buildings were the largest commercially possible at the time (no elevators!) and they destroyed most of the historic old Paris of tiny streets and medieval buildings; Parisian poets, the “historic urbanists” of their day, mourned the lost ancient city.
The Paris that you love was the victory of the massive buildings of the day. The NYC and Chicago that so many love today are cities of skyscrapers, the large urban buildings of our day.
True Paris-style development, with miles of continuous small apartments in 7 story buildings, is not profitable today, surely not in New Haven. Ninth Square here was heavily subsidized.
If you take out the oversized parking garage and fill the lower street-facing side walls with apartments, what is so wrong with the unsubsidized 360 State? It isn’t a great architectural design statement, I get that, but neither are most smaller buildings. Folks love the urban lifestyle there. It makes the Elm City Market possible. We have 300 more apartments downtown than if one the “new urbanist” proposals had been accepted (not that those ever would have found commercial funding anyway.)
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 25, 2013 1:06pm
A Contrarian and Esbey,
You both bring up excellent points and this is a conversation too large for the NHI comment section, but I will try to respond anyway.
If I were emperor, I would rewrite the zoning ordinance so that every neighborhood/district was its own zoning regulations. There would be 15-20 zones, each with a statement describing its history, current condition and goals for the future. Many zones would be quite similar. For instance, Edgewood and Whitney-Orange would be very similar; so would Goatville and West River; SoHu and Dwight; Beaver Hills and lower Westville; etc.
Zoning regulations would be primarily concerned with the physical appearance (character) of zones. Character should be determined by history, current condition and stated goals for the future. For instance, development in Edgewood should reinforce its appearance as a residential streetcar suburb, while the character of Route 80 should probably be changed from a suburban commercial arterial to an urban mixed-use thoroughfare.
The zoning ordinance would not primarily be concerned with regulating use so long as its appearance matches the character of the zone. For instance, cafes, rental apartments and studios/workshops should be allowed in Westville and Beaver Hills, so long as they promote the appearance of a 1920’s residential suburban neighborhood.
The overall goals of the zoning ordinance should be to reduce commuter culture, promote the desired character of places, and more equitably accommodate demand for growth. Historic districts could essentially be rolled into the zoning ordinance and defined under neighborhood character. Also, wards should be redrawn to align with the 15-20 zones.
I would also annex lower Hamden (Pine Rock, Highwood, and Whitneyville) and West Haven to the city. Then I would force all municipalities in the New Haven Economic Region to adequately provide for their proportion (based on population) of the region’s poor, drug-addicted, mentally ill, etc.
Jonathan Hopkins: Appreciate your recent comment(s). I do think it absurd that adjacent areas cannot be annexed but are easily shunned because of an arbitrary line in asphalt.
RE: Emperor—You have my support. And I do hope NH will then be blessed with dozens of your elegant, graceful, & tasteful townhouses.
RE: Parisian density and street wall—A lost American version, though more like 15 stories, was Grand Central City and the glorious stretch of prewar Park Avenue below 57th St. With the narrow lanes for traffic and wide island, it was a “park avenue” in fact as well as name.