In order for a Fairfield company to tear down the Comcast building and put up a new mixed-use development, it will need city lawmakers to redraw the zoning map.
The company, Spinnaker Residential, has submitted a zone change request to the Board of Aldermen. With the help of Attorney Anthony Avallone, Spinnaker is looking to extend a downtown zone east over the train tracks to allow for a mixed-use development on the edge of Wooster Square.
The Comcast building (pictured below), at the corner of Chapel and Olive streets, currently sits in a BD zone. Spinnaker would like to change it to a BD-1 zone, along with another parcel across Chapel Street, which is currently a parking lot, and convert it to a four-story building with apartments and storefronts.
The BD-1 designation, which covers areas like the Ninth Square and Chapel West, allows for denser development and for mixed-use development than the regular BD—business—designation.
City development watchdog Anstress Farwell, who heads the New Haven Urban Design League, called the change to the zoning map a bad idea. What’s needed is an entirely new “transition zone,” a new category that would be appropriate not only at Chapel and Olive, but elsewhere in the city, she said.
The new Spinnaker project would be the latest of several residential developments between Wooster Square and downtown amid activist and city efforts to connect the two neighborhoods. The area has seen the construction of the mixed-use residential tower at 360 State St., and before that the conversion of the Strauss Adler building into apartments. Neighbors have done their best to spruce up the ominous-looking mostly vacant Comcast building, which has boarded up windows bordering Chapel Street.
“Given the property’s close proximity to the State Street Train Station as well as New Haven Union Station, the proposed Transit Oriented Development will be designed to promote walkability and pedestrian connectivity between the Wooster Square neighborhood and downtown,” Avallone wrote in a letter to the Board of Aldermen.
Not Too FAR
Spinnaker hopes to build two new mixed-use buildings at the corner of Chapel and Olive. The project would result in about 200 new one- and two-bedroom apartments, with rents starting at about $1,500 per month. Plans call for retail uses on the ground floor.
The new development would replace the Comcast building at 630-673 Chapel with a new structure. The Comcast building has been largely vacant and boarded up for several years.
Across Chapel Street, Spinnaker would put up a new, smaller building in what is now a parking lot (pictured) next to the Strauss Adler “Smoothie” building. The larger of the two new buildings, south of Chapel Street, would be ring-shaped, with an interior courtyard.
Avallone submitted the zoning change request to aldermen along with a companion submission, a proposed change to the description of a BD-1 zone.
The proposed revision would limit the Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) of BD-1 buildings that border residential neighborhoods. The ratio is a measure of how big a building can be in proportion to its lot size. A higher FAR means a bigger allowable building.
The proposed revision would limit BD-1 buildings bordering residential areas to 3.0. It currently stands at 6.0.
Karyn Gilvarg, head of the City Plan Department, said Spinnaker proposed the revision after conferring with city zoners. She said the revision would prevent the construction of big downtown-style buildings that might “loom” over neighborhood homes. Gilvarg said BD-1 zones come up against residential zones in only a couple of areas.
The change would smooth the transition between the dense BD-1 zone and less dense residential zones. It “tapers it off,” Gilvarg said.
Farwell offered a different way to smooth that transition: Create a new transition zone.
Farwell, who said she supports Spinnaker’s development goals, said the proposed zoning map change isn’t the right way achieve them.
“We’ve been saying for years and years that we need to revise the zoning code, and they continue to use this broken down code in a way that causes problems,” she said.
“I’m concerned that [BD-1] is really a business district that allows mixed-use and residential use, rather than a high-density residential use,” she said. “It’s more than semantics.”
The city needs a new zoning designation for high-density residential areas, Farwell said.
“The solution that they’re proposing for the BD-1 zone doesn’t work for this particular project but it also doesn’t create the new zoning category that we need for some other parts of the city, in addition to Chapel and Olive,” she said. “So I don’t think that we should keep dodging this. It’s an important thing to put together for many types of projects.”
Farwell also said that the FAR revision is not as useful as a move toward “form-based code” would be. Even with a FAR restriction, you could still end up with a really big building if you start with a big empty lot, she said.
The Spinnaker proposal will be sent to an aldermanic committee after it’s officially communicated to the Board of Aldermen Tuesday evening.