Rezoning Sought For Comcast Plan
by Thomas MacMillan | Jan 8, 2014 2:27 pm
Posted to: Housing, Downtown, Wooster Square
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.
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This project should be fast-tracked, and be built as large as possible. Can zoning here be changed to allow 10 story, full lot coverage, with all parking requirements waived? The city is desperate for more housing - this structure wouldn’t “loom” over its neighbors any more than 360 State Street does already.
Whether they use BD-1 or create a new zoning type, Farwell is right. Why in god’s name haven’t the zoning codes been changed. Every time a building wants to be built anywhere near downtown they need to get a variance to build, a variance that is near always granted since the zoning code doesn’t match the current desire for denser and mixed use areas. Even in other parts of the city, the city is trying to get more narrow and long houses built on the lots it owns leftover from the old days(such as that one that was in the news when the Yale professor was attack), if you think this is a good idea then why not just change the zoning codes instead of only using parcels of land that escaped the rewrite of the code some decades ago.
Totally re-writing the zoning rules is a great idea, but can that be done in the time-frame of this project? The city really needs this kind of project to go forward quickly.
Perhaps a whole new set of zoning rules should be carefully and deliberately considered in the abstract rather than in the context of a particular project. These parcels could be zoned BD-1, allowing this particular project to move forward, while new rules are considered.
Farwell is right about scale transition. The new administration should show us what kind of hustle they have and fast track the creation of a new zoning designation for this area (as a new transition zone ..,as a pilot to be proposed elsewhere if successful).
While Anstress genuinely cares about the city, her proposal is inapt. There are already high density residential zones authorized by the zoning ordinance, but they don’t permit the type of retail space the developer is proposing. While developing a new zone for transitional areas such as this site makes sense, this would require action by the board of alders. This could well take more time than the developer has to take advantage of the current tight market.
I trust St. Paul & St. James Episcopal Church, across the street, is on this one, since the church uses both the Comcast parking lot and (occasionally, for large events) the Smoothie parking lot, and will need some kind of parking access on an ongoing basis.
Transition? What the hell is wrong with these people? “Development watchdog”? More like NIMBY’s that hold up every development project in the city.
GET THIS APPROVED.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 8, 2014 12:43pm
I think what Anstress is getting at is that this area of the city (historically known as the New Township) is distinct from the Ninth Square, and therefore should not have the identical zoning designation of BD-1. This was a similar argument that was made when Chapel West was changed to BD-1 and I think it is one with merit.
The West Creek (now the Rail Road cut) was crossed almost immeditately with roads upon the founding of the New Haven Colony, but it didn’t really development until the second half of the 18th Century. At this point, maritime trade was picking up and development along Olive Water Streets began. This growth accelerated with the completion of the Farmington Canal using the bed of the West Creek in the 1820s and again with the construction of the CT’s first rail road along the western bank of the Mill River. New Haven’s first passenger railroad station was built in the 1840s at the corner of Chapel and Union Streets - somewhat unifying the ‘New Township’ with the old township (the Nine Squares). Urban Renewal, however, re-separated these two areas with the State Street Project and widespread demolition in the vicinity of Olive Street.
In my opinion, it makes more sense for Olive and Chapel Streets to have BD-1 zoning than for Chapel West, but I think both these places should have different regulations than the Ninth Square.
This is one more example of fixing something on the fly. The Harp administration needs to revise our outdated zoning ordinance.
A well written form based code would speed up development by reducing the need for variances and referrals to the CPC.
Anstress is right about FAR being an inadequate way to regulate form. Depending on lot size a large building could be next to a small one.
posted by: Kevin on January 9, 2014 1:41pm
Gretchen, I suspect that Sts. P&J has no standing in this deal and may well not have been involved with the discussions so far. Assuming the project goes forward, the parish may need to find parking, which would be less convenient (perhaps one of the lots further south on Olive).