The City Plan Commissioners voted 3-1 (with one abstention) to approve a controversial new zoning plan to make neighborhoods on the edges of downtown denser..
The plan now moves to the Legislation Committee of the Board of Aldermen for further debate.
The proposed change, technically called “zoning ordinance text amendments regarding the BD-1 District” would make it easier for people to build “mixed-use” projects—combining stores, apartments, and offices—in places like the Ninth Square and Chapel West. Those areas fall under a relatively new “BD-1” zoning designation.
Click here to read details of the plan and objections to it as they unfolded at last month’s City Plan Commission meeting.
Click here to read the city’s arguments for the change as presented in a “road show” last month to various neighborhood management teams.
City officials want to change the rules for BD-1 zones so people constructing combined commercial-residential projects don’t have to leave as much space in side yards and in front of buildings as they would if they were constructing purely retail spaces. They also want to allow for 30 percent of the parking in such projects to cover just compact cars rather than larger vehicles.
The idea is to allow for denser urban living. Opponents worry the change could destroy the residential character of historic neighborhoods.
At last month’s City Plan Commission meeting, the opposition was outspoken and numerous enough to persuade the commissioners that too much was at stake for a vote without further study. The proposal was tabled.
On Wednesday night, with their laps full of documents and their faces grim, Dwight neighbors Susan Bradford and Patricia Kane (pictured) were the only opponents present. They were hoping for the same result, another tabling. It was not to be.
Kane is an attorney and founding member of Friends of the Dwight Street Historic District The Debate: How Political is Zoning? They asked that the measure, which they contend has a far-reaching impact on city development and the potential to destroy the historic character of Dwight, be tabled again for ongoing study.
City Plan Commissioner Adam Marchand, a Westville alderman, advocated that position, saying that the timing is giving the wrong impression: “We need a fix, but it shouldn’t be enmeshed in the current project [the Salvatore proposal],” he said.
CPC Chair Ed Mattison replied, passionately: “That’s a dangerous way to go.”
A riveting philosophical back-and-forth ensued on just how pure or unpolitical zoning decisions could or should be.
“Any change we make will have impact [on some parties]. Some people benefit, others not. Once you start raising questions [about broad zoning issues being motivated by specific projects], you become part of the political arena. That’s not us,” Mattison argued.
Marchand said he wanted to be on record about the City Plan Department staff report advocating the zone change. He agreed with Mattison that it was professionally done, not motivated by wanting to benefit a particular developer. He still has concerns about the timing of the vote, he said: “It’s not intention but perception.”
“What I appreciate about being part of this body is that people don’t call me up to harangue me,” said Mattison, a former East Rock alderman.
Aldermen have the burden of being targets of special-interest lobbyists, Mattison argued. “We [City Plan] should act in good faith. If the local aldermen want to intervene, let them. That’s why you have local [elected] officials. Not us.”
He then moved approval of the City Plan staff report supporting the change. It passed with Commissioners Mattison, Audrey Tyson, and Roy Smith voting yea, alternate Commisoner Kevin DiAdamo abstaining, and Marchand voting no.
Carolyn Kone, the attorney who represents RMS Chapel LLC, Salvatore’s development company, said she was pleased.
Neighbors Kane and Bradford weren’t.
“Zoning is inherently political. They should have tabled,” said Kane.
“Only Adam [Marchand] knows what’s at stake. If this goes through the aldermen, Randy can go 30 stories. BD-1 has no limits. You can build to the property line,” said Bradford.
She and Kane vowed to continue the fight at the public hearings before the legislation committee.
posted by: Pedro Soto on February 21, 2013 10:25am
Ms. Bradford statement at the end is highly misleading. Mr. Salvatore could have ALREADY as-of-right gone to 30 stories had he wanted to build a commercial building.
Because he wants to build a mixed-use building, he was being limited by an interpretation of zoning, which has now been amended. Not just for this area of town, but for all of this zoning designation. Mixed use and single-use structures are now treated equally.
Part of her concern surely must also be that this building represents competition for her apartment building. She will now have another large apartment complex sharing the street with her building. I doubt she would have pursued legal action had it been a commercial building going up.
posted by: anonymous on February 21, 2013 12:08pm
Why only to 30 stories? New Haven desperately needs more housing, particularly within its transit-rich city core where jobs are growing. We have one of the nation’s lowest vacancy rates, and working families can not afford to live here. Why is the “new” Board of Aldermen majority so opposed to economic development and job creation that they try to politicize impartial city boards?
Let’s change the zoning designation so that it allows for 45+ story residential towers (perhaps allowing a significant extra height bonus if and only if the developer adds affordable units to the mix), like most of the vibrant and economically inclusive cities around the world.
I don’t understand Ms. Kane’s comment (perhaps she can clarify). What does the fact that zoning is inherently political (I agree with her on this point) have to do with whether the commission should have acted when it did? I think the question is whether the commission was able to get input from a wide variety of perspectives and whether they had sufficient time to absorb this input. From this and the earlier article, it appears that the answer to both questions was yes.
posted by: Susan Bradford on February 21, 2013 1:36pm
As President of the New Haven Preservation Trust, I find Mr. Soto’s disregard of the Dwight Street Historic District baffling, if not troubling. Perhaps he would like to join the Friends of Dwight Street Historic District so that he may form a better understanding of the existing and ongoing concerns, as his thoughts on motive are misguided.
Since 2011, we are on public record to say that the BD-1 zone text is too broad as it stands. The subject text revision makes it worse, not better. BD-1 needs amendment, but NOT this amendment. What has worked somehow in Ninth Square since the 1980’s, does not work in the Chapel Dwight neighborhood.
Ninth Square was originally built as wall-to-wall construction. Chapel Dwight was not. Chapel Dwight has many low profile historic homes and historic buildings with variable yards and set backs that deserve appropriate respect and protections under the proper functioning of National Register Historic Districts. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwight_Street_Historic_District
What we have asked of the city is to slow down and think this through, instead of moving forward in a rush. We are not against development. We are against unlimited or disrespectful development. Perhaps the recent zoning change from BA and RM-2 to BD-1 should be reversed if Chapel Dwight is interfering with Ninth Square.
We invite Pedro Soto to be a part of a “peaceful solution” process. We have and will continue to encourage that concept, which is to form a Neighborhood Planning Agency with even representation for historic, residential, commercial, and institutional interests, assisted by objective professional consulting. The Agency purpose would be to review BD-1 impacts on Chapel Dwight, propose zoning code that respects all interests, and to review redevelopment plans to use eminent domain for the purpose of economic development.
posted by: Curious on February 21, 2013 2:58pm
Based on Susan Bradford’s post, it sounds like the new building is more like her own building at 70 Howe, which doesn’t match those low-profile homes either.
posted by: Ed Mattison on February 21, 2013 3:04pm
As the Chair of the Planning Commission, I invited the Friends of the Dwight Street Historic Commission and other interested parties to submit to us a suggested amendment to our current zoning rules that would accomplish their goals. We have agreed to a number of changes in the Zoning Code to accomplish legitimate goals of particular neighborhoods.
“Ninth Square was originally built as wall-to-wall construction.”
The Ninth Square, like nearly all of New Haven was originally built with detached houses on individual building lots. Eventually some houses were converted into apartments with storefronts, then later demolished and replaced with higher density land use. If Historic Districts had been around in the late 1640s, the Ninth Square would still be single-family detached houses on extremely large lots. The West Village (Chapel West and Dwight/Kensington) happened, mostly by coincidence, to get frozen in time when it was still a low-to-moderate density residential area with limited commercial activity. I happen to support Historic Districts, though they are flawed, but there is also a credible argument to be made that they are somewhat arbitrary.
I think that the Ninth Square (including many surrounding blocks to the southeast of the Green) should be have the densest and most intense land-use in the city. Secondary centers like Chapel West, the medical district, and Audubon-Whitney should have moderate intensity of land-use followed by commercial corridors like Whalley, Dixwell, Congress, Howard and Grand Avenues that have a lower intensity of mixed uses. It does not make sense for Chapel West to have identical zoning to the Ninth Square.
posted by: Pedro Soto on February 21, 2013 4:16pm
Susan, Thank you for the reply-
To be clear, I have extremely high regard for the Dwight Street Historic District. It is a national register/state level district, not a far more stringent local historic district. I am all for increasing the strength and number of historic districts in New Haven, and I would support Dwight Street’s attempt to create a local historic district 1000%.
You are correct that the issue is zoning. Even if there were a local historic district in place, the most that would be able to be regulated would be the demolition of the home on chapel, and the visual characteristics of the building, NOT it’s use or form.
Your concept of comprehensive zoning reform is also an exciting one, and I think that our current zoning is more a legacy of the 1960s. There are likely far more progressive zoning codes that we can should be looking at.
However, the biggest concern that I have is that in this particular case, while people may have issues with several aspects of the design of the Chapel/Howe building (I am not a fan of the street-level parking, for example), I don’t see how a multistory residential building is an inappropriate use, when there are SEVEN such buildings by my count on Howe Street alone!
It would be one thing if the building as-proposed was out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood, or an incompatible use, but it’s not.
It would be neither the tallest, nor the largest building, and it does not appear to be encroaching on Dwight Street any more than the other apartment buildings currently do. It’s neighbors on Dwight (except Miya’s) are stone and brick multistory apartment buildings, both larger than this one.
Reading your concerns, I also agree that something closer to the “village district” zoning, similar to Grand Avenue might be more appropriate for upper chapel street. It might actually serve both downtown’s interest to do this as well, since this zoning might not be as much of a lightning rod as it currently is. However, I think that mixed use denser buildings close to downtown are a responsible use for vacant sites.
Please do contact the Trust regarding your ideas about zoning review as it would include historic buildings and districts, and it might also be worth contacting the mayoral candidates to meet with your group.
posted by: Patricia Kane on February 21, 2013 4:57pm
There are currently 2 properties on Dwight St and in the historic district, plus there is another house on Chapel St. opposite the Y. They are owned by Joel Schiavone and are part of the contract for the sale of all the parcels.
At the public hearing before the City Planning Commission in January, there was testimony that an abutting homeowner on Dwight St was fraudulently induced to voluntarily put her residential property into the BD-1 zone based on representations that future development would look like the vision design prepared by Dean Sakamoto. That elegant plan was composed of two buildings and had ample open space and retail at street level.
In addition, testimony was given that passage of a change in the BD-1 zoning - yes, a change, NOT a clarification as it was entitled by the City - it could have the effect of making the lawsuit by 70 Howe St. LLC moot if the developer withdrew his current plans and re-submitted them under the new zoning regs.
Whoever the proponents of the changes to the BD-1 zone are/were, it strained credulity to believe that an “error” had been made back in the 1980s when the zone was established for the development in Ninth Square. Mirabile dictu! Someone just “realized” . There was no correction; this was a change in the wording and in the effects on all future construction in BD-1 zones.
Chair Ed Mattison gave a long explanation for moving the matter to a vote by stating that zoning should be non-political and besides, the matter will next go to the Board of Aldermen for an up or down vote. He repeatedly referred to not being concerned with a particular development, but left the fate of the neighborhood to our future efforts to craft something for the City Planning Commission to vote on.
Given the previous testimony and the context of this matter, Adam Marchand’s judgment that the perception of the Commissions vote before the other issues raised were resolved, whether by negotiations with Joel Schiavone and Randy Salvatore or by the courts, would be negative, certainly anticipated the reaction of the Friends of the Dwight Historic District.
Why the rush to make the changes now?
We need charter changes so that the Mayor no longer appoints all the members of boards and commissions.
posted by: Susan Bradford on February 22, 2013 10:33am
To Misters Soto and Mattis – The outreach is welcomed. The Friends look forward to a direct dialog in exploring how we can form willing collaborations to build bridges of understanding with all community interests and make positive outcomes for the Chapel Dwight neighborhood and the Dwight Street Historic District.
Mr. Hopkins – Your expertise is valued and appreciated. I stand corrected in using the term “original” and qualify the start of the Ninth Square wall-to-wall construction as 1800’s vintage.
Curious – Yes, 70 Howe is a six-story apartment building and is a Dwight Historic District “contributing structure” per my understanding of the National Register of Historic Places. Please note there is sizeable yardage between 70 Howe and our Dwight Street neighbors for open space, light and air. Roughly four times as much space as you find between Dwight and the proposed RMS building. And, with the BD-1 text change, the bulk of the RMS building - by right without variance hearing - could expand substantially to cause greater encroachment injury to the low profile Dwight to cover the lots with a building up to the property lines.
posted by: Stephen Harris on February 22, 2013 8:36pm
This text change is welcomed. Having separate yard and building standards for different types of development in the same zone is nuts: This brings more uniformity to the regulations and should lead to more consistent development.
However, the conjecture of the height of buildings in the BD-1 is well taken. Using Floor-to-Area ratios (FAR) to regulate height gets us into trouble because lot sizes, and thus the FAR, can vary dramatically resulting in buildings with very different heights. Having a building height range instead of FAR is a predictable method to control for height. We should have higher building heights (but not skyscrapers) in the BD-1 downtown area and lower building heights in the outlying areas like Dwight. To achieve this several BD-1’s would need to exist, each tailored to it own area.
And lastly, and if only for the sake of consistency in my posting, the BD-1 text still permits a single family dwelling by right: BD-1 permits RH-2 uses by right which permits single family dwellings.
posted by: Stephen Harris on February 22, 2013 8:48pm
One last thought (and another of my hobby-horses). At some point the zoning bandaids lose their stickiness and fall off.
I hope the next mayor realizes we have an archaic and dysfunctional zoning ordinance and spends the money on a very much needed new, modern code.
posted by: anonymous on February 23, 2013 8:11pm
I would like to see wall to wall construction (like Washington DC’s thriving and safe central neighborhoods) along Chapel Street all the way up to St Raphael’s (at least) as well as along Whalley, George, and Rt 34. The city, and CT in general, desperately needs more housing and urban density if it wishes to compete with other urban regions for jobs. As J Hopkins points out, the historic Districts can grow outdated when they fail to keep up with the economic realities of our world.
posted by: Susan Bradford on February 25, 2013 12:48pm
A question to anonymous and others in favor of building towers of wall-to-wall construction “by right” for residential or mixed use buildings to cover the entire lot up to the property lines… How will residential buildings with abutting walls handle Housing Code requirements for lighting and ventilation that requires one window in each habitable room when the buildings are wall-to-wall? Will a change to Housing Code then be pushed?
The very basis of any and all zoning code has always provided protections to reflect sympathetic accommodations to residential for decent living standards and for the health, safety and welfare of families and children. Removing the residential protections from BD-1 is in conflict with this social consciousness. How the city can move this concept forward makes no sense. Stop and think this through. A zone without limits is equal to no zoning code at all.
And by the way… Did you know that Dwight Street is already the densest neighborhood in New Haven? So tells Susmitha Attota of City Plan in her findings and research report on the new Comprehensive Plan. I wonder what interests are behind making the perception that Chapel Dwight is in some dire need for greater density.