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Christopher Martins, Da Legna Square Off

by Thomas MacMillan | Mar 15, 2013 11:01 am

(27) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Upper State Street

Thomas MacMillan Photo After a fire ripped through Da Legna restaurant, the owner rebuilt the restaurant bigger than before, adding a full bar. Then the city cried foul—as did the rival tavern across the street.

According to his lawyer, Da Legna owner Dan Parillo thought he had city permission to install the bar (pictured), until he got a letter telling him he was breaking the law.

That’s what Amy Blume (pictured), the lawyer, told the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) Tuesday evening during a hearing at the Hall of Records.

Blume said that due to an error by the city, the restaurant, at 858 State St., now has to apply for special permission for an expansion that it completed with the city’s blessing. She said she attended the hearing “under protest,” seeking permission for a full liquor license and three parking spaces where 12 are required.

The board also heard testimony from several neighbors opposed to the special permissions.

The owners of Christopher Martins, the bar and restaurant across Clark Street from Da Legna, said the neighborhood can’t handle the additional traffic caused by another bar in the area. They decried what they called a “slow creep” of under-the-radar restaurant expansion across the street.

The BZA didn’t vote on the matter, which is headed to the City Plan Commission for a recommendation next week. It will return for a BZA vote next month.

Attorney Blume laid out the timeline of events at 858 State St. Here’s what she said happened:

In August 2011, the Parillo Food Group took over the lease at the restaurant, which was then called Amato’s. The pizza restaurant had 42 seats and permission to serve wine and beer. It did not have a bar.

Rob Smuts Photo On Jan. 14, 2012, a fire destroyed the restaurant. Six months later, on June 14, then-city Building Official Andy Rizzo signed off on a liquor permit application allowing the restaurant serve liquor as well as beer and wine. The next month, Rizzo signed off on a building permit application that had a plan attached showing a bar area and 47 seats.

By November, the renovations were complete, the bar installed. On Nov. 30, Rizzo signed a certificate of occupancy with an “occupant load” of 47. In December Da Legna’s reopened, now with a seven-seat bar and a 40 seat restaurant.

Then on Jan. 12, 2013, almost exactly a year after the fire, Da Legna’s received a letter from Deputy Director of Zoning Tom Talbot stating that the city was rescinding the zoning compliance certification Rizzo had signed in June 2012. The restaurant had never received zoning approval to serve liquor (beyond beer and wine at restaurant tables).

The city did not issue a cease and desist order. Talbot told the owner he had to apply for a special exception to have a bar and 47 seats.

Denying that special exception would result in a “substantial loss” for her client, Blume said. The current situation is the result of a city error, she said; Da Legna did nothing wrong.

Attorney Timothy Lee (pictured) was the first to testify in opposition to the application. He represents the owner of the building across the street, occupied on the first floor by Christopher Martins on the first floor, with eight apartments above.

Lee said the area already has a parking shortage; adding five more seats and a bar only makes it worse. He presented a 50-signature petition of neighbors opposed.

The bar may have only seven seats, but bars always have many more people than seats, Lee said. He said Da Legna should not be allowed to stay open until 1:30 a.m., as it has requested.

“It’s just wrong for the street,” said Chris Vigilante (pictured), one of the co-owners of Christopher Martins. “They did this incorrectly, and the impact of no parking is going to hurt us all.”

Vigilante said the restaurant has quietly expanded over the years, from 600 square feet when it was Amato’s to now 2,200 square feet.

Four neighbors, including Alex Marathas, president of the Upper State Street Association, testified to the lack of parking.

Brian Virtue (pictured), the other Christopher Martins co-owner, said the parking has gotten so bad that people are telling him they can’t come to the restaurant. “I hear it daily,” he said.

Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen told the board that he has received a lot of emails about the application. Emailers oppose the application by about four to one, he said.

“Parking has always been an issue,” rebutted Blume. Regarding the testimony from Christopher Martins, she said, “Competition is not a legitimate concern of the board.”

She said that to deny the application would be a “complete injustice.”

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posted by: PH on March 15, 2013  11:54am

Boy, this reeks of Christopher Martins trying to drive away any competition while using parking as a cover.  We get it—street parking is limited in New Haven, but why should CMs get a monopoly to use it?  If there is such a demand, people can learn to park a block away and walk to the bar.  Somehow people in other cities manage to make their legs work for that long.  For a market-loving, capitalism-crazed bunch of people, it is amazing how often Americans fight against a little competition.

posted by: SaveOurCity on March 15, 2013  1:19pm

I can’t comprehend how the city can give approval and then take it away after the work is done.  Looks like a turf battle between two departments….maybe less gov’t would be better?

posted by: scribe86 on March 15, 2013  1:51pm

From what I read, Da Legna did nothing wrong. Sounds like CM just can’t stand the competition. The city gave Da Legna approval for the bar and 5 additional seats…we’re talking 5 seats here, not 20. The place isn’t that big and neither is the bar. There are much bigger places on State Street that also have bars. So you’re telling me, Da Legna - out of all the restaurants on that stretch of State Street - is to blame for the the parking problem. I don’t think so. The owners of CM need to put their big boy business pants on and grow up. And I hope the City realizes how bad it looks by granting something and then trying to take it away. Nonsense. I have an idea, New Haven: allow people to use the commuter lot across from Eld St.after a certain hour. Commuters aren’t using it at night.

posted by: streever on March 15, 2013  1:51pm

This happens MORE THAN I CAN REMEMBER. I can not tell you how many applicants at the BZA had WRITTEN permission for something which they now were in trouble for.

If you had the type of record for making substantial mistakes in any other job, you’d be fired.

Why the heck do Smuts & DeStefano continue to employ people who make hundred thousand dollar mistakes with businesses and residents?

posted by: lucy23 on March 15, 2013  2:32pm

Does the city have an explanation for its “mistake?” This seems really crazy, that the city can give permission, a small business owner then goes on and spends time and money on construction, becomes successful and then the city says they made a mistake! Totally unacceptable - any other business besides a municipality that had a policy like that would be out of business!

And CM sounds like they’re just nervous about the competition. Parking is an issue all over New Haven. It would be great to start a debate about parking issues downtown, but not at the expense of a fellow neighborhood business.

posted by: streever on March 15, 2013  4:07pm

Lucy, this happens ALL THE TIME. It has even happened to friends of mine, who are out a ton of money, and were even *fined* by the city after one of their employees did work and another employee told them it was approved.

This is a real crime. People who are struggling to make money and run businesses are being really hurt by the incredibly frequent “mistakes” by our administration.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on March 15, 2013  4:51pm

CRAZY.

You make-a da mistake, you no turn around and punish da guy you screwed. 

The city screwed up, they approved something in writing, they should just eat it.  End of story.

I have very fond feelings towards Christopher Martin’s, but I don’t think they are helping themselves here.  And don’t they have valet parking, anyway?

posted by: Wildwest on March 15, 2013  6:30pm

Streever- you throw out Smuts & DeStefano and dont mention Rizzo who signed them off. Why?

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 15, 2013  7:09pm

This is the another process problem caused by intentional under-staffing by the City.

The City unwisely cut the Zoning Administrator position, a deputized position under Section 62(a), several years ago. And they’ve decimated the Planning Department; even the position of secretary to the BZA was cut! It is the ZEO’s (or deputy’s) job under Section 62(c) to review plans prior to the issuance of a Building Permit. Without anyone to do that job, these types of things will happen over and over again.

People have been split into so many different functions it’s no wonder the wheels have fallen off the permitting process. You get what you pay for, and if you pay for nothing then this stuff happens.

The Building Official has enough to do without adding yet another job to what he does now! And it is extremely difficult for the scant staff left at City Plan to stay ahead of everything that goes on. Just managing the daily calls, walk-ins and complaints takes a great deal of time, never mind blocking out the quality time needed to evaluate the applications and get all the time sensitive material out on schedule.

The City needs to wake up and properly staff both the Planning and Building Departments.

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 15, 2013  8:44pm

I’m not a lawyer but this looks like municipal estoppel to me. The applicant presented redevelopment plans and was issued a building permit, a cafe liquor license was approved, then a Certificate of Occupancy was issued. The restaurant had every reason to rely on city officials for guidance in redeveloping the restaurant and spent money, based on that guidance to bring the project to fruition.

Keep in mind the Building Official, while an expert in the State Building Code, isn’t an expert in the Zoning Ordinance (apples and oranges). That the Zoning Ordinance makes him the Zoning Enforcement Officer is very dated and is yet one more reason to modernize the Ordinance. That the City cut the Zoning Administrator position is just plain idiotic.

To state the obvious again, this would not have happened if the City was properly staffed.

posted by: RCguy on March 16, 2013  2:28am

Yes, of course it’s Rizzo.

Has he put in his notice yet?

posted by: lrnoff on March 16, 2013  10:34am

Well, on the positive side, I had no idea there was a new restaurant in that location until I read this article. It made me curious, so I looked at their website and the menu sounds fantastic. I’ll definitely be going for dinner one night very soon. I only hope I don’t get there only to discover the city and the neighborhood have shut them down.
My feeling about the parking situation is this…yes, it’s not easy, and you often have to drive around the block a time or two, but that’s part of going out in any city. And people who choose to live in an urban setting don’t get to complain about the downside of doing so. If you want more space, maybe you don’t belong there.

posted by: streever on March 16, 2013  11:50am

@Wildwest
As Harris points out, this should not be Rizzo’s job.

The buck stops with CAO Smuts and his boss Mayor DeStefano.

It is not Rizzo’s job to hire and fire and make decisions for what types of positions the Mayor includes in his budget, but as Chief Administrative Officer, Smuts should be telling the Mayor that they need a zoning employee to prevent these issues.

This is why I’m concerned about Perez & others saying “aw hell no” to tax increases.

Robn: This is the exact problem I’m referencing when I talk about how nervous I am about the notion that we just need to cut.

Cuts have to be made in intelligent ways and citizens have to understand what we are losing.

I suspect that most people who have lost 10s of 1000s in dealing with this very issue—and there are a LOT of them—wish the city hadn’t fired an employee who, with benefits, cost 5 figures a year.

It is a shame that we under-staff departments to squeak by every year, and it actually hurts us in our pocketbooks if we are unfortunate enough to have to make money from a business in this city.

New Haven needs smarter investment in our government.

posted by: Howard Ignal, Esq on March 16, 2013  1:19pm

Let’s see: A new restaurant with delicious food, a well stocked and comfortable bar, an excellent staff and amiable ownership is told by the city, after it opens, that the original approval of the size and type of its bar was made in error (the City’s, not the restaurant’s).  And who jumps in to say that the completed bar poses a problem regarding parking? Why a competing establishment located right across the street! Fair? Not a bit!

posted by: SaveOurCity on March 16, 2013  2:39pm

2 points regarding the cries of understaffing

1) Based upon the story, there are two people from different departments who gave DeLegna feedback on their occupancy/zoning compliance.  It seems obvious that these two opinions were not coordinated so we should consider merging the departments thus improving this communication.  The result may be that we require a lower headcount rather than a high headcount.

2) Most of the drivers for headcount reductions are due to the incredible upward spiral of fixed costs in the city budget.  The two leading causes are pension and healthcare costs for former city employees and debt service.  Pensions are a challenge, but debt service is mind boggling.  We will pay $67 Million next year for items that our gov’t chose not to pay for back when the expense was incurred.  That’s $1.3 Million per week that we will spend with no benefit provided.

Future city leadership is going to have to be very hard working and imaginative to get us out from under this going away present from DeStefano.

posted by: Work219 on March 16, 2013  3:15pm

First of all parking in new haven is always insane. CM’s does have their own parking lot though so I don’t know what their complaining about. I’m sure things have changed a lot on State Street in the past 20 years that CM’s has been in business. They need to learn to adapt to these changes.

In the past 4 months a new funky fusion vibe has hit State Street and definitely helped lively up the area. This has brought in more business to not only their restaurant, but the surrounding businesses as well. This is the wrong way for CM’s to handle what friendly restaurant competition.  I just sense a bit of jealousy and it’s quite clear where all their motivation is going. “Frankie say’s RELAX” CM’s! In conclusion there are a million places like CM’s in New Haven. There’s few wood fired pizza places, but only one with a special twist Da Legna’s. Hey, the competition just makes the food taste even better.

posted by: nellie bly on March 16, 2013  8:53pm

Stephen Harris is spot on in his assessment of this bureaucratic mess. Hopefully this fiasco will enlighten New Haven residents who malign unionized municipal employees deemed dispensable if they are not police, fire or public works.

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 16, 2013  9:13pm

I understand the argument for merging the Building Department and City Plan. But that won’t work because they do very different things and administer two very different codes. Better coordination would be a good thing. Perhaps monthly meetings just to talk about what’s going on would help as would bringing the two departments physically closer; they’re in two different buildings. And even that would be a logistical nightmare.

I know the City is in financial straights but cutting into the bone of City Plan was a bad idea. For a City of about 130,000 to have less than a skeletal planning staff, and no real zoning enforcement at all (I’m sorry but the Building Official as ZEO really doesn’t count) does nothing but clog the gears of development and ends up costing us money in court and settlements.

A City that likes to talk about how forward thinking it is, and is looking to position itself as a biotech center (a good thing IMO) really needs to put some money where that mouth is.

All development, big or small, runs through the planning/zoning process sooner or later. That process needs proper funding and staff, plain and simple.

posted by: robn on March 16, 2013  10:41pm

STREEVER,

To put a pertinent twist on a rumsfeldian saying, evidence of absence isn’t absence of evidence. Just because Andy RRazzesdepartment is understaffed, ddoesn’tean that the city isn’t elsewhere loaded with political patronage jobs. I’ve personally experienced city workers who don’t understand what a PDF is (the most ubiquitous digital format used by government).. I’ve questioned NH’s employee to citizen ratio many times. If someone can provide many other fine functioning cities with a similar ratio I’ll shut up. If not, my point stands.

posted by: streever on March 16, 2013  11:17pm

@robn
I agree with you that there are problems at City Hall and overstaffed departments.

However, I worry that in our rush to save money we may continue to make the same mistake we’ve been making—gutting departments that do vital work.

I don’t think that we should adopt a “10% from everyone” attitude, because we need smart planning and creative thinking in reducing these departments, and we need to be careful that we aren’t cutting off our own noses, as we’ve done too many times.

I guess my faith in the current administration is simply so low that I think if we pressure them to adopt a “10% across the board” approach, they’ll fire everyone useful and keep the patronage employees.

I think we need the BoA to conduct some type of review of City Hall and identify actual cuts on a real basis. I think they need to pull the department heads into the monthly BoA meeting and ask them what they are cutting, who, and by how much.

I think they need to start pulling the Department heads in and saying—why the heck are so many citizens getting screwed in zoning?

I think they need to pull Smuts in once a month and say, “Where are the employee evaluations? Where are the metrics for employee success and project/program success?”

Right now, we don’t have any.

I think the first step—before cuts—is a demand for the information that citizens need. Until we have that, I suspect we’ll see the same behavior—cuts of useful people and services, and padded salaries for stuffed suits.

posted by: HhE on March 16, 2013  11:32pm

My take on this come to the conclusion that we are being penny wise, and pound foolish.  I am convinced that our over staffing (and lack of competence) is because our residents have taken the view that the role of the city is to provide direct employment.  The lack of necessary staffing (and the accompany competency) would come from efforts to economise. 

It like visiting a friend’s house; admire the new window treatments, but wondering at the buckets for the leaking roofs. 

(Meanwhile, I’m focusing my eating out money of Indian, Thai, and real Chinese.)

posted by: robn on March 17, 2013  9:05am

Everyone asking the city for information and approvals is entitled to a correct response. If an error is made and not rescinded in a reasonably timely fashion, the city owns the mistake. Rescinding from La Legna after construction is way too late and will surely lead to a valid lawsuit against the city. Granting the erroneous approval may lead to suit from CMs but it will be almost impossible for them to quantify an economic loss so I don’t think it will lead anywhere.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 17, 2013  9:17am

I’m really sad to see the regression from leadership on Upper State Street. Let’s get over the parking issue folks. There are always always always parking spots under the Humphrey Street Underpass which is a 1/16 of a mile away.  There is absolutely no reason why restaurant patrons should not park there.  Andy Consiglio gave free parking to restaurant patrons of other businesses for years without complaining that it was hurting the restaurant in his building.  Folks walk from there and its the same distance.

Parking is not a right. Not for the folks that complain that Christopher Martin’s is taking it from them and not for Christopher Martin’s patrons. Da Legna is only helping the street by bringing more people here and forcing more people to considering driving one vehicle to dinner or parking two blocks away and walking our neighborhood. 

The same goes for the Starr Supply redevelopment. Mechanic Street could only improve from more people being encouraged to walk it yet there are folks leading the charge to make sure we comply with zoning laws of years past when the automobile was king. 

I live on Upper State between these two properties in a condo complex where 26 people live in 11 Units. Each unit was given two spots and 5 of the units currently use one or less.  4 years ago only 1 unit had less than 2 cars.  I have turned one of my spots into a garden.

Da Legna is a nice place with good food. I walk there. Christopher Martins is a nice place with good food. I walk there.  The folks who occupy Starr Supply will also walk there because that’s what people do in areas of similar density around the world. 

Let’s get with the times Upper State.

posted by: nellie bly on March 17, 2013  12:09pm

Excellent point Streever re patronage jobs. Of those employees I know about many who are deputies, do work their butts off so I won’t hold the fact they do not reside in New Haven, choosing neighboring suburban towns,against them.

The patronage workers do have unfair advantage over other staff when it comes to getting a raise, they get it ASAP - they don’t need the union for that.

The administration has eliminated many of these p jobs, but most likely those employees forgot to attend a fundraiser.

posted by: Noteworthy on March 17, 2013  3:36pm

A couple of my notes:

1. The city is grossly overstaffed, not understaffed. Total employment was at last count, 5,000 people to care for the needs of 130K plus or minus.

2. Staffing is a matter of priorities - perhaps there should be more in Planning, Zoning - if that is a priority, then cut something somewhere else that is a LESSOR priority. The days of being able to fund everything all the time are dead. There simply is not enough money.

3. Debt Service that saps more than 13% of the budget is gross, stupid and financially reckless. But that’s what it is. The warnings have been going out for years and it has fallen on closed ears in DeStefano/Smuts office and at the BOA.

4. The budget does need to be cut but it doesn’t need to be studied by the BOA. They don’t have the time, the intellect or the will to do that kind of exhaustive review. Some studies have been done, namely FRAC - the Financial Review and Audit Committee - and that study recommended among other things to stop building more schools; and close at least one fire house. Not one of the suggestions has been adopted.

5. Unless it is new construction, it is time to end the practice of worrying about parking spaces in order to open a new business. We have essentially a fully developed urban arena. Whatever parking we have is all we’re going to get unless something is built on an empty lot, or something is torn down at which time, you can add parking. To require it for a small restaurant/store as part of the permitting process seems rather silly. It’s not just State Street - it should be true all over the city including East Rock, home to the famous planning/zoning wars. The one exception should be an existing structure that is being converted to a totally different, commercial use.

posted by: anonymous on March 18, 2013  3:54pm

If New Haven really wants to create jobs, then our outdated parking requirements need to be eliminated entirely.  Nobody “owns” street parking spaces.  If more handicap spaces are needed, add them on the street. Or add diagonal back-in parking. We have tens of thousands of excess land area to park cars.

If people have to walk 1/16th of a mile to get to their restaurant or front door, and maybe a few times a year have to walk 1/8th of a mile, that’s a very good thing.  In cities around the world, people regularly walk for one or two miles to get to a restaurant. This should not even be a debate.

More walking means more businesses, jobs, and people on the street.  If people who drive a car do not like to walk a block or two every once in a while, then they have the choice of going to East Shore, Hamden, or West Haven.  Many people are too young, too old, or too poor to even have that choice.

Convenient parking might be a top priority for a McDonald’s next to I-95 - for a city like New Haven, I thought our Board of Aldermen was unanimous that our top priorities were
1. youth (who do not even drive, and who are much healthier and do better in school when they walk)
2. jobs (which are destroyed by parking requirements), and
3. public safety (which is affected when we can’t create jobs, due to parking requirements, and when nobody walks outside).

posted by: SB on March 20, 2013  1:00pm

I’m not necessarily pro-De Legna’s, just anti-bullying I suppose; and it does seem to be quite a coincidence that Chris Martin’s has been having escalating tensions with De Legna’s and then this comes out that there’s concern over parking. Apparently the petition was started by Christopher Martin’s and they would ask people sitting at the bar to sign it. Not exactly a genuine “neighborhood petition”. Also, some perspective, we’re talking about an eight-seat bar here. CM’s bar seats more than twice that. This sort of thing is quite common - an established business using local connections/hiring a lawyer to find some way to drive out/limit/harass their new competition. Often what’s found is something small (insufficient handicapped access, signage that’s too large/too small/too close to the street, fire codes, health codes) and then much is made about it in zoning meetings while the real intention is always to limit/push out competition.  The facts don’t look good. In this case, it appears that the established business (CM’s) began the ‘campaign’, and city hall responded by doing something highly irregular. I’ve also heard a lot of disturbing stories which suggest that this is about much more than parking - one of them being that CM’s hired a lawyer who has a close family member on the board, as well as a private investigator to look into De Legna’s owners. I’ve also heard that CM’s has been sending friends/supporters over to Da Legna to harass their staff, in one case this escalated into a fight apparently, after which one of Da Legna’s owners was arrested. I heard from another source that on a few occasions the owner and manager of CM’s have stood on the corner shouting and swearing and threatening saying “come out here you _____” sort of things, and also that a woman called Da Legna’s saying she was from Florida and wanted to book the entire restaurant for a number of people just beyond Da Legna’s license, then it turned out that woman was actually CMs and brought the contract to the board to prove that they were trying to have more people than they were allowed in the restaurant. It all has the appearance of something pretty unsavory that has nothing to do with parking or zoning and shows every sign of something that is quickly escalating and may continue to escalate into something even more ugly.

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