We need people to build up downtown neighborhoods, so we need to change how a few zoning rules are written.
Two city officials took that pitch to two neighborhood meetings in advance of a looming showdown.
The officials, deputy zoning chief Tom Talbot and deputy economic development chief Tony Bialecki, have made that pitch twice in the past week at meetings of the Dwight and Downtown/Wooster Square neighborhood management teams.
They pitched a proposed change to rules for building in a “BD1” zone, areas like the Ninth Square and Chapel West where the city wants developers to build more “mixed-use” projects—i.e., apartments mixed with stores and/or offices in the same spot.
That proposal is scheduled to come before the City Plan Commission Wednesday night. Dwight neighbors plan to show up to oppose the idea. (Click here to read about that.)
Under current rules, someone building a combination of apartments and stores or offices in a BD1 zone has to include a big enough side yard and a big enough set-back from the street as someone building a purely residential project. Or else the builder has to go before the zoning board for special permission to do otherwise. The city, hoping to increase center-city density, wants to allow mixed-use projects to follow the less demanding side-yard and set-back requirements for purely commercial projects. It also wants to give builders of such projects permission to include more parking for compact cars, rather than larger vehicles, as part of the rule change. Click here to read the text of the amendments.
The debate pits the desire of city planners to attract denser downtown development against neighbors worried that the rule change will enable developers to destroy the residential and architectural character of historic districts.
The faceoff expected for Wednesday night was in full evidence Monday night when Talbot and Bialecki brought their road show to the regular monthly meeting of the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team at the Bourse, the co-working space above the English Market on Chapel Street.
“It makes no sense to enact zoning and then require an applicant to go to the BZA [Board of Zoning Appeals] and need variances,” said Talbot.
Bialecki stressed that the city is not considering creating new BD-1 zones. He characterized the new proposal as a clean-up of language so that a mixed-use developer will have a clearer path to approval.
As they spoke to some 30 people gathered around the long and elegant table at the Bourse, some made clear they consider the proposed removal of hoops for BD-1 developers—including the requirements for variances for set backs and side-yard space, open space, and parking—- a sop to developers at historic neighbors’ expense.
“Our concern is if you’re a developer, if there’s one person who wants to hold it [a project] up, they can,” said Bialecki.
He was referring to the not-so-invisible elephant in the room: developer Randy Salvatore’s proposed 53,000 square foot, five-story, 136-unit building at the corner of Chapel and Howe streets. That site sites in the middle of a BD-1 zone that also happens to include a sliver of homes in the historic Dwight neighborhood.
When the Board of Zoning Appeals approved azoning variances for Salvatore, preservationists cried foul. They recently also formed Friends of Dwight Street Historic District, a new group to question the zoning language proposed and also to call for the elimination of historic Dwight structures from the Chapel West BD-1 zone area.
A co-owner of the abutting 70 Howe St., Susan Bradford, is contesting the BZA ruling in court.
New Haven Urban Design League’s Anstress Farwell told Talbot and Bialecki Monday night that other abutting property owners are also contemplating lawsuits.
Residential zoning requirements have meandered into the current BD-1 and now hinder developers and the city, Bialecki said.
To make his point Bialecki held up a photograph of the now vacant lot on the Kresge/Grant block on Chapel between Orange and Church. A building burned down there in 2007 . That has created a prime opportunity to rebuild—in a BD-1 zone.
If a developer comes in to erect a strictly commercial building, no problem. But if it includes any residential units, that building is subject, in the current BD-1 language, to meet the tough standards in terms of space, light, and set-back of a stand-alone house.
That is why Salvatore had to get ten variances and prove a hardship for his Chapel West project. If he were building a strictly commercial building, he’d have not been required to even go before the BZA. But the standards he had to have waived for the residential component are no longer applicable in the city’s new denser BD-1 thinking, officials argued.
Farwell diplomatically counter-punched: Maybe the sliver of historic homes in the Dwight area BD-1 should not have been included in the BD-1 zone.
Talbot reiterated that the language changes proposed are narrow and specific. He suggested that any changes in BD-1 zones should be pursued separately.
Bialecki maintained that the BD-1 mapping was initiated in part by Chapel West Special Services District and was in play well before Salvatore’s proposal.
“The intent of BD-1 makes sense,” Farwell came back, for deep in the heart of downtown but for not all the nearby areas such as Dwight (which intersects with Chapel West), Farwell responded..
Then she added: “Even with your language amendments, your first floor [is] devoted to parking. No eyes on the street. BD-1 has to say the first floor needs an active use, not parking.”
Wednesday’s City Plan Commission meeting begins at 6 p.m. The public hearing on the zoning ordinance text amendment for BD-1 districts is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.