As Yale clears the way for a mammoth new $146 million School of Management building, attorneys for the university found themselves before a judge, still trying to prove that the bold glass and steel design fits in with the neighborhood.
The action unfolded in a fourth-floor courtroom in Superior Court on Church Street on Monday afternoon. At issue is the plan for a 219,000-square-foot new Whitney Avenue home for Yale’s School of Management (SOM). After months of hearings featuring the complaints of neighbors upset about the design, Yale won city approval in March to go ahead with the project. Workers have already demolished two buildings at the site (pictured) and are prepping to break ground on new construction.
But one neighbor hasn’t given up.
Joseph Tagliarini (pictured), who lives at 265 Bradley St., filed an appeal of the Board of Aldermen’s approval of the Planned Development District (PDD), the decision that opened the door for Yale’s new SOM building. He argues that the new building is too big and will “loom” over his property. His complaint, prepared by attorney Marjorie Shansky, argues that the PDD’s approval process was “arbitrary and illegal.”
Joseph Hammer, attorney for Yale, argues in his response to Tagliarini’s appeal that the procedure was perfectly legal and that Tagliarini is objecting simply because the planned building is not to his liking.
Those and other arguments were heard for over two hours on Monday by Judge Thomas Corradino, who did not make a ruling. He’s expected to do so after further briefs from both sides.
Tagliarini’s appeal centers on Yale’s new city-approved PDD, a zoning tool that allows for special localized changes to building restriction. With the approval of the Board of Aldermen, a developer can ask for a PDD in order to obtain permission to build something that otherwise would not have been allowed by local zoning.
The SOM PDD allows Yale to build a flashy new building designed by internationally known architect Lord Norman Foster. The building, which will be 300 feet long, has a unique architectural design that some have criticized as airport-like.
It’s a design whose mass and bulk are not in keeping with the context for which it’s planned, argued Marjorie Shansky, attorney for Tagliarini. The building does not fit with the city’s comprehensive plan, she said.
It could have been worse, responded Joseph Hammer (at left in photo), attorney for Yale University. Without having to ask for special permission, Yale could have built one or even two huge towers on the SOM property, he told the judge. He argued that the fact that something even bigger—or at least taller—could have been built there undermines the claim that the plan as it is doesn’t fit with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Yale could have built an 11-story, 138-foot tower, Hammer said. “Or you could have twin, 91-foot-tall, seven-story towers.” That building would have been even closer to Tagliarini’s house than the 53 feet the current plan calls for, he said. Yale could have built a four-story building that was just 22 feet from Tagliarini’s property, he said.
Hammer produced illustrations of each of these possibilities and handed them to the judge.
“If you could have had a seven- or eight- or 11-story tower, that speaks to the appropriateness of the PDD,” Hammer said. “It’s less mass, less close to the plaintiff than we could have done as of right.”
“These drawings are virtual red herrings,” Shansky (pictured) said. They only show how much worse Yale could have made it, she said. But that doesn’t show that the design is appropriate.
“This is about context, mass, scaling, and bulk,” Shansky said.
Hammer argued that the plans create benefit for the neighborhood by removing a surface parking lot and creating a pedestrian and bike path through the property.
Shansky replied that that path has been there for years and that other improvements could be made to go along with any design. “We’re not saying don’t build. We’re saying build appropriately.”
The debate later moved into the question of the approval process. Shansky argued that Yale has outsize influence over city planning. “We are a company town,” she said. “But shame on us” if we let Yale determine land use policy.
Hammer objected to the characterization. He said the city carefully reviewed the PDD.
“I think she’s saying it can’t be like a meeting of the politburo,” Judge Corradino said. Shansky later declined to agree with that characterization of her argument, but did not refute it.
In the hearing, Shansky did argue that the PDD was pushed through to approval very quickly. “There was a rush to get this done,” she said. “It was a foregone conclusion.”
“This is a willful imposition of a specific plan irrespective of ... the concerns of the neighborhood,” she said.
During closing statements, Shansky reiterated that the building is simply too large. At 300 feet long (Shansky spread her arms wide) and 64 feet tall (she put her arms in field goal position), “you’d have to go downtown to get this kind of scale.”
She objected to Yale’s characterization of her appeal as “subjective.” It is an an analysis of the law that shows that BOA had no basis for approving the PDD, she said. Further, the approval process was not properly conducted, she said.
“We continue to call out the process as eroding our confidence in the validity of the outcome,” she said. For instance, she said, when it wrote its advisory report, the City Plan Commission simply cut and pasted Yale’s description of the project. Then, when it came time for the Board of Aldermen to discuss the plan, very little time was devoted to addressing the building’s scale, mass, and context, Shansky said. Aldermen then “soft pedaled” on the PDD’s conditions of approval, making them recommendations instead, she said. “The city abnegated its control over this process.”
“To say that due consideration was not given is completely counter to the record,” Hammer responded. The plan went through “substantial redesign” as a result of City Plan Commission feedback, he said. Those changes created 11 feet more of space between the building and Tagliarini’s house, he said.
Hammer cited letters of support from a number of neighbors and “several well-regarded architects”
He closed by returning to the argument that the plan could have been much worse, by including blaring sirens and screaming ambulances, for instance. “You could have put a hospital in here,” he said. “That’s another benefit.”
Who’s Got This One?
The hearing closed with last-minute wrangling over the timeframe going forward.
Judge Corradino asked for briefs from each side. He proposed a due date of 30 days after transcripts from the day’s arguments were made available. Hammer asked that it be sooner. Demolition and construction are underway, he said. A drawn-out appeals process will delay the building schedule, he said.
“I’m charmed by the notion that construction proceeds” despite an appeal that could force Yale to cease building, Shansky responded. She asked for more time to draft a brief.
What about expediting the transcription service? Hammer asked.
Fine, if Yale will pay for it, Shansky said.
Judge Corradino suggested the plaintiff and defendant split the cost.
“No!” whispered Tagliarini’s wife, from the gallery.
After more discussion, the judge and the court reporter brokered a deal: The state will pay for expedited transcribing. The lawyers will pay for expedited copies. The briefs will be due 10 days after the lawyers receive their transcripts.
The judge declined to say when he would make a ruling.
“Whatever I do is going to be appealed,” he said.
“Next time, I want to see a little old lady who wants to put on a two-car garage,” Judge Corradino joked before adjourning the hearing.