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Dwight Street’s “Friends” Fight Back
by Allan Appel | Jan 8, 2013 11:04 am
An epidemic of cheap vinyl siding. A loss of historic houses. Too-tall boxy buildings that threaten their “funky” and diverse walking neighborhood.
Some property owners in the Dwight neighborhood say they’ve seen enough of those perils. So they’ve banded together.
The neighbors have formed a group called Friends of the Dwight Street Historic District to put some muscle behind efforts for neighborhood preservation.
The first presentation of the new group and its proposals will come Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Dwight Central Management Team meeting at Amistad Academy.
Founders include local realtor and preservationist Olivia Marston, Edgewood Avenue homeowner Victoria Vebell, and Susan Bradford, co-owner of 70 Howe St. That building is cheek by jowl with a planned 136-unit, 53,000 square foot, six-story-high proposed project for the corner of Chapel and Howe, which recently received its zoning variance approvals. It got those approvals despite a threatened lawsuit by Susan Bradford and potentially other neighbors.
The new group has already identified one of its first battles: to fight new zoning language city officials are proposing that could make it easier for Salvatore-type developments to occur in the future.
On an icy cold morning Marston and Vebell took the Independent on a tour of the neighborhood federal historic district, which stretches roughly from Park to Sherman and Elm to North Frontage, to show what they’re trying to preserve.
Marston conceded that a federal historic district (as opposed to local historic district like Wooster Square or City Point) offers preservationists few legal protections, the main one being if the developer is under contract with the federal government.
So the group wants to rely on powers of persuasion, Marston said.
Click here, here, and here to read about the Salvatore plan, the alleged parking hassles that greater density will cause, Salvatore’s support from parts of the community, and opposition by other residents.
Downtown Density vs. Dwight’s Demeanor
The Friends’ first battle comes triggered by city zoners granting Salvatore’s variances. The Friends plan to protest new language city officials plan to propose later this month at the City Plan Commission meeting to remove current requirements from a BD-1 zone, requirements the group considers protections for the neighborhood’s character.
Those protections include requirements for minimum lot coverage, open space, and front yards.
The original BD-1 or general business/residential zone was created in 1988 in connection with the Ninth Square to ease the conversion of historic downtown properties. A spate of text amendments was approved both by City Plan commissioners and aldermen in June 2011.
The Friends are concerned the new batch of amendments about to go before City Plan. Click here to read the text of the amendments.
City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg argued the language changes are in keeping with the city’s comprehensive plan encouraging high-density, mixed use development downtown.
In a Dec. 7 letter to the Board of Alderman, Gilvarg wrote that through the proposed new language she aims “to clarify bulk, yard, and other requirements for residential construction, to provide open and common space space requirements for residential and mixed use buildings ... and to permit compact car parking space, and to clarify that mixed-used buildings are permitted use in general business/residential BD-1 zone.” (Click here to read the letter.)
In view of the Friends, this means that future developers in a BD-1 zone, which covers portions of the Dwight Street Historic District would not even need to seek variances and exceptions, as Salvatore has had to. They would be able to build “as of right.”
First Stop: Across From Rudy’s
Vebell and her cousin were having lunch at Rudy’s recently when her cousin pointed to two historic buildings, an apartment house and business all in a line at the southeast corner of Chapel and Howe. “How funky, cool, and interesting,” her cousin said.
Next stop: the corner of Garden Street and Edgewood, where Community Builders has owned and operated several houses since 1995 as past of the sprawling federally-subsidized Kensingston Square complex.
In the beginning, the national company maintained the buildings with historical integrity, choosing appropriate paint and colors, for example, Marston said.
“They kept the integrity for the first ten years but in the last five or ten, they didn’t paint, they covered up with vinyl siding.”
“And they did a shoddy job because it was just economically [not historically] driven,” Vebell added. (City officials agree, and have been pressuring the landlord to do better.)
“This is not just [about] the corner of Chapel and Howe,” said Bradford.
She said the group formed “because we have great pride of ownership and that’s based on their [our buildings’] historical value as well as their real estate. The Salvatore project brought us together.”
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The 2007 Dwight Neighborhood Plan, which was created by hundreds of residents, has some great guidance for what can be done in this area.
When vinyl siding burns it turns in to dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances on earth. It should be banned in New Haven.
Vinyl siding is evil: it looks terrible, causes house to rot, and is a huge fire hazard.
My house had some vinyl (covering the clapboards, but not the shingles). One of my first projects was to tear it off. There was significant rot in at least two locations.
Just as involved was fixing the trim that was mauled by the installation process.
A neighbor down the street had a house fire, and her next door neighbor’s vinyl siding melted and burned.
As a NYFD fire investigator told me, “Fires today are ten times hotter, and infinitely more toxic.”
I should like to see a building code that interdicted vinyl siding.
Yes. We could ban it for the purposes of safety through building code or we could ban it for the purposes of aesthetics through zoning regulations.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 8, 2013 2:16pm
According to Alison Gilchrist and John Herzan, authors of the 1982 Dwight Street Historic District National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination, “in the Dwight Street Historic District a contributing structure is one whose scale, proportions and materials are considered to be visually harmonious with the 19th-and early 20th-century character of the area. While this overall character is defined largely by intact rows of 19th-century, two-and three-story frame or brick dwellings, structures of other types which have historical associations with that housing stock, such as apartment buildings, schools, churches, and industrial buildings, are also considered to contribute.” (p. 5)
In my opinion, when it comes to the lot at the corner of Howe and Chapel Streets, any new development should reflect the high density, mixed-use character of the context. A 5-6 story apartment building with ground level retail makes sense in relation to existing conditions on both Chapel and Howe Streets. However, where the current proposal for this lot fails is in its treatment of existing, contributing historic houses on Chapel Street, and use of inappropriate cladding materials. Ideally, a new development would retain the existing houses, provide a better solution to the issue of scale differential than a building like Hendrie Hall does, use natural cladding materials like stone (or cast concrete) and brick to relate to the eclectic architecture that surrounds this lot.
This is one of the few lots in the West Village that can support a building of that scale, however, so I am in agreement with most of what Victoria and Olivia are calling for.
If the RMS design is built, it will be the signal to cheap development that New Haven does not value its historic character, nor the impact on its residential neighborhoods.
Goths and Vandals, Welcome!
That would be a good sign for Chapel West to hang in a prominent part of the district. Have its members forgotten that the neighbors blocked the use of eminent domain that would have destroyed numerous businesses just a few years ago?
Do we really want New Haven to look like Stamford????
posted by: Anstress Farwell on January 8, 2013 6:46pm
For more information on vinyl siding, and what other communities are doing to eliminate it, see:
See the trailer for the movie, Blue Vinyl at:
Another good website:
Well said Jonathan Hopkins and Dwightstreeter. New Haven more like Stamford? Thank you, NO!
Wooster Square, East Rock - you could be next.
There is a public hearing at City Hall on the 16th on changes to the BD-1 zone (business district) to eliminate protections for residential and historic districts.
There will NO longer be a need for variances. Developers will build whatever they want “as of right”.
There goes the neighborhood!
Dwightstreeter- you are a little off the mark on your statement regarding variances-
This zoning currently allows commercial, nonresidential properties with no variances.
The building on the corner of Dwight and Chapel could have been a commercial tower, and ground would have been broken already.
Because of the peculiarities of BD-1 and how it has been interpreted, mixed use and residential properties have apparently been left out of this. The proposed changes clarify that the same density and setback requirements for commercial properties could also apply for other uses.
I personally believe that a mixed use apartment building is a totally appropriate use for that block. Right across the street is the Yale parking garage that went up with little or no debate several years ago making that part of Dwight street a continuous strip of potential retail for almost 2 blocks on both sides.
This zoning intent has been in existence since 1988 with broad support from the community, the board of alderman and many others.
The article correctly points out that preservation protection for existing historic structures is very limited in federal historic districts. Most people likely don’t understand only a few small blocks of city buildings are covered by any comprehensive protection. about 95% of New Haven could be demolished as of right with only a 90 day delay of demolition protecting them.
Even IF a local historic district were in effect in this area, the Salvatore development almost certainly would proceed. There is much latitude given to new buildings in historic districts. The major criteria would be that the new building would fit into the character of the existing district.
While some design and architectural changes might be mandated before obtaining a certificate of appropriateness, the fact that the predominant structurs of these two blocks of Dwight Street consist of large, dense apartment buildings, renders moot any issue regarding appropriate use of the site.
Let me be clear- I am all for getting community input for new projects in local neighborhoods, and I am certainly all for expanding preservation protections.
I am not for killing projects projects based on inaccurate readings of zoning law.
I’m the president of the New Haven Preservation Trust, and on the Economic Development Commission, but am speaking for myself on this,
I thought I should point out that the Zoning Appeal against the 9 variances and special exception granted to RMS on the corner of Chapel and Howe is not “threatened” - it is a reality. I know this because I am a member of the Plaintiff, 70 Howe Street LLC.
I also wanted to say that the petition to amend BD-1 text to remove all residential protections is intended to scuttle our Appeal. RMS has from the start, openly indicated their intent to petition the city to change the law for this purpose if an Appeal was filed. Should they succeed, RMS will withdraw their present application - make our Appeal moot - and re-file a new application without any need to go for any zoning variances or special exception of any kind.
BD-1 text as it stands, is too broad. It does need amendment – but not this amendment. BD-1 needs an entire re-write to achieve consistent standards and limits with residential and historic structure and character protections. If you share this view, please support the opposition by letter or attendance at the January 16th City Plan Public Hearing.
We are in favor of Economic Development but not at the expense of the historic neighborhoods,
if you look at the drawing of RMS they clearly encroach on the back yards of the Dwight St. Residences. What if you had a 5.5 story building in your back yard. This new B-D 1 Zone change would eliminate any say for residents and owners that live in RH-2 or RM2 zones. This is similar what the are doing on Exchange St. city plan wants to change to Zone to suit the needs of the developer C-Town. They are tearing down 2 historic houses on Exchange St. A broad stroke of a zone change is unacceptable to the downtown residents. Issues such as light and air, setbacks in backyard and side-yards are important to make New Haven more livable.
Could opponents post a link to a marked up zoning map showing just how many places in town this would affect? A picture speaks a thousand words.
As President of the New Haven Preservation Trust and member of the Economic Development Commission which administers decisions for eminent domain and taking of property. He should recuse himself when historic properties are at stake. He cannot properly represent both. Does anyone see any conflict of interest in that? He should resign one of his seats.
robn: There are 4 BD-1 Districts, three are in the Central Business District and one in the Chapel West Commercial District around Chapel/Howe Streets. The proposed amendments do not change these existing four districts nor does it add any districts. The amendments are to the “text” of the zoning ordinance only. The zoning map is available on the City Plan web site. I will forward a map highlighting the BD-1 districts to the Independent.
When Steven Spielberg was scouting locations for his movie “Amistad”, he rejected New Haven (the location of the original events) in favor of Newport RI, Boston MA, and Mystic, CT. New Haven’s stock of period architecture was not dense enough to qualify as a realistic background for the film. What does that tell us?
Sadly, New Haven has a history of turning its back on its heritage in order to “develop” its economy. Nevertheless, it has not yet sunk to the level of Stamford. Let’s hope it never does.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 9, 2013 7:50pm
Here’s the location of the BD-1 Zones in the city that would be affected by the proposed zone changes:
This is an interesting area that probably isn’t done justice by the city’s current zoning ordinance. Chapel West functions both as the mixed-use commercial center for the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood as well as an extension of the Downtown. In order to best deal with unique areas like this, we will likely need to develop new zoning regulations that are tailor-made for each neighborhood/district in the city. So for instance, Chapel West, which is part of the West Village, requires different treatment than the Ninth Square which is the commercial core of the city.
Olivia Martson has 2 maps that are even more informative: the zoning map from 20 years ago that shows a coherent plan with separation of residential and commercial areas and the one from today showing a crazy quilt of zones - a true testimony to what is going on.
Do not mistake Ninth Square for the Dwight neighborhood or any other residential area. Ninth Square was about adaptive reuse. The threats to Dwight are about land grabs to benefit a private developer and consolidate government power to avoid challenges.
What do you want to bet that the land at Route 34 is next.
I think Jonathan has touched upon something interesting by suggesting that the zoning be tailor-made.
As Jonathan and others know the Transect Zoning model has two general approaches; area wide zoning wherein a given area is assigned a Transect, such as T-4 (General Neighborhood) or T-5 (downtown), and frontage zoning wherein areas areas are zoned street by street, even lot by lot: In effect, micro-zoning.
I’m not convinced that micro-zoning is the way to go because I think it locks an area into a narrow set of rules that may be too inflexible over time. Area wide zoning with a more flexible form may be the better approach to accommodate change over time.
As to the BD-1 text change, I think it heads in the right direction. There should only be one set of yard, building and parking requirements. Looking back and forth in the regulations to find the right standard for a particular use invites error (and quite frankly is nuts).
But the City should be aware that RH-2 uses are allowed by right in the BD-1. The RH-2 permits single and two family dwellings by right; a vestige pyramid-type zoning; a scheme that permits a more restricted zone classification (single family dwelling) in a less restricted zone (business and multi-family). It was popular back in the rotary dial and mimeograph days. It should be retired.
Little tweaks here and there don’t serve the long-term interests of the city. My unsolicited advice would be to hire a progressive zoning consultant (Victor Dover comes to mind) to re-write the development rules.