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Zoners Want More Answers From Furniture Giant
by Gilad Edelman | Oct 9, 2013 7:15 am
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Long Wharf, The Hill
It might have trapezes or trampolines. Or a bowling alley. Or a Bose shop. Or fine dining or a Fuddruckers. Or it might never get built.
Eliot Tatelman learned Tuesday night that if he wants city permission to open one of his furniture mega-stores inside the Register building on Long Wharf, his plans will need to get more specific.
That was the upshot of a public hearing held by the Board of Zoning Appeals.
The board, meeting in the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St., considered a proposal to open a 200,000 square-foot Jordan’s Furniture store at 40 Sargent Drive, in what is currently the New Haven Register building. The paper plans to move its shrunken staff downtown. (Click here and here to read more about the Register’s efforts to sell the building.)
Asked to provide more details about the store’s plans, Avallone told zoners “that’s not how the world works.”
After a long presentation by company representatives and comments by concerned neighbors Tuesday night, the board voted to continue the public hearing next month before taking action.
The applicants sought a number of special exceptions, including for more signage and less parking than ordinarily allowed. But it was the permissions for in-store entertainment that drew the most skepticism.
According to the meeting agenda, the proposal asked for special exceptions “to allow a restaurant or other establishment selling alcoholic beverages for consumption on or off premise including entertainment thereto including operation until 2:00 a.m.”
That was a sticking point for neighbors who came to speak about the proposal. Angela Hatley (pictured at the top of the story), a member of the Hill South Management Team, said she had supported the proposal when Tatelman pitched it as “family-oriented” at an earlier meeting with her group. Now she was incredulous at the prospect of the store selling alcohol until 2 a.m.
“That sounds like a nightclub,” she said, summing up much of the opposition. “We would like assurances that this will not happen.”
Neighborhood Alderwoman Dolores Colón said that while the store has the potential to bring new jobs and tax revenue to her ward, she worries about “something open till 2 in the morning after people are liquored up.”
In response, Tatelman (pictured) and attorney Avallone stressed that they have no intention of installing a bar or keeping the business open so late. The liquor license, they said, was necessary to attract desirable restaurant tenants—not to open a bar or nightclub.
“Who wants to buy furniture in an environment like that?” said Tatelman. “Trust me, I don’t want it more than you don’t want it. We’re not selling furniture at two in the morning.”
Avallone said that the 2 a.m. language was included merely to match city liquor license ordinances. He suggested that the proposal be modified to include an earlier closing time as a condition of approval.
A potentially more intractable problem is what members of the board saw as the vagueness of the proposal, which calls for permissions for “an assembly hall, bowling alley, indoor amusement center, dance hall, game rooms, trampoline center, fairs and carnivals.”
As part of an hourlong Powerpoint presentation, Tatelman, the company president and son of the founder (Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought the company in 1999), tried to explain what all that had to do with a furniture store. Clicking through slides with images of other Jordan’s locations, he emphasized, in language that echoed an IKEA or Stew Leonard’s marketing campaign, what he called his Massachusetts-based company’s unique business model: “We’re not just a store. We’re an experience.”
In addition to retail and dining tenants, the stores contain elaborate entertainment attractions: IMAX theaters, trapeze lessons, motion simulators, a model of Boston made of jellybeans. As he introduced one fanciful diversion after another, Tatelman pounded home like a preacher the theme that the stores’ “fun and entertainment brings people from all over.”
The display of variety may have only increased the board’s concern over the vagueness of the proposal.
“What you’re asking for is an approval for all the possible things that you might want,” said board chair Pat King (pictured). “You’re asking us to approve something we don’t know the details about.”
Tatelman acknowledged that the proposal lacked details. He argued that providing such details would be impossible at this stage because potential tenants won’t sign on to the project before it receives permission.
Avallone, who said the project would cost more than $15 million, conceded that in a perfect world, he would be able to tell the board exactly what would go into the store. “But that’s not how the world works,” he said. The most they could offer was a general sense of the types of retail and entertainment that might end up in the new store, based on the existing locations.
Thomas Talbot, deputy director of zoning, told the board that without more specific details, “I don’t think you have the authority to approve this.” Moreover, he pointed out, the special exceptions attach to the land, not the tenant.
“It’s not just about this applicant,” he said. If a liquor license is approved, any future tenant will be able to use it without going through the zoning board.
“That’s just not acceptable,” he said.
The board ultimately voted to keep the public hearing open, delaying referral to the City Plan Commission for another month. King said she hopes that would be enough time for the applicants and community members to “iron things out.”
In the meantime, Tatelman exhorted the people at the meeting to visit his other store locations, confident that that would convince them to welcome a New Haven outpost. “Please, I will send buses if you want,” he said. “Call anyone you know in Massachusetts.”
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Seems like “politically connected lawyer Anthony Avallone” is on a bit of a losing streak. Perhaps the NHI should stop accusing him of having so many (apparently useless) political connections.
How could a hybrid retail/restaurant possibly be more noisy than printing presses and trucks all night long?
The city will never get a business in this otherwise banal property using antique classifications of useage. They should establish whatever goals the neighbors want to achieve and if they’re reasonable, put it in an agreement with teeth (and caveat language that limits the open endedness of the agreement…knowing that Tony Avallone is clearly concealing something that he considers an advantage.)
I’ve been in the Jordan’s in Massachusetts just to see the water fountain display and grab ice cream with the kids. It’s a family-oriented place. Tatelman should take some video and post it and show it to the BZA. It might be cool to have one in New Haven if they follow the same plan here.
Pushback is good though! More big box is not automatically great. Jordan’s will be a mall, but maybe that’s OK where the Long Wharf industrial section already is? Hold off on the liquor license and make Outback or whomever apply separately? It would also be awful if the signage could be seen from space, etc.
Maybe push for a more bus service to the area? That would help the theatre and IKEA too.
Looking at their website, it actually sounds pretty cool.
Having condescending, defensive Avallone might not have been the best strategy to get approval.
To the editors, please stop editorializing about people’s status. Mr. Avallone is an attorney, former member of the board of alderman, etc. Mr. Bass is also politically connected, but I’m assuming he would not describe himself as such in an article but would be much more precise with his words. It would only be fair that others be treated similarly.
With regards to Jordans, the BZA is on the wrong side of this. There should be a requirement that diligence be performed on their part. If they are worried about a night club or drinks past closing, merely write that into the variance. Otherwise, you’ve got a tax payer and job creator, who has a steady business record you can track, ready to come in. This is similar to the difficulties 7-Eleven had obtaining zoning approval on upper Whalley. I don’t think they understand how much this turns businesses off to New Haven.
OMG the local government of New Haven never ceases to amaze me.
I would put good money down on the fact that NONE of these people have visited a Jordan’s in their life.
They have a proven track record of success in other cities, and are a regional draw. They create jobs and increase the tax base. What is the problem!?
I guess an empty, languishing building is a better impression for people who drive by on 95. That’s cool, they can all just stop in Milford and Orange for furniture - New Haven doesn’t want your business.
Aren’t entertainment venues some of the largest draws for outside tax dollars being spent in New Haven? Why wouldn’t we want to be identified as a furniture center, with Jordan’s and IKEA side by side? Why is everyone paranoid about someone being able to get a drink or watch a move or bowl at night in a commercial strip along an interstate highway? Do we actually prefer an empty hulk of a building sitting on valuable real estate? Surely there can be some moderating language inserted here and there to alleviate any legitimate concerns (perhaps limit the liquor license to the current owner of the property, not to the property itself) and then hurry up and get this store/fun zone built and opened!
PH - also, they have a REAL IMAX screen. The huge ones that draw people from large radiuses, not the slightly bigger screens featured in Danbury and Milford. Which are good, but not like the mega screens. How on earth is that a bad thing for New Haven?
posted by: nhiog on October 11, 2013 8:07am
Dear NHI, do not editorialize on the character of people you know little to nothing about.
Mr. Avallone is a good man. He has lived in Westville as long as I can remember.
If anything this article points out the how badly NHI like to editorialize, bordering on slander.
This article just points out how ridiculous the zoning board are being.
This is why progress in NH lags behind the minds of its citizens. Why does the NHI always look for villains, where there are none?
Mr. Talbot is absolutely correct. When asking for relief the burden is on the applicant to demonstrate it’s needed for the proposed use. A vague laundry list of possible uses isn’t good enough to grant zoning relief.
The BZA is the wrong venue float a general mall-like business. Zoning relief is specific, a proposed use tied to a specific regulation that needs to be varied. A blanket variance for unspecified uses doesn’t tie a particular use to a regulation. The BZA would be wise to hold off until the applicant figures out what they want to do besides selling furniture.
Maybe the right to path to take to develop a mall-like building with a variety of uses would be a PDD, if the site is large enough.
It is great that my neighbors in the Hill came out to this BZA meeting to question the request for special exception to serve alcohol. This was not in the presentation that Mr. Tatelman made to our community management team when he came to ask our support for this family friendly store. Either it was conveniently forgotten or intentionally left out, because we certainly would have questioned the need to have a liquor license at this venue. If it is not their intention to host a business that offers alcohol after 2pm, then why apply? This is a question that deserves an answer. Thanks BZA for not letting this slide.