Head Down To Kresge’s—To Park
by Melissa Bailey | Sep 22, 2009 3:07 pm
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Downtown
Nearly two years after a fire ravaged a downtown block, the site has reopened as a parking lot.
Developer Paul Denz claimed the Kresge Interim Parking Lot (pictured), which opened Friday, is supposed to be a temporary fix while he crafts plans for offices, apartments, and stores.
But “that parking lot could stay there forever,” he said, depending on the outcome of a legal battle with the city.
The lot sits on the ashes of a December 2007 fire that ate through what is known as the Kresge/Grant block, bordered by Chapel, Orange, Center and Church Streets. Over 4,000 square feet of prime retail space has sat unused since it was damaged in the historic blaze.
The parking lot, which accommodates 50 cars, “is not the highest and best use for the property,” acknowledged Denz. “We put it in there while we were trying to get through this legal morass.”
Denz, of Northside Development, owns several properties that were damaged in the fire. He is in the midst of a court battle with the city over the decision to demolish his buildings after the fire and leave him with the bill.
Meanwhile, he’s moving forward with what he describes as a temporary solution.
Denz got city zoning approval in May for a plan to fix up 91 Church St. and use 834-846 Chapel St. as an “interim parking lot.”
The parking lot space used to hold four retail stores and the Brass Monkey bar, where the fire began. The buildings were the former Kresge and Grant department stores.
The former New Haven Variety Store at 91 Church St., was left standing after the fire but had serious water damage.
Just how damaged is a point of legal dispute. Denz contended the building could have been saved. The city said the building was structurally unsound: It knocked down the back half but preserved the historic Kresge department building facade (pictured).
“It was part of the over-zealousness of the city,” said Denz. “They ripped off the back of it and left it half-demolished.”
Denz got zoning approval to do what he calls a “historic rehabilitation” at 91 Church St. with four luxury apartments on the second and third floors and retail and space on the ground floor. He got zoning relief to address the parking situation — four parking spots in the temporary lot will be reserved for residents. Denz hired Mathews Architects and Red Rooster Construction to undertake the project. He’s looking for a business to move in.
Denz said he’s spent $30,000 out of pocket to clear out 91 Church St. He removed rubble, shelves, the variety store sign and a drop ceiling.
The view from the rear (pictured) reveals a gaping hole framed by jagged brick walls. Brooms could be seen stacked against the wall next to a freshly swept floor.
“I’m ready to go,” Denz said.
However, he said, the next phase of the project has been delayed indefinitely. Denz said he secured a bank loan for the project, but in order to access that loan, he needs relief from a $1.85 million lien the city has placed on the property. He said he has $1.85 million held in escrow to pay for that demolition, but the city won’t drop the lien.
“I’d like to start immediately,” he said, “but the lawsuit has been preventing the construction there.”
Denz said he was optimistic about working out a deal with the city about his lawsuit — until a couple weeks ago, when negotiations “fell apart.” He said the sticking point was “personalities.”
“As as of today, negotiations seem to be off,” he said Tuesday.
Mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga declined to comment on the status of the negotiations, except to say that any further talks “must provide a mechanism for the city to be made whole” for $1.9 million in demolition costs.
“The city does not make decisions on the disposition of real property or resolving legal disputes based on ‘personalities,’” she added, “but rather what is in the best interests of the city.”
Denz said he expects his civil suit to wend its way toward a trial. The case could take another year and a half, he predicted.
Nothing will rise on the parking lot until the lawsuit’s settled, Denz said. He said he’d like to see a mixed-use development there with offices, retail, and apartments. But as he locks horns with the city in a legal battle, he claimed the city is not cooperating in helping him draft plans.
“That parking lot could stay there forever,” he said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t.”
The parking lot was rolled last week and on Monday hosted a handful of cars. Express Parking LLC is managing the lot. A chain-link fence surrounds the property and a toll booth sits at the front, advertising hourly, daily, weekly and monthly rates. Pedestrians can now pass through the space, which has been cordoned off ever since the fire.
“You can walk through here?” asked a cautious pedestrian, heading across the lot toward the bus stop Monday afternoon. “I didn’t know that.”
The parking lot is lined by two walls. One bears graffiti. The other is bright with white mortar oozing out between bricks.
One corner of the lot (pictured) remains fenced off. That space held the former Spector building, once home to the Hahn family jewelry store. The city razed that building after the fire, too, deeming it structurally unsafe. The Hahns were devastated — they didn’t have insurance on the family business at 848 Chapel St.
Like Denz, Shang-Jin Hahn sued the city for tearing her building down without giving her enough time to save it. The city settled the suit: It bought the property for $700,000 and waived $500,000 in demolition costs, for a total of $1.2 million.
In exchange, Hahn dropped the suit and the city took ownership of the modest, 3,128-square-foot lot. Now weeds grow there. The city is hanging on to it, presumably as leverage in negotiations with Denz: Any large-scale development would require the use of that lot.
“The city has not yet decided on a plan for the use of that property,” said Mayorga.
Reached Monday, Hahn said she has put to rest any aspirations of finding another place to run the family business.
“I’m retired,” she said. “I’m almost 80 years, you know.”
In a recession, she added, a jewelry store is “not a promising business.”
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This site could easily be converted into a permanent street connecting Chapel, Crown, and George using the existing parking lots and alleyways. It would be the best new street in New Haven in over 100 years. Let’s call it DeStefano Street.
Unfortunately, the current configuration of the blocks makes them very poor for development, because space at the block interior is inaccessible to daylight. Add a public way through these empty lots, and real estate values jump through the roof because of the increased window frontage per SF.
New Haven used to have a lot of smaller blocks like this, but urban “renewal” tore many of them out.
I would like to see a couple schemes that explore putting a street through from Chapel to Center (and possibly to Crown or even George) as well as a scheme that fills in the existing blocks with diverse buildings that don’t exceed 7 stories. It is essential that none of the lots are combined into mega lots, because as anyone can observe, the developments that have come from grouping lots together have been awful.
The street idea is interesting because it allows for the opportunity to frame the beautiful buildings on Chapel across from the new parking lot and provide a view that wasn’t previously possible and isn’t ruined by asphalt and cars.
I worry that a street might limit the square footage that is able to be built on due to the width of the road with parking and a sidewalk. So the street would have to be on grade and paved for use of only pedestrians.
I think the street cut through would be very difficult to do, but I would also like to see what people come up with because it is not impossible to successfully complete.
I like this new street idea a lot, but what if it was just a one-lane, one-way, with a bike lane, and a big, wide open ped walkway to connect the two blocks? If it were well-kept and well-used, it wouldn’t deteriorate into a dark alley. Maybe a public artspace, an outdoor kiosk/cafe….
Please remove the weeds, litter and graffiti from that city-owned lot.
If the city is going to own it, they need to maintain it in a suitable manner.