A city developer plans to create a mini-neighborhood of middle-income apartments and local stores done in the architectural style of the historical oystering village along the East Grand Avenue side of the Quinnipiac River — an idea a previous builder tried and failed to carry out.
The builders, Juan Salas-Romer and Noel Petra of NHR Group, are calling their project “Heights on the River.” They hope to renovate three existing buildings and construct a fourth to include 68 apartments, a cafe, two or three locally owned stores. All, they said, with breathtaking views of the sunset on the water.
The builders are taking a second crack at a dream hatched years ago by developer Joel Schiavone and his partners. Schiavone hoped to capitalize on the gorgeous riverine views on a 1.08-acre site running on East Grand Avenue from the eastern end of the bridge and wrapping around north on Quinnipiac Avenue up to the little convenience store. The project never materialized.
Salas-Romer and Petra said their market research tells them to aim their development for the middle-class folks — teachers, policemen, other city workers — increasingly coming to live in adjacent Fair Haven Heights, working people earning from $40,000 to $75,000. Roughly a quarter of the city’s wage earners fall into that income bracket, Salas-Romer said. He has developed projects elsewhere in town aimed at the same market.
The builders expect the apartments to be market rate, with studios, one and two bedrooms, and some of the two bedrooms having perhaps a kind of extra loft or office area. They estimate a total of 3,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. But the project is now in its beginning planning stages, so those are all estimates.
“The scope of this project is to redevelop and reposition the existing three buildings and construct a new multifamily apartment building bordering East Grand Avenue and the Quinnipiac River. The new building will ... integrate with the historic architectural vernacular while providing contemporary internal amenities such as a resident lounge and fitness center, an onsite restaurant and outdoor cafe, and on-site management offices. The existing retail units will be renovated and upgraded,” reads the executive summary of a formal write-up NHR has prepared for the project.
Salas-Romer said people in the neighborhood have delivered a clear retail message: “We want coffee.”
Petra was at pains to point out that the cafe purveyor might have a catering business on the side as well, because there is not — at least not so far— much foot traffic in the area except perhaps on weekends.
The plan is to retain the fine pile of bricks in which Grand Vin is located, to have that neighborhood anchor continue to prosper. The developers said they also hope to work with Ziggy’s, the pizza establishment on the northwest corner, and with the small grocery store on Quinnipiac Avenue, so those establishments might continue to be part of the project as it emerges.
Petra and Salas-Romer said they see opportunity in providing “occupational housing” or “workforce housing” for the middle market in a city with a high percentage of subsidized housing as well as a bevy of new upscale developments.
“We really want teachers,” Petra said during an interview in the NHR offices in the historic Palladium Building on Orange Street, which the company owns. NHR manages about 300 units in scores of buildings citywide. “The Heights on the River” will be its first project in an historic district.
Salas-Romer said he sees the development as a commercial and residential entryway to Fair Haven Heights, the way Westville Village is for Westville.
Although the project is a first for the company in an historic district, NHR has already demonstrated an interest in repurposing and preserving the buildings of the past, such as the 1855 Palladium building. Of course, they must take that into consideration when building in the Quinnipiac Historic District.
They’ve already had one appearance before the Historic District Commission in pursuit of a certificate of appropriateness required for the project. They have hired Fair Haven-based Patriquin Architects to prepare the plans.
After studying photographs of the area — in the late 19th century both sides of the bridge were chockablock with stores — architect Karin Patriquin has come up with a design that “echoes an historic street front, what architects call a ‘design intent’ or spirit,” said Petra.
The HDC asked the builders at the first meeting to come back with more detail. The design has to be historically appropriate, but the new also has to announce itself or be tastefully differentiated from the old, Salas-Romer said. He next appears before the commission this coming week.
NHR has owned the property for about two and a half years. The sale came about after Salas-Romer, a graduate of Babson College in Boston, ran into Carl Youngman, a teacher there. He discovered Youngman was the partner of Joel Schiavone in the Quinnipiac River district project. NHR bought the property and kept on Youngman as a partner, though NHR will take care of the design, construction, and future management.
For the past two years, in preparation, NHR has upgraded the apartments above Grand Vin, fixed roofs, added lighting, and maintained the property in the run-up to taking on the bigger development.
Salas-Romer said he has observed a general renewal of interest in the river and harbor as a place of use and destination. He pointed to the future activities for the Canal Dock Boathouse that might include paddlers or pleasure boaters traveling up river. Perhaps they’ll see the Heights on the River, or its cafe, as a place to stop for a java and some rest.
Petra said the team has received positive initial reaction from potential funders for the project, which he said does not yet have a pricetag.
In addition to private equity, financing may include partnership with groups in the city — for-profit and not-for profit —interested in helping to keep teachers, police officers, and other middle income professionals around, he and Salas-Romer said. They provided no further details.
“Part of our business model is community outreach [and stabilization],” Salas-Romer said.
Salas-Romer said he has looked at the plans of his predecessor in this effort , Joel Schiavone’s Quinnipiac River Villages, and said he saw much in there of merit. It failed, in his view, in part because of the timing. It arrived when the market was at its height, around 2007, and proposed that people buy expensive townhouses. Then, of course, financial markets crashed in 2008.
If everything moves expeditiously, Petra said it’s possible a shovel may be in the ground within six months.
Petra and Salas-Romer, who have already been in touch in their planning for input from local activists like Lee Cruz, Chris Ozyck, among others, said they are eager to hear what the community wants to see in the project.
They are planning a community meeting precisely for that purpose in March, precise date and location still to be determined.
Ozyck said that he supports the project “in concept and density.” Some in the neighborhood are concerned about low-income housing coming in, he reported.
He said he and other neighbors pan to pursue outstanding issues of concern, including traffic patterns, shoreline stabilization, streetscape improvements, and public access.
Combined with a planned expansion of the nearby oystering operation, the Heights on the River plan “will make or break the neighborhood,” Ozyck argued. “We expect to be able to continue working with the developers to shape a project that fits the aesthetic of our maritime community and add to the vibrancy of our neighborhood.”