When the city presented a new “vision” for the “Hill-to-Downtown” area—complete with parks and plazas and a reimagined street grid—one landowner raised an objection: Your hypothetical new road runs right through my real property.
That objection came during a public hearing in front of the City Plan Commission last week.
The topic at hand: a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan, articulating a vision for the future of the area of town between the train station, the medical district, the Hill neighborhood, and the downtown. Click here to read the Hill-to-Downtown plan.
Part of that vision calls for re-engineering and extending Lafayette Street all the way from College Street to Union Avenue.
Hold it, said developer Clifford Winkle, who owns several properties in the area, thanks to a land deal with the city dating from 1996. The new Lafayette Street would run right through four of those properties, Winkle’s lawyer said. If the amendment is approved, Winkle will never be able to develop the land there. The threat of a new street being built would disrupt any plans.
Winkle and his lawyer, Marc Wallman, asked the commission to delay approval of the comprehensive plan amendment, to give them time to work out a solution with the city.
The amendment is just an “aspirational” list of ideas, countered Livable City Initiative head Erik Johnson. It includes all kinds of notions that would require land deals the city hasn’t even begun to contemplate, he said. It’s not meant as a blueprint, but as a guide, a wish list.
The commission sided with Johnson, and voted to approve the comprehensive plan amendment. The matter now moves to the Board of Alders for final approval.
Wednesday evening’s debate brought a number of city planning questions to light: Where do you draw the line between envisioning the New Haven of the future and mandating its creation? Can a vision for future development inhibit current development? And: What’s the difference between a development “vision” and a “taking”?
The city’s comprehensive plan lays out the New Haven’s intentions for future development. Zoners are supposed to refer to the document when making decisions about new construction or changes to the city’s infrastructure and buildings, to ensure that changes are in line with the city’s desires for growth. Rather than a granular set of building requirements, it is a general description of the kind of New Haven the city wants to become.
The city’s current comprehensive plan was drafted a decade ago. Planners are currently working on an updated plan to be completed by 2015. In the meantime, the Hill-to-Downtown amendment is designed to update the current plan.
Livable City Initiative head Johnson (pictured) presented the proposed Hill-to-Downtown comprehensive plan amendment to the City Plan Commission at the Wednesday night meeting. He told commissioners that the proposal is the culmination of a year of work, including both market research and community input. A total of seven community meetings were held, plus a trip to Philadelphia, in which Johnson gave the Independent a sneak peek at the plan.
The full Hill-toDowntown plan is 98 pages long. Johnson provided commissioners with a colorful 12-page summary.
The overall goal of the amendments is to “re-knit” the various neighborhoods surrounding the Hill-to-Downtown area. Johnson highlighted six “key initiatives” of the plan:
• Make Church Street the “Main Street” of a new “walkable, mixed-use district.”
• “Invest in Existing Neighborhoods.” The plan calls for investment in and around Trowbridge Square, including finding a new use for the vacant Sacred Heart Church “campus” on Columbus Avenue.
• Connect Union Station directly to Church Street with a new “pedestrian/vehicular” corridor.
• Redevelop the Church Street South housing project as a “mixed-income residential community” including “retail, restaurants, and a new destination open space at the doorstep of downtown.”
• “Build a new Lafayette Street” to increase access and improve “traffic demand management” while “opening up significant development opportunities on key parcels of land along Rt. 34.” The new Lafayette Street would connect with the extensions to Temple and Orange streets envisioned as part of Downtown Crossing.
• Turn Union Avenue into a “complete street” that balances the presence of cars, bikes, and people.
Full development of the district would create thousands of jobs and more than $23 million in new annual tax revenue, the summary states. It would mean up to 2.7 million new square feet of housing, 1.5 million in parking square feet, 150,000 in retail, 450,000 in offices, and 2.2 million in medical uses.
“Vision” vs. “Taking”
Westville Alder Adam Marchand, who sits on the commission, asked about a letter the board had received, from a lawyer questioning the district plan. Are we likely to face a lawsuit if the city approves the plan? he asked.
“The plan is an aspirational plan,” Johnson said. At some point, the city will face “tactical implementation” of the plan, and can deal with legal issues then, he said.
Any development would require extensive public processes, said Karyn Gilvarg, head of the City Plan Department.
The plan doesn’t create the basis for a lawsuit since “the issue is not ripe,” said Commissioner Roy Smith, a law clerk.
“I am the writer of the letter,” said attorney Wallman (pictured), who sat to testify along with client Winkle.
Wallman said Winkle’s company, AMA Connecticut Development Corporation, owns four parcels affected by the plan.
“We’re not against the plan,” Wallman said. But the plan wouldn’t just devalue the properties, he said; “it’s destroying them.”
The re-imagined Lafayette Street would cut through Winkle’s lots, which are currently vacant, Wallman said. If the Hill-to-Downtown vision becomes part of the city’s comprehensive plan, “these lots are taken,” Wallman said.
“Why would that constitute a legal taking when it’s just a vision?” Marchand asked.
“Once that occurs, we’re frozen. For planning purposes, these lots cease to exist,” Wallman said. If the new Lafayette Street vision is adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive plan, “it’s cemented,” and Winkles rights are destroyed.
Marchand asked if Wallman could cite examples where a “vision” has done that to a property owner in the past.
Wallman did not cite any specific cases. He asked for one-month delay in approval.
“I don’t think this is a taking,” said Gilvarg. The plan is not nearly detailed enough to qualify as a “taking,” she said. “This is 40,000 feet. We’re not on the ground. I don’t see how this would constitute a taking.”
“I don’t know what a month would do,” she said.
Johnson said the plan is just a “vision” and “aspirational.” He pointed out that the plan includes a new park (pictured) “on land we don’t own”—part of what is now Church Street South.
“There must be lots of property owners with the same claim” as Winkle, said commission Chair Ed Mattison. “How can you start working and turn it into something real if everyone has a veto?” he said. “The problem with your argument is that it’s too good to be true.”
It will be difficult to develop properties that the city has a vision of building a street on, Wallman said.
“But it’s the same for everyone,” said Mattison. “You need an argument that doesn’t make the whole deal impossible.” Everybody will want a month “as soon as they realize they’re getting screwed.”
But Winkle may be the only property owner in the area with a development agreement with the city.
“What in the world could you do in a month?” Mattison said. “What could they give you?”
Wallman said a solution could be found by dividing up lots and doing a swap with the city.
“They’re not ready to do that,” said Mattison. “They’re not going to switch lots with you in a month.”
After more discussion, Alder Marchand sought assurance from the city that New Haven “has a record of dealing with landowners in good faith” and that it would be a “departure from precedent” to go through the kind of “back and forth” Winkle is asking for. Marchand received such assurance from Gilvarg.
The City Plan Commission voted unanimously to approve the Hill-to-Downtown amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan.
The City Plan Commission also voted unanimously to approve a Mill River district amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan. That plan is based around three strategies for the area, creating an “industrial village,” a “home-improvement marketplace,” and a “mercantile food market.”
Click here to the read the Mill River vision.
Some previous coverage of the Hill-to-Downtown Initiative:
• Hill’s Future Spotted In Philly
• In The Hill, Lots Of Opportunity Beckon
• Hill: Don’t Gentrify Us Out
• Church Street South Gets Say In Hill’s Future
• Hill Neighbors Dream Up Their Ideal Neighborhood