An OK to put planters closer than usually allowed to a curb means shovels could soon be in the ground for the long awaited remake of 11.6 acres of unused land in the Hill.
Developer Randy Salvatore’s RMS-Downtown South-Hill North team made that request — for a variance to permit 10 feet of unobstructed space between a curb line and structure, where 15 feet are required — to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) as the company prepares to break ground on a three-phase project that aims to transform those 11.6 acres from mostly empty lots into 140 apartments, 7,000 square feet of stores, 120,000 square feet of research space and 50,000 square feet of offices between Congress Avenue and Church Street South. The zoning board approved the request this past week.
It took New Haven officials close to three decades to figure out a workable plan with owners to develop all that property, and then two years working with Salvatore to strike a deal.
A June 1 groundbreaking is slated for the first phase of the project, which has been designed by New Haven-based Kenneth Boroson Architects, and includes the remodel of the old Welch Annex School at 49 Prince St. into as many as 40 apartments and the demolition of the Prince School Annex at 22 Gold St. Salvatore said Friday that he has obtained his equity and bank financing, and hopes in a few weeks to learn the fate of the last piece, proposed state support for making 30 percent of the project’s housing affordable.
City Plan staff opined that RMS had demonstrated a hardship in complying with the code and recommended approval of the requested variance.
The project is being built in a central business/mixed use, or BD-3 District. The variance request would give the developer relief from a yard requirement in that district for “a minimum of 15 feet of unobstructed land from the ground upon which no structures shall be located between the outer face of a building foundation wall at grade of a principal building that fronts on a street and the curb of such street in order to provide for sidewalks, streetlights and landscaped areas between the sidewalk at the curb.”
The variance request would allow the developer to install three, six-foot deep planters as part of the first phase of the project — which will be a four-story, mixed use development of 110 apartments and retail space located on property bound by Washington Avenue, Prince Street, Gold Street and Amistad Street.
Salvatore said in an interview that the planters will enable him to build a four-story building on the property. Right now the property slopes, which complicates the calculations needed to allow for constructing four full stories. The planters will support dirt fill that will level the property, he said. Meanwhile, because the street is narrow, the planters (which zoning law considers structures) would come too close to the curb without the variance.
Attorney Carolyn Kone, who represents RMS, told members of the BZA at their regular monthly meeting this past week in the city’s Hall of Records at 200 Orange St. that the variance would help the developer achieve the minimum depth needed to establish the average grade plane to build a true four-story building by making use of the planters.
“In order to make this an affordable project, this needs to be a true four-story building,” Kone told board members. “The construction costs go up if you have it above four stories. And this property as you can see slopes down from north to south. So we can’t just make it flat and have a true four-story building.”
The sloping property is part of the rationale for RMS’s request for a variance—it creates a hardship, the developer argues.
“The site does not have a constant uniform elevation. The elevation steps down from north to south. In order to accommodate the parking at the lower level and the entrance across from Prince Street, the first flood elevation steps up from north to south…For the developer to construct a true four story building…planters meeting the minimum depth reqired [sic] to establish the average grade plane will be constructed a long a portion of the southeastern elevation and the southern elevation,” according to an excerpt of RMS’s application provided by the City Plan Department.
City Plan staff noted that the planters would be technically in the “unobstructed area” identified in the zoning ordinance, but because the planters will be “a projection from a structure” the area will no longer qualify as unobstructed.
RMS identified an additional hardship: The narrowness of the site and its being bordered by three streets limit opportunities for improvements and landscaping features including trees, sidewalks and lighting. RMS does plan to provide all of those features to enhance “the streetscapes along Amistad Street and Gold Street, making these streets more walkable and hospitable,” according to its application.