$5-6M Union Station Plan Unveiled

WZHAAll the ticket windows would move to the Union Avenue side of the train station. In their place an airy atrium/annex would feature upscale shops and eateries (not fast-food chains). The elegant balcony would open with tables for waiting travelers to relax. Outside a few paces, stores line a new garage across from the police station.

That is the first image of a $5-$6 million “transit-oriented-development” (TOD) vision that the city hopes will transform Union Station into not just a travel stop, but a new center for shopping, eating and hanging out.

City economic development officials unveiled that vision Tuesday morning at the regular monthly meeting of the Development Commission. Deputy Economic Development Director Mike Piscitelli called the plan a “milestone” for launching a new front in New Haven’s growth.

Click here to read the report.

Paying the cost of “re-merchandising” the inside of the station would involve coming up with a new way to use $2.4 million that the parking authority earns every year from parking revenue. That money currently goes toward state coffers and station improvement. Under this plan, the city would use that money as a basis for floating a bond to cover the full cost of the project up front.

The plan calls for establishing a Union Station Development Authority to carry the project.

The atrium would be developed on what is now a small surface parking area between the station and the tracks. Think of a mini Grand Central Market where you pick up those unusual cheeses or designer gift items on your way home or to the party.

WZHAThe envisioned space would be airy and tony, reachable by pedestrians, and limited vehicles, from a 15-foot-wide walkway between the atrium/annex and the tracks.

The city has received three grants over the past decade from federal and state sources to evolve the TOD vision, a buzzword among new urbanists city planners that envisions a transportation hub around which swirl leisurely shopping, walking, ice cream-cone licking, biking, strolling, and sometimes offices or apartments or hotels. The Union Station plan unveiled Tuesday states that in the longer term it might make sense to try to lure a private hotel or apartment developer, but that in the shorter term that development will probably take place at other locations nearby downtown. The plan calls for leaving some land vacant for future apartments or a hotel after the first phase of the plan takes over.

“At some point the market would be ready for that,” Piscitelli said.

The Union Station plan is one of the several moving parts of a downtown rebuilding extravaganza-in-progress that includes the Coliseum site re-do and the creation of a “Hill-to-Downtown” plan for rebuilding the area stretching from the station, through Church Street South, over to the Yale medical area.

Allan Appel PhotoPiscitelli (pictured) said previous Union Station plans stalled due to the recession in 2008 or competing goals between state and city: The state, which owns the building, is interested in increasing parking and maintaining rail service. The city would not benefit from what officials have called “a wall of parking” that does not activate retail and help “make a place,” as TOD lingo puts it.

The current TOD plan, a delicate lattice of a vision to accommodate all partners, is the result of painstaking shuttle diplomacy between city officials and the state, said Piscitelli.

City Development Commissioner Pedro Soto called the plan “exciting, not pie-in-the-sky, very achievable. It’s not a heavy lift.”

“The big question is the Development Authority. It’s in Mayor [-Elect] Harp’s court to use her connections to get it going. They should be amenable,” Soto added.

Piscitelli cited Harp’s connections in state government, the coming expiration of station leases, low construction costs. and “consistency” at the state Department of Transportation (DOT) as reasons for optimism.

“The timing is good,” he said.

The phased plan calls for the merchandising upgrade within the station first, followed by a new garage and retail being built north of the station. The city and state would get it started by signing a memorandum of understanding. That would allow for establishing the Union Station Development Authority, an entity that could manage the station, parking, and attract the retail.

Comimssioner Larry Morico asked for an example of a precedent for this approach. Piscitelli cited the way Washington D.C.‘s Union Station revitalized its neighborhood.

Such an authority will require state legislation. If all goes well, that should be in place in 2014.

The plan released Tuesday offers some suggestions for new retail:

“While New Haven’s Union Station might not be able to sustain a standalone bookstore or even a mini-shop like the Barbara’s Bestsellers in Boston’s South Station, an expanded space for Union News could include a more modest selection of best-selling (high-turnover) titles, similar to the Hudson News model found in airports and rail stations. This concept could be implemented in partnership with a local operator like Atticus Bookstore.

“[A] second sandwich purveyor that offers prepared foods and ready-made meals could also serve as a ‘micro-grocery” and florist. The inclusion of these products will enhance convenience-driven sales to homeward-bound commuters during the evening rush. This would add another day-part
to the store’s revenue model. While the potential for a stand-alone drinking establishment is limited, the second coffee purveyor could supplement its revenue and add a new day-part by including a small bar area that offers a more appealing atmosphere for alcohol consumption than the Sbarro.”

To Line Or Not To Line
WZHAAfter the reconfiguring of Union Station would come construction of a long-awaited new parking garage to the north of the existing one and a “liner” building around it, both separate and privately financed.

The plan offers various options for the number of parking spots and and amount of retail. According the plan a parking garage with a residential liner building and a 645-car parking garage behind it (which could be increased in size if necessary) would cost $14.8 million and be privately financed. The station would get a net gain of 459 spots, even including the spots lost on the current surface lot.

Let’s say the city builds that garage but is not yet sure if the neighborhood will attract those empty nesters. In that case the garage would be wrapped not by a full-fledged residential building, but rather by ground-level retail. The budget includes costs to develop the retail space, but the new authority would own it and lease it. That would net new 635 parking spots and cost about $22.3 million.

Economic Development Officer Chris Canna said into this ground-level retail space, not as fancy as in option one, the car rental offices currently at the station could be moved along with, let’s say, a bike repair shop, and maybe some of the current fast food outlets, whose leases run through 2017.

The freed space at Union Station then could be utilized by tonier restaurants, drawn in part by the planned new mixed-use development at the old Coliseum site.

All that, down the road, may well include the relocation of the Brutalist police building, a relocation of New Haven’s finest to a finer location, and the redevelopment of that land in the ongoing TOD spirit.

Both garage/liner building options preserve empty lots, one to the north of the station and one to south, where future private developers can put up office buildings or whatever projects will be drawn to the newly vibrant area, created by the earlier phases of the project.

The rail office at state DOT has bought into the plan, said Piscitelli. These are the folks who will need to continue to keep the trains running on time while the various changes unfold.

The next step is “due diligence,” bringing the plan to all the participants so there is agreement on the vision that will lead to a formal signing of a memorandum of agreement or understanding, and then the new authority or governance entity. Piscitelli said that could happen as early as January or February of next year, with the Union Station Development Authority created by the end of 2014.

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posted by: anonymous on December 10, 2013  5:22pm

This all sounds great. 

Hopefully the State of CT will realize that investing more into New Haven’s infrastructure is pretty much the only way that the entire State can succeed, economically, over the next few decades. 

The rest of CT isn’t doing too well - it lacks the critical mass that is driving growth in Boston, NYC, DC, and New Haven.

posted by: DingDong on December 10, 2013  6:30pm

Of course, the big unanswered question is what does Toni Harp think of all this?

And will she keep Jim Travers and Mike Piscitelli?  I hope so!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 10, 2013  6:51pm

Piscitelli (pictured) said previous Union Station plans stalled due to the recession in 2008 or competing goals between state and city: The state, which owns the building, is interested in increasing parking and maintaining rail service. The city would not benefit from what officials have called “a wall of parking” that does not activate retail and help “make a place,” as TOD lingo puts it.

The state and even New Haven is still in recession.Again Snake-OIl being sold.Keep voting them in.

posted by: A Contrarian on December 10, 2013  7:38pm

Don’t know why this should take so long.  It’ll be a full ten years from start of Great Recession if this project is completed on time.  What will the parking situation be like if the station garage is delayed and the Coliseum construction is in full swing?

posted by: Charl on December 11, 2013  1:35am

Any investment into the Union Station is a complete and utter waste of money unless the eyesore “Jungle” concrete housing projects is either demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, or demolished and rebuilt into something resembling a proud American housing development.  Not as it currently sits-  something out of Mad Max: Beyond Sector 9.

Why not just work on making the new stop bigger and nicer?

Honestly, do you have any idea of the issues the housing project causes people wishing to use Union Station?
Do you have any idea how many people are unwilling to walk to 4 blocks from Union Station to their dorms/apartments/nightlife/restaurants bordering The Green?

It is an eyesore, extremely dangerous, and it is pitiful that human beings must live in that “Jungle.”

posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on December 11, 2013  2:03am

They should invest a little time and money in fixing the traffic pattern near the drop-off area. It’s always chaos. About 5 years ago they rebuilt the sidewalks and repaved the driveway in the dropoff area, but left the ineffective traffic pattern untouched. Now they plan to spend another $5 - 6 million creating something that nobody can get too. I have an idea. Stop waiting for the owners of the Church Street South complex to come up with a plan. Instead, re-zone Spring St and the surrounding area so developers can easily build there. Then give a call to Avalon Communities and ask them to come build in New Haven

posted by: Bill Saunders on December 11, 2013  2:26am


To answer your question, this might just be a case of ‘which’ cup you are looking under, vis a vis who is ‘palming’ the ball.

posted by: Kevin on December 11, 2013  11:05am

Charl, I (and probably most people reading this article) agree that the housing across the street is an eyesore that needs to be rebuilt. But the train station project makes sense on its own merits. At this point, more people get to the station by car, bus, or taxi than on foot.  I suspect that they will appreciate the opportunity to eat and shop in the station.

The unfortunate reality is that no one has come up with the money to rebuild the housing project. The first phase of the Quinnipiac Terrace rebuild in Fair Haven cost more than $20 million. I don’t see Santa coming with the even larger sum of money needed to rebuild the Wolfe project and I think it is irresponsible to hold off on improving the train station until it arrives.

Threefifths, there are too many people without jobs or who cannot support their families, which I suspect corresponds with your definition of a recession. But the train station project will generate construction and permanent jobs and bring in tax revenue for the city.

NewHavenTaxTooHigh, while I like the idea of rezoning the area around the station, it is not a panacea. Among other things, the current tenants of the project will need to be accomodated in any redvelopment.

posted by: TheMadcap on December 11, 2013  12:36pm

Actually a good deal of people using Union Station really have no idea about Church St south. If you live in NH, you know the complex is a particularly bad one, if you don’t, it’s just a general part of the “bad” part of New Haven, which is like 1/2 the city. Church St south may not he helping, but the real issue at hand is the fact from the train station/parking garage on up to past the Knights of Columbus building, it’s a complete dead zone of empty space.

Anonymous, I’m also shocked you did not criticize the new parking garage.

posted by: A Contrarian on December 11, 2013  1:16pm

The “Hill to Downtown Plan”  includes the area across Union Avenue.  I would say that there’s not a remote chance of housing wrapping the new garage unless the bulldozers roll across the street.  However, the station improvements can be made and the garage simply must be built to accommodate the loss of parking spaces elsewhere.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 11, 2013  5:59pm

posted by: Kevin on December 11, 2013 10:05am

Threefifths, there are too many people without jobs or who cannot support their families, which I suspect corresponds with your definition of a recession. But the train station project will generate construction and permanent jobs and bring in tax revenue for the city.

And when the project is over.Back to the unemployment line.This is nothing more then Gentrification.Look take a look at downtown.It is starting to look more and more like central park west. As far as south street projects they will be gone.