All 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.
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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.
The 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.
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 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
After 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.