A plan to revive a section of town leveled by urban renewal took a step forward Wednesday evening, amid concerns that the area not fill up with parking garages.
The step forward came in the form of City Plan Commission approval of an amendment to the city’s zoning map, which would affect about 16 acres of vacant land along Rt. 34 between Ella Grasso Boulevard and Dwight Street. City planners said the zoning change will “set the table” for development of the land.
It’s part of an effort to “re-stitch” the West River neighborhood, which was wounded by a huge gash a half-century ago when the city decided to raze and entire neighborhood to make way for a highway that never got built.
During testimony at Wednesday evening’s City Plan meeting in City Hall, a breakdown emerged of support and opposition to the zoning change, partly along neighborhood lines. Hill North complained of not being included in the process; West River and Hill South disputed that claim.
Neighbors also expressed concern that the change would allow unwelcome development, including new parking garages.
The zoning change—which still requires Board of Alders approval—would pave the way for a proposed 5.39 acre development at 243 Legion Ave.: an $11 million new home for the not-for-profit organization Continuum of Care. That’s just step one of what planners and neighbors hope will become a broader redevelopment of all 16 acres of underused land into new homes, shops and offices, recreating a “mixed-use” neighborhood.
A land disposition agreement covering the Continuum of Care deal was also on the agenda at Wednesday night’s City Plan Commission meeting in City Hall. The measure was tabled because two commission members had conflicts of interest and needed to recuse themselves, leaving the commission without a quorum. Commission Chair Ed Mattison said he couldn’t hear the matter because he is a Continuum of Care employee. Commission member Maricel Ramos-Valcarcel said she couldn’t hear it because her husband works for the architectural firm designing the building.
Those circumstances did not, however, prevent Mattison and Ramos-Valcarcel from joining the rest of the commission in approving the braoder zone change and a set of design guidelines for Route 34 development, which could be attached to land deals that emerge in the future.
Currently, the vacant area bounded by Ella Grasso Boulevard, Legion Avenue, MLK Boulevard, and Dwight Street is zoned half residential and half BA—a mixed-use designation. Under the amended map, the zone boundaries would follow the boundaries of the lots more closely, cleaning up some jagged edges to the BA zone. The BA zone would also extend further west, a change from what is now zoned residential. And about a block of the east end of the area would become BD2, a designation used for hospital and medical uses.
The change to BD2 would effectively extend the hospital zone another block west, City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg told the commission. The expansion of the BA zone would allow for commercial uses as well as residential, where currently residential only is allowed.
North vs. South/West
Ohan Karagozian (pictured), vice-chair of the Hill North Community Management Team, asked if any currently proposed developments require the zone change.
The change is “to accommodate future development,” Gilvarg said. Such a proposal “is on the agenda,” she noted, but developers could also move forward under current zoning, by securing special zoning exceptions from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Gilvarg said the rezoning of the area has been in the works for years.
Karagozian objected to the reduction of the residential zone. He said he understands that adding commercial uses is “amenable” to the tax collector. “But it’s not amenable to the people living there,” he said.
Any proposed development will have to go through “a relatively elaborate process,” said Commission Chair Mattison. “Open zoning encourages developers to come forward.”
“It’s rather expansionist,” Karagozian said. “This is not Mayberry, I know that. But we don’t want to turn it into downtown New York either.”
“Our community has not had the opportunity to hear about the plan in detail,” said Leanna Largie, another Hill North neighbor. A meeting was held in Hill South, but not Hill North, she said.
Anstress Farwell, head of the Urban Design League, said neighbors have “a great deal of concern about being included” in the process. “They just haven’t been fully included,” she said.
Stacy Spell (pictured), head of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation, which held numerous meetings with officials before the introduction of the new plans, offered a contrasting take.
“We are one of the biggest proponents,” he said.
“We’d like to limit density,” he said. “But the world in 2014 is not the same as in the ‘60s.” The area can’t just be residential. The city has to make an attractive “package” for developers, he said.
Spell said the city has done a lot of “outreach” about the proposed zoning change.
“We need jobs in this community,” he said. “All the opposition is a stumbling block to creating jobs.”
Later in the meeting, Thomasine Shaw, who lives in Hill South, objected to Hill North complaints of not being included. Hill North was invited to a meeting that was held in Hill South, she said. “They weren’t excluded.”
Farwell (pictured), the Urban Design League head, also expressed concern that an expanded BD2 zone would allow for the construction of a “giant parking garage.”
“We need to have a clearer idea of how this would affect traffic congestion and air quality,” Farwell said.
Karagozian said the Hill North Management Team was told that a parking garage is planned for 904 Howard Ave. “How many parking garages are you going to have?”
Parking uses are allowed in both BD2 zones and BA zones, as the area in question is already zoned, said Gilvarg. But developers need a special permit for a lot or garage with more than 200 spaces, she said. So the city has measures to keep parking garage expansion in check, she said.
Before a commission vote, Westville Alder Adam Marchand, who sits on the City Plan Commission, said he felt somewhat torn.
“On the one hand,” he said, he agrees with Spell that the area needs jobs. “The current use is far from optimal.”
“On the other hand,” he said, he understands the concerns about process. There will be more opportunities for neighborhood input in the future, he said. He asked that the city hold a meeting with Hill North before the zone change is heard by the Board of Alders Legislation Committee.
“We certainly don’t want a highway to nowhere,” he said. “At this point, I’m in favor of pushing this forward.”
“I have been involved in this matter since I was a child,” said Mattison (pictured). He said he opposed, decades ago, a plan to install a “ring road” around downtown New Haven. “I know what harm can be done by ill-thought-through measures. I don’t think this is one of them.”
“This is too abstract a level for me to really get too concerned about this,” he said. “If someone suggests a line of parking garages, I will be the first to lie in front of the bulldozers. … I think it’s important to go forward at this point.”
The commission voted unanimously to approve the zoning change.
The commission also voted unanimously to approve new “design guidelines” for “Route 34 West” development. The guidelines are not legally binding by themselves, but could be attached to any land disposition agreements the city might enter into, Gilvarg said.
The city can also use the guidelines to inform potential developers about what sort of development the city is looking for. See an early draft of them here.
The guidelines cover things like “human scale” and “sense of place,” as well as transit, stormwater, handicap access, “rhythm,” parking, and outdoor spaces. They also offer preferences on architectural details, from “entryways and porches” to “garages and garage doors.”