Third of three stories on filling in Newhallville’s empty spaces.
If someone decides to build a house on the above Read Street lot, it might look something like ...
... the model of the house at left.
It could look that way if the builder decides to use free plans drawn up by a Yale architectural student, rather than pay for a new set of plans.
Erik Johnson hopes someone wants to build on that lot at 101 Read St., or on many of the other 30-plus vacant lots the city owns in Newhallville, one of the biggest neighborhood-development challenges facing New Haven right now. (Click here and here to read previous stories about that.)
So Johnson, who grew up in Newhallville and today runs New Haven’s neighborhood anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), challenged a Yale architectural professor to produce hundreds of innovative designs for potential builders to grab online.
These aren’t just any lots. They’re skinny plots of land, as narrow as 29 feet. They all used to have houses on them—built decades ago, before New Haven zoning laws changed. Today you can’t by right build a house on land that’s less than 50 feet wide. But the laws grandfathered in lots like those in Newhallville that previously had houses. You may build there, if you find a way to squeeze the houses within a set of complicated mathematical parameters.
Johnson believes the neighborhood needs more homes, needs vacant spots filled in, without requiring public subsidies or high purchase prices. Homes for working families, young people out of college, people who put down roots, take care of their property, keep eyes on the street.
That’s a great challenge for a neighborhood that’s fighting to revive from decades of absentee slumlord neglect and fraud. And that’s a great challenge for budding architects looking for real-world applications for their academic training.
A Tight Squeeze
The Yale architecture professor, Alan Organschi (pictured), accepted Johnson’s challenge with gusto. He chose 10 of the addresses and had the 50 first-year students in his “Studio 1012B” class each design a home for one of those lots. He plans to do that four more years. In the end he expects to have 250 prototypes ready, available free online, to entice potential builders to build up Newhallville.
“Erik’s trying to get that density back again,” Organschi said. “I have no doubt that it can be done.”
For the past eight years Organschi has advised Yale’s annual Vlock Building Project, in which architecture students design and construct a new house in a low-income New Haven neighborhood. (This year’s project on Lilac Street in Newhallville ran into some trouble.) The beauty of Johnson’s challenge, for Organschi, lies in the potential to lay plans for private builders to make a bigger impact on a single neighborhood.
While each student designed a house for a single lot, Organschi also had them modify details to adapt the design to other Newhallville lots as well—for instance, to enable a design for a mid-block house to work on a corner, or to adjust to different sunlight exposures.
To squeeze in as much house as possible, the students often designed asymmetrical houses. That’s because zoning law limits them to different maximum heights on different parts of the building depending on factors such as set-backs from the streets.
The Newhallville lots fall into “RM-2 (high/middle density residential)” zones. That means buildings on the lots may not cover more than 30 percent of lot area; rise more than 45 feet on average, and have front yards of at least 17 feet in most cases and rear yards of 25 feet.
Also, they must leave a minimum of eight feet of space between one side of each house and the property line, 10 feet on the other side.
That leaves a total of, say, 16 feet of width for a house on a 34-foot-wide lot.
Like the lot at 101 Read St. (pictured at the top of this story), for instance. One of the designs from this spring semester’s class came from student Tyson Jang, who designed a home for 101 Read. (Remember: The idea is for the designs to work for other lots, as well. Some of these lots currently have thriving community gardens or idyllic greenspaces.)
Tyson stacked three bedrooms at the front of the house. He envisioned three generations living in them: grandparents on one floor, parents on another, kids on the third. He pushed the communal spaces toward the back of the house, opening onto a private back yard enclosed for privacy and including a garden shed for tools. The owner would park a car in a partial carport, rather than a garage, and enter the house through a side kitchen door.
Click here to view Tyson’s full plan, including several drawings.
The project that served as the basis for this year’s Vlock Building Project House was student Jack Wolfe’s plan for 93 Shepard St. (pictured above), a well-tended neighborhood oasis that is also 34 feet wide.
Wolfe designed a common “hearth” space in the middle of the house that to some extent rises to the roof to form an atrium. People would hang out in the hearth space, cook there. He included a big skylight. The house would not include a chimney; the emphasis would be on sunlight.
Click here to review Wolfe’s entire project and view its other drawings.
In his written charge to students for the project, Organschi told them to pay attention not just to the dimensions of the lots, but also to how they relate to the neighborhood around them: “A historical weave of social, cultural, economic and political forces, often originating far outside the boundaries of each individual lot, have had significant, if less quantifiable, impacts on the character of the neighborhood. As you begin to familiarize yourself with this place, test the feasibility and capacity of building within its open spaces, assess the climatic stresses and benefits of its location, and begin to understand the social interactions and behaviors that have become embedded in its architectural context, you must consider the degree to which the information you gather is critical to your understanding of this urban habitat and instrumental to your design of dwelling space there.”
Jim Paley, who has overseen the restoration and sale of beautiful old Newhallville homes as chief of the not-for-profit Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), called the Organschi project “an interesting idea.” He also sounded notes of caution.
Sometimes other uses are preferable to houses for the vacant lots, Paley argued. Also, he said it’s costing NHS a whopping $275,000 to build the new 1,500-square foot home on the vacant Lilac St. lot that the Yale building project abandoned; that’s how much it generally would cost to fill in these lots with new homes, he said. (Yale’s project saves up to $100,000 through donated materials, he said.) Given that high cost, Paley said, he questions whether new builders could keep costs low enough to avoid gentrification without public subsidies.
It costs around the same $275,000 to renovate the old homes NHS takes on, according to Paley. Unlike with the vacant lots, he argued, housing is already the “only option” for those properties.
LCI’s Johnson said he agrees with Paley that not all lots should have houses built on them. He said he also agrees that $275,000 is too high a construction cost.
“A $275,000 per unit cost is neither affordable or sustainable for a working class family. My goal is to find a way to develop an in-fill housing type that can be constructed for a least half of that amount,” Johnson stated. “Developments can no longer expect that there will be large amounts of public subsidies available and buyers of all income levels want access to reasonable price housing without sometimes onerous deed restrictions that limit who can buy these properties, how much equity a person can earn and how properties are resold.
“That product may not exist today, but working with Yale School of Design, Alan and others collaboratively, I think we can figure something out.”
Previous stories about Newhallville’s turnaround efforts:
• Brick By Brick, Winchester Vision Takes Shape
• Gardeners Prevail; Vacant-Lot Challenge Remains
• After Crash, Neighbors Seek Fix For Blind Corner
• Newhallville Confronts A Mega-Landlord
• Newhallville Bounces Back; House Will Get Built
• Levin To Newhallville: “We’ll Be Back”
• Newhallville Up For “Historic” Boost
• Cops Make Arrest In 83-Year-Old Prof’s Mugging
• Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
• “Let There Be Light” (Emitting Diodes)!
• Arts Serve As “Scaffold” For Neighborhood Revival
• “Serenity” Takes Root On Shepard Street
• Bird Garden Fights Blight
• Yale Flees Newhallville After Prof’s Mugging