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Zoners OK 9th Square Historic Re-Do

by Thomas MacMillan | Dec 16, 2010 8:23 am

(20) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Housing, Downtown, Ninth Square

Thomas MacMillan Photo After years of abandonment, a “typical commercial block of the 1870s” at the base of the Ninth Square is set for revitalization as 65 new apartments.

The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) Tuesday night approved a plan to rehab the buildings (pictured) at 26-36 and 44 Crown St. The approval was for a variety of zoning variances to allow for more building coverage, smaller side and rear yards, more square footage, less open space, and a greater number of units than otherwise allowed. After some deliberation, the board ruled that each apartment must have 50 square feet of space to store, for example bikes.

The Crown Street buildings, which have stood vacant for years, are listed on the Connecticut Historical Commission’s Historic Resources Inventory, which describes one of them as “an important part of what remains of this late 19th-c. block of lower Crown St.” The earliest known tenants, according to the commission, include the Kahn, Wertheimer, and Smith Clothing Store and Tuttle Color Printing, both of which were in the building as of at least 1913.

Part of the building will return to commercial space as part of the revitalization, which is planned by PMC Property Management, a nationwide company based in Philadelphia. Doug Hitchner (at left in photo below), representing PMC, appeared before the BZA on Tuesday with local attorney Marjorie Shansky (at right). Local developer David Nyberg used to be associated with the team and the building, too.

That end of Crown Street has been reborn as a “new urbanist” jewel in recent years. Its landmarks, housed in preserved and retrofitted bulidings, include cafe nine, the Firehouse jazz club and studio and bar, Skappo Italian Wine Bar, Gray Organschi Architecture, and right across Orange Street, Artspace.

The Crown Street buildings are part of a second phase of the Ninth Square overhaul that began in the 1990s. Tuesday night’s zoning decision marks an apparent turnaround in what for years were delays in fixing some of the buildings, leading preservationists to warn of irreversible neglect. (Read about that here.)

Hitchner said the building should be available for occupancy by August 2011. Apartments will go for $1,100 to $1,200 per month for a one-bedroom, he said. There will be room for one commercial venture, a restaurant or a shop, he said.

“Hello Marjorie Shansky, it is so very good to see you again,” said BZA chair Cathy Weber, as Shansky took the mic to testify on Tuesday.

Shanksy said the proposed rehab will be conducted according to the standards of the Secretary of the Interior. The lot has no room for open space required by zoning, but other similar buildings have been granted relief because of their proximity to “the ultimate open space, the New Haven Green,” Shansky said.

Addressing a City Plan Department recommendation that more commercial space be included in the building, Shansky pointed out that a number of storefronts in the Ninth Square remain vacant.

Tom Talbot, city deputy director of zoning, said the City Plan Department recommends the building be approved for 62 units. That’s fewer than the 65 requested, but more than the 57 otherwise allowed, Talbot said.

Further, the building doesn’t have any storage space for tenants, Talbot said.

Later, during the board’s voting session, the issue of storage space resurfaced.

“If you have a bicycle in this building, where do you put it?” asked City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg. There followed a brief discussion of how much storage space an apartment needs. Talbot suggested 150 square feet.

“That’s a lot,” said board member Regina Winters

“All right, 50 square feet?” Talbot said. A lot of towns have a storage space requirement, he said.

Does New Haven? asked Weber.

“No, but we ought to,” Gilvarg said.

The board agreed to impose a condition that 50 square feet of storage for each apartment be set aside somewhere in the building.

The board voted unanimously to approve the building with that and other conditions, but without limiting the number of units to fewer than 65.

Asked how the storage space condition will affect the building plans, Shansky said only, “We’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

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posted by: Steve B on December 16, 2010  10:30am

This is great news, but ...

We want downtown buildings to be rehabbed, so why does the city want to make it more expensive to rehab buildings?  The 50 sq ft of storage will have to come out of the size of apartments—maybe that’s not want tenants want. Why should Karyn Gilvarg be making this decision instead of the building owners and the tenants?  Why wouldn’t it be OK to accommodate bikes in some other creative way —a shared bike locker in the basement?

Should we have a City commission that votes to require that every burger sold downtown comes with a full-size pickle and free coke? 

(I understand safety issues, etc., that’s completely different.)

posted by: that guy on December 16, 2010  10:35am

it’s really nice to see these buildings finally put to good use.  that area has so much promise.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 16, 2010  2:38pm

Our zoning laws are pretty much completely useless. When we’re at the point where variances are needed to do things that should be as of right, we really have to rethink the effectiveness of our zoning law. Does it make any sense that we basically have the same zoning laws as Orange? Minimum parking requirements on site, setbacks, open space requirements for all projects, etc. its a joke.

I don’t know the details on their plan, so perhaps some variances, like the number of units, made sense but the open space requirement needs to go. This are obsolete planning practices from a time when dirty industry was next to houses, and we had tenements. The things that the zoning law were meant to fix, don’t really exist anymore. We need a new code.

posted by: Steve on December 16, 2010  3:20pm

Jonathan,

The residential use is by right. The yard and bulk variances were required only because the all of the ground floor was not devoted to commercial, therefore triggering a separate provision. Density, in this instance, is governed by the gross floor area. A variance was required because the request exceeded what was permitted.

Your sweeping denunciation of the zoning ordinance is without merit. There are many positive provisions in it. If you understood it better you’d know that.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 16, 2010  5:09pm

Steve,
New Haven has a restrictive, Euclidean zoning ordinance. If our current ordinance were around in the 19th century, New Haven would look like the Boston Post Road in Orange, or no one would have built anything due to the requirement to get variances in order to do decent urban design.
This is one example:
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/peruvian_porch_nixed_amid_crime_concerns/

I have not read the entire ordinance, but believe me I’ve tried many times to get through it all, but its like reading a user manual for a software product - it’s unbearable. I’ve also read parts of surrounding town’s ordinances like Branford’s, Orange’s and North Haven’s, which have developed large amounts of suburban sprawl since the adoption of their ordinances and much of the same language, terms, and provisions are either similar to or the same as what is in New Haven’s. The BA-1 zoning amendment is a start because it essentially prescribes good design that matches with the existing character on Whalley and Grand Ave (the two locations that have BA-1 zoning, to my knowledge).
The city should go one step further and just adopt a form-based code and transect-based zoning, which offers a prescriptive tool that can be used to encourage good design principles rather than restricting what we considered bad design a generation ago, which today often isn’t what we understand bad to be, as in the instance of Macchu Picchu’s porch.

The neighborhood of Beaver Hills, for example, strictly regulated design standards with prescriptive requirements for high quality design, construction, materials and reference of style and pattern books in order to build in the development. There is a clear difference between the southern section of the neighborhood that was built under this prescriptive measure and the northern section of the neighborhood that was built under New Haven’s modern, restrictive ordinance.
The SmartCode is probably the most comprehensive form-based code that is available, and I’ve read it a couple times because it is actually enjoyable to go through, easy to understand and it includes vitable visual images that help explain certain provisions.

Like I said, however, I was not aware of the details for this particular project, so perhaps I shouldn’t have commented, but in general the current zoning ordinance is a massive hinderance to developing meaningful, spatially interesting, and valuable places.

posted by: guest on December 16, 2010  6:16pm

wouldn’t you rather have 50 square feet of apartment space and maybe put your bike in the corner? last i checked a bike is only like 3 feet by 5 feet- or 15 square feet. why 50 square feet for that? why assume everyone’s gonna have a bike? why not do what lots of people do and go buy a $3 bike hook, mount it in the wall of your apartment, and store your bike vertically against the wall? 50 square feet is a lot and the fact that city plan assumes every resident will have a bike and will be riding it isn’t surprising but really shows how elitest and yuppie new haven is becoming.

posted by: WHAT??? on December 16, 2010  8:41pm

With 1 bedroom apartments going for the high price of 1100-1200 dollars a month I would be lucky to own a pair of decent shoes, never mind a bicycle or a car! What’s the going rate for the 50 foot storage space? Can we get an ordinance for reasonable price apartments in New Haven? I hope these apartments at least include washers and dryers so that is not an additional cost.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 16, 2010  8:57pm

Guest,
Its unclear in the article whether the storage space is specifically for bikes or just a general purpose storage space, that could potentially be used by bikes.
Even if the provision of storage space is specifically for bikes, how is it elitist and yuppie? Biking is the most cost effective form of transportation available. Not all bikes are $500. Mine for example was a hand-me-down that I’ve put a mere $30 into for maintenance and fixes over the last 10 years. Before jumping on bikes, I would first look at what New Haven’s municipal code requires in terms of parking for cars. The AAA, conservatively estimates that it costs typical American drivers $10,000 per year per car to own and operate. Why then do we require so much on-site parking? Doesn’t that seem a little more elitist?

posted by: Edgehood on December 16, 2010  9:55pm

A fifty square foot storage room (5’ x 10’) is a nice amenity for an apartment, especially downtown. We had to demolish the basement storage rooms in the apartment house that I take care of and the result was more cluttered apartments and tenants throwing out a lot of good furniture and belongings. I think that it is a practical requirement…in the end it will add value to the building.

posted by: Liz on December 17, 2010  2:05am

Edgehood, storage space surely is a nice amenity (and for $1,200 a month, people probably expect a few extras) but are amenities really what the zoning board should be voting on? (If so, tell them I would like a roof deck on my building, please.)

I’m more inclined to agree with Steve B. A bike rack in the basement seems like a reasonable requirement. The equivalent of a massive walk-in closet for every apartment, not so much. I’m also a little concerned that they seem to be picking numbers out of the air. Why 50 square feet? The 150 originally suggested is the approximate size of my living room.

posted by: Scot on December 17, 2010  11:56am

I’m excited to hear these buildings will finally be brought back to life.  They’re beautiful buildings and will really finish off the 9th square and help link the 9th square with Wooster st and 360 state.  Good luck to all involved.

Any chance the developer will set aside some units for sale as condos?  It seems there are lots of large apartment buildings downtown available for renting, but much fewer options for people who want to live downtown but own their own place.

posted by: Edgehood on December 17, 2010  1:04pm

@Liz
Attaching special conditions in granting requests for zoning variances is indeed one of the functions of the BZA. (It is a good question…I had to look it up.) Adding ‘amenities’ mitigates some of the requirements that cannot be met. Allowing the developers to construct apartments without meeting the parking and open space requirements subtracts from the quality of life for the buildings tenants. Storage rooms add to the quality of life for the tenants. Does one equal the other…?? No, of course not, but the BZA’s requirement will help make the building a nice place to live and I think that is important.

posted by: Steve B on December 17, 2010  2:13pm

@edgeworth

The storage rooms are not an “added amenity” as the square footage of the buildings remains the same. The developers have been ordered to subtract 50 sqft (on average) from each apartment and to turn what would have been bedroom or kitchen space into a storage room.

These are experienced developers—if tenants like that trade-off (less living space and more storage) then the developers would have included the storage space in the first place.

This is just the city making everyone worse off.  It isn’t malice, it is a complete absence of thought.

posted by: Liz on December 17, 2010  2:26pm

Edgehood:

Very thoughtful reply, thanks. Adding features to the building does makes sense as you have described it—that is, as a trade-off for not meeting some other requirement. But choosing “amenities” (I’m using the work more narrowly to mean some extra-special feature beyond what’s needed for health and safety) is inherently tricky. Not everyone wants or needs a ton of storage. The BZA is not an expert in what renters want and I wouldn’t expect it to be. Would it be perhaps more appropriate as a public body that the trade-off conditions be things that are more generally beneficial to the public at large – for example, requiring extra energy efficiency? (This would benefit everybody, not just those who live in the building.) I guess my beef is that they seem to be making it up as they go along – what if somebody on the board decided that, say, a big lobby sculpture is a better amenity worth having?

In the end, if this means that they have to have two or three fewer units in the building to accommodate the storage, it probably won’t sink the project. It’s good to see it move forward at all. I just don’t want to see the board getting carried away asking for extras of dubious value.

posted by: Steve on December 17, 2010  7:01pm

Jonathan,

Yes the ordinance is Euclidean and in many ways is outdated. But it’s not all bad. And yes I think it should be changed to a form-based code. The Smart Code is the prevailing model but it doesn’t have to, and should not, be as slavishly followed as it appears to have been in Hamden. It has its own complications and unintended consequences, as do all zoning regulations.

I think it would be best for New Haven to use the “bones” of the form code - Transects (much of New Haven is T-4), coherent massing of buildings and a revised use table within each Transect, build-to lines to provide a stable streetscape, provisions for multi-model travel options, and reduced parking while ignoring architectural guides (since in CT they cannot be regulatory).

It would be nice if the BoA got behind an effort to reform our zoning. In the end it must come from them if it is ever to be undertaken.

posted by: Edgehood on December 18, 2010  7:17am

@Liz
I agree…the whole thing does seem a little random. It was a perfect time in the negotiations for the city to ask for something, though. I guess that the BZA could have asked for lots of things…an accomodation for public art, green building requirements or even a bike rack. If I was on the BZA I would have asked about cleaning up that big brick wall that faces Orange Street…
I’m not sure what the format for making suggestions would be but I’m pretty sure that sending a well thought out letter to BZA members before a scheduled property hearing would be acceptable.

posted by: Liz on December 18, 2010  1:37pm

@Edgehood:

Good suggestion about the Orange Street wall. However, rather than have every member of the public jump in with their suggestions to the board (and I understand that everyone already has the right to do so) I’d rather have a list of trade-offs that the board may require, carefully considered and defined in advance of any one application. For example, if the board allows more units than the regs specify, it could require a certain level of energy efficiency, sidewalk bike racks for public use, or façade improvements to historic buildings.

Otherwise, it becomes a free-for-all and, in the worst case, you end up with a bunch of apartments that nobody wants to rent just because somebody on the board had a certain personal preference. I mean, if I thought that a conversation pit was a cool amenity, that shouldn’t force a developer to include one in every apartment just because I said so and whoever showed up for the board meeting that day happened to agree with me.

posted by: Steve on December 18, 2010  7:47pm

Hello Again,

The Board cannot append conditions willy-nilly. Conditions cannot be a grab bag of good sounding things. They must relate to the project and the general public welfare.

posted by: Tracey on December 18, 2010  10:59pm

Once these buildings are revamped, I look forward to Cafe 9 being turned into a Starbucks.

posted by: Kevin on December 21, 2010  4:27pm

Steve B et al.

Both buildings have basements (barely visible in the top photo near the street light) that I suspect are unsuitable for living space but would work fine for storage. In addition, 44 Crown has an addition at its rear that falls into the same category.

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