Zoners Say No To St. Michael’s Conversion

Gilad Edelman PhotoThe Board of Zoning Appeals Tuesday evening rejected a proposal to convert buildings owned by a Wooster Square church into apartments, citing concerns about housing density and increased traffic.

The vote concerned a deal between St. Michael’s, at 29 Wooster Pl., and developer Mod Equities to convert three unused church buildings—a school, a convent, and a gym—into 39 market-rate apartments. Currently, the property is zoned to accommodate only about 15 residences, according to Tom Talbot, the city’s deputy director of zoning.

The applicants and their supporters argued that the deal was necessary to save the church, which has suffered financially as membership has declined over the years.

“We in this community must do all we can to save St. Michael’s,” said Tim Yolen, a lawyer representing the church. If the parish can’t sell the buildings, he continued, “it will close.”

Harry DiAdamo (pictured at top of the story), a member of the church finance committee and one of a few parishioners who spoke in favor of the proposal, conceded that St. Michael’s is “not in the red.” But he called that the cost of maintaining the unused buildings an unsustainable drain on church resources.

The dozen or so neighbors who came to speak in opposition to the project mainly agreed that development is necessary. They objected to the number of proposed apartments, which they said would clash with the neighborhood’s character and generate burdensome traffic on Wooster Square’s narrow streets. 

Beverly Carbonella, a parishioner who said she has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, summed up most of the opposition sentiment.

“I realize there is a problem financially for St. Michael’s church, and I’m sympathetic to it,” she said. “But this is not the appropriate project.”

Another theme was mistrust of the developers. Reading from a prepared statement, Michelle Bonanno (pictured), a fourth-generation parishioner of St. Michael’s, said, “The neighborhood should not be punished to line the pockets of out-of-town developers.” 

The developers, brothers Jacob and Joseph Feldman of Lawrence, N.Y., objected to that characterization.

“We’re not absentee New York landlords like we were portrayed tonight,” said Jacob Feldman, noting that their company has been in New Haven for four years.

The brothers said that they will seek more input from the neighborhood in drawing up a new, lower-density proposal to present next month’s board meeting. But they said they are limited by the constraints of the existing buildings, which they can’t tear down because of their historic status.

“With every development you’re dealing with 40,000 square feet, so you have certain fixed costs,” said Jacob Feldman (pictured, left). “If the apartments are too big, then they become too expensive.”

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posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on March 12, 2014  8:36am

Where will people park when they go to Mass? The St. Michaels property has been sold off over the years, eliminating parking for the church on their property to maybe 30 spaces.

posted by: anonymous on March 12, 2014  9:31am

Fewer units = more expensive units.

It’s ostensibly in the neighborhood’s interest to make sure the units here are expensive as possible.  Parking is an excuse.

How about turning the building into a castle for one family?

posted by: wendy1 on March 12, 2014  10:06am

I live 2 or 3 buildings down from these church properties.  It’s too bad the church didn’t organize defenders like myself to fight the zoning board.  Though I am an atheist, I would hate to see the end of St. Michaels.

I have no problem with them increasing their parking lot and as for the 3 smaller buildings I had hopes we would get multiple small apts. with some being very affordable.  I am not a nimby and I want more neighbors and not just rich white ones.  The church and its friends should enlist the new alder,  Greenberg, and give it another try.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 12, 2014  10:56am

How can a development that is reusing existing buildings, not fit in with the character of the neighborhood? That makes no sense.

posted by: olive_st on March 12, 2014  12:38pm

@anonymous. believe me, i share your concern but it’s worth noting that the developers were set on charging 360 State level rents for apartments half the size, which would have drastically raised the price per square foot in this part of Wooster Square. pushing the same (or slightly higher) rents for units twice the size would come closer to maintaining the current rates.

@wendy1. no one at the BZA who opposed this version of the plan said they were against the redevelopment of the site. on the contrary. there were even lifelong parishioners (like Ms. Carbonella) who opposed this plan while also saying, very clearly, that they would support a scaled back version which (see above) could actually stabilize prices. also, bear in mind that they were asking for 40 residential units on your relatively quiet residential street. the parking issues are one thing but the traffic with 25-30 extra cars, plus visitors, could have been serious. 

@jonathan hopkins. it’s about density, not use. the neighborhood isn’t zoned for 40 units. read the City Plan report.

posted by: wendy1 on March 12, 2014  1:42pm

Today, March 12, I went to the Church offices and called their real estate agent, Arnold Grant, to offer advice and my support for whatever the church needs to survive.  The city needs St. Michael’s.  It’s beautiful.  I am very worried about our other neighborhood church on Olive St. and Chapel which is threatened financially.  These churches help people in so many ways, they deserve to survive.  The zoning board is headed by the man who sold the land under 360 State St. for $1.

posted by: WoosterStreetNeighbor on March 12, 2014  2:13pm

What about the proposal before the zoning board last night for 112 Wooster St.? Anyone know the decision on that one?

posted by: Esbey on March 12, 2014  3:13pm

@olive street: increasing supply of housing drives rents at other properties down, not up.  That is the biggest reason that nearby property owners oppose new development—they want to keep rents high.

The biggest reason that neighboring tenants oppose new development is that they don’t want competition for their ability to park for free on city streets.  One politically viable solution might be residential parking permits that are given for free to existing residents, with the rest auctioned off to new residents and property owners, with the revenue dedicated solely to the improvement of neighborhood amenities.  This respects the implicit promise to existing residents that street parking would be free, while allowing new residents the option of gaining parking, but in limited amounts and at a price that is consistent with the limited

As for traffic, really?  It is not a workplace, folks won’t be coming and going at the exact same time and many of them will be walking or biking to work at the hospital, Yale or downtown.  I think this one is a red herring.

posted by: Jones Gore on March 12, 2014  9:24pm

You think if a local politician made the proposal it would have been approved?

posted by: tbialecki on March 12, 2014  9:29pm

Wendy1..Just for the record - FYI - No one on the Zoning Board had anything to do with selling the land to 360 State Street for $1.  The zoning board has nothing to do with negotiating a development agreement and as the City’s Project Director on the 360 development at the time I still think we made out pretty good for a parcel of land that sat for 40 years as a parking lot and had over $3 million dollars of hazardous waste lying underneath that the developer removed.