Yale architecture students are teaming up with Columbus House on a pre-fab house, the 50th annual such project for low-income families, now that the zoning board has blessed the project with a needed variance.
The School of Architecture grad students are buildilng the structure for the Jim Vlock Building Project, an initiative started in 1967 that requires all first-year students to design and erect a house in an economically depressed neighborhood.
This year, the school plans to work for the first time with the homeless shelter Columbus House to provide rental units for former clients. But the siting of the apartments, on an unusually small lot in the Upper Hill, ran into some quirks in the zoning ordinance that city planners called unfair and arbitrary and that threatened to derail the project.
In the RM-2 zone, a middle-density residential area that allows multi-family units, the zoning ordinance requires lots to have 2,000 square feet for each conventional unit or 1,400 square feet for each efficiency apartment. By that measure, one would expect two units could legally fit on a 4,000 square-foot lot.
But the zoning ordinance actually sets a higher threshold, saying all vacant lots must contain a minimum of 5,400 square feet. Anything below that is considered nonconforming and can have only a single-family home unless a variance is obtained. Separate regulations, though, allow that property-owner to come back after the first unit is built and request a second one, planning staff said.
The corner at 54 Adeline St., a vacant lot filled with broken-down cars that the Livable City Initiative, New Haven’s neighborhoods agency, identified as a prime spot for the affordable housing project, technically came up short of the mark, at only 4,934 square feet, for the two-family structure students had in mind.
On Tuesday night at the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St., planning staff urged the Zoning Board of Appeals to overlook the rules and grant Columbus House a variance.
“The real issue in this case is the functional inequity of the Zoning Ordinance itself,” Tom Talbot, the deputy director of zoning, wrote in his evaluation. “What is clear … is that [the restriction on undersized lots] is problematic in terms of both its fairness and its enforceability.
“It is unfair because it makes an essentially meaningless distinction between a nonconforming lot that is vacant and one that has an existing residential structure. The vacant lot can only have one dwelling unit but the lot with the structure on it can have two dwelling units. It is unenforceable in that while a new structure may be initially limited to one dwelling unit it is highly unlikely that anyone would check the original conditions of construction years later when the City is presented with an application for a second dwelling unit on the property.”
The board members agreed and unanimously approved the variance.
That will allow Yale students to get to work on a two-bedroom home and an efficiency apartment, which will be joined under the same gabled roof and share a breezeway. After each architecture student built a prototype of their idea in the spring, faculty selected a winning design. The dedication usually occurs in late September.
The two rentals will be just down the block from Columbus House’s Val Macri site, a 17-unit supportive housing complex for the chronically homeless. They will likely go to graduates of the shelter’s programs who require limited involvement, said Carl Rodenhizer, the nonprofit’s chief real estate officer.
Given New Haven’s lack of affordable housing, the Yale administrators behind the Vlock Building Project hope the duplex designs that students build for Columbus House over the next five years can be replicated citywide. That hasn’t happened in the past, Adam Hopfner, the project’s director admitted. “We want to identify designs that are affordable even without subsidies of Yale and free labor,” he said. “Ultimately, our hope is to have workforce training with the residents of Columbus House.”