Zoners Match Erector Square With Reality

Allan Appel PhotoSarah Stewart turns out oil-on-linen paintings in the factory complex that once turned out erector sets for the nation — and now New Haven’s zoning rules are catching up with the economic transformation there.

Stewart has neighbors by the dozens occupying warrens in the old brick buildings in the complex at Blatchley Avenue and Peck Street. Other tenants include martial arts and ballet schools, yoga instructors, a theater company, several architects’ offices, a political think tank, and an array of other uses that could hardly be called “IH,” or heavy industrial, which is the area’s current zoning designation.

Brian Slattery PhotoThat’s why on Wednesday night at a regularly scheduled public hearing, the City Plan commissioners voted unanimously, and without a peep of public comment, to amend the zoning map from IH, or heavy industrial to IL, light industrial. As did the Board of Alders Legislation Committee at a meeting Thursday night City Hall.

If approved by the full board, that change will legalize what Deputy Director of City Plan Tom Talbot called “conversions going on for years with questionable zoning legality.”

And it will catch up with reality in a city once known for manufacturing and now known for its emerging “creative economy.”

The new zoning moniker makes legal most of the current activities at Erector Square, which has become such an artists’ hub that it has its own City Wide Open Studios weekend.

With a previously amended list of IL permitted uses, “a whole variety of commercial and even residential uses” could also be permitted, Talbot said.

That was good news to Brenda Carter, a political researcher for The Reflective Democracy Campaign. She rents space at Erector Square along with other tenants like Bregamos and Collective Consciousnessness theater companies as well as Peg Olivera’s 108 Monkeys, a yoga and mindfulness training organization that works to reduce tensions among school kids and other populations — even bargain-hunting shoppers at local green markets.

Artist PhotoWhen told about the impending change Carter said she hadn’t heard about it and wasn’t sure what it would mean.

She did know, however, what she wants to see added to the Erector Square complex. “I’d like to have a coffee shop,” she said.

Actually a coffee shop was permitted already under the IH zoning, Talbot said at the hearing. (Lori’s, which had been at Erector Square for several years, has been shuttered for months.)

“Make that a coffee shop slash bar,” Carter added.

Talbot said the change makes sense because the Erector Square area is six acres of a larger ten-acre IH zone. Erector Square’s four acres have somehow become tucked into and become adjacent to a residential area. The zoning change will enable the current buildings and activities of Erector Square to “blend in” far better with the residential area, he said.

“In its present zoning it’s realized its limits,” said City Plan Chair Ed Mattison.

“Nobody’s making Erector Sets,” replied Talbot.

“It’s part of an effort to regularize zoning and the whole goal is to get creativity going,” added Mattison.

The specific trigger for the change was interest expressed by the not-for-profit Music Haven goup to expand into space at Erector Square, said City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg.

Since that use is technically not permitted in an IH, the process to get permission, if one dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, is “onerous,” said Talbot.

“The owner/applicant wanted more variances for more uses, so we recommended we go with a [zoning] map change,” Gilvarg said.

The staff recommendation to the commissioners also called for them to address the fate of the remaining acres in the IH zone related to Erector Square. Staff “recommends efforts to incorporate this area into either this newly created district, an adjacent RM-2 district or even possibly a nearby BA district.”

“People around here are not doing any heavy industrial stuff, so I’m fine with the change,” Steward said

Industrial designer Andrew Cryan, who has his own studio in the complex and also works for Kent Bloomer Studio, an architect also housed at Erector Square, agreed.

“Broadly speaking,” he said, “the community here is a nice thing.”

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posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 19, 2017  2:54pm

This is a reasonable change. But tbe zoning ordinance is outdated - its basic provisions go back nearly a century. The conventional wisdom back then was that different land uses should be segregated, density discouraged, and cars encouraged

posted by: Rich Pizzo on May 20, 2017  6:42am

So then, what changes will this entail, what will be lost? and what will be gained?

What organizations will this effect? that are already there,  and what organizations will this effect? that are not already there.

Why is this change necessary?

posted by: Peter99 on May 20, 2017  7:15am

Amazing. Politics and updated realistic thinking combined with the use of good old common sense prevail. There may be hope for us humans that live in New Haven.

posted by: robn on May 20, 2017  7:36am


Yes but this suburban union controlled BOA has shown itself to be so motivated by their own self interest (the self interests of the Yale unions seeking more control over the administration) that they could never be trusted with a major zoning revision. it would be like their recent bizarre gerrymandering of aldermanic wards (which cynically was presented as a civil rights matter but was really just strategic voter block construction destruction)....only much worse.
Do not trust this BOA; their motivations are not public service.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 20, 2017  8:41pm

Robn, I not thrilled with the results of redistricting, in part because it split East Rock into four wards; previously the vast majority of the neighborhood was in two wards. But redistricting was required by the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population moved eastward, and the ward boundaries had to be redrawn to reflect this.

I think we have two choices. We can retain a dysfunctional zoning ordinance, which means that virtually all development goes through the politicized variance procedure. Or we can have the BOA, which clearly has its own agenda, try to bring the ordinance into the 21st Century.

posted by: robn on May 20, 2017  9:11pm


Noonr can possibly look at the last redistricting and not see ridiculous boundaries. This was a very successful project by UNITE to destroy the solidarity of East Rock voters.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on May 21, 2017  8:33am

@ NHI—a couple of quick questions:

1. Who owns Erector Square?

2. Who decides what zoning regulations get enforced, and when? (Daggett Street, anyone?)

Finally, do all the artists quoted in this article understand that their days of cheap rents are potentially coming to a close?

Trying to look beyond the surface, I reckon the real reason this Zoning Change is happening is so that residential uses will now be permissible. (Music Haven is just a convenient excuse.) Whoever owns Erector Square cannot be blind to the astronomical rents being charges by Corsair. What is to keep the current owner from now marketing his previously “land-banked” property to a residential developer?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 22, 2017  8:20am

Assuming the on-line version of the zoning ordinance is correct, Tom Talbot may have misspoke regarding residential uses in IL zones. Section 41 of the ordinance describes business and industrial districts and states the purpose of these districts. In the discussion of IL districts, it states “further development of residences is prohibited from these districts and also from Industry H and Business H Districts, in order to conserve the supply of heavy commercial and industrial land and to prevent residences from being established under strongly adverse conditions.” Developers routinely seek and get use variances, but it does not appear that residential use of Erector Square would be allowed without a variance.