Dixwell neighbors are used to developers trying to woo them with plans for apartments, leaving them asking “‘affordable’ for whom?”
They were pleased not to be asking that question after hearing Thursday night about the details of a new planned gateway to their neighborhood with 70 mostly lower-income apartments on a now-vacant lot once known for barbecue.
The neighbors heard the details at a meeting at Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church at 782 Orchard St. The meeting was the neighborhood’s first opportunity to hear in depth about what could become of the long-vacant Joe Grate’s automotive and ribs business lot at 340 Dixwell Ave.
Beulah’s nonprofit development arm, which has already transformed the former crack houses on its own block into stable homes, now is looking to put affordable housing across the street, built safely but quickly, with environmentally sustainable materials—namely wood. In the process, they hope to provide local jobs, and perhaps even a new local industry.
Darrell Brooks, project manager for Beulah Land Development Corporation, was joined by the organization’s new partners Jeff Spiritos of NYC-based Spiritos Properties and New Haven firm Gray Organschi Architecture to unveil the plan to put 70 apartments and commercial space at a site that welcomes people traveling south from Hamden and Newhallville into the Dixwell neighborhood at the confluence of Dixwell Avenue, Shelton Avenue, and Munson Street.
The preliminary layout of the triangular lot calls for a five-story building at the intersection. As the lot heads into the heart of the Dixwell neighborhood the apartment buildings step down in height to four stories. On the Orchard Street side of the development would be eight three-story townhomes with one-bedroom attachments. The rest of the apartments would be two and three bedrooms. The plan also envisions storefronts for small businesses and possibly a small pharmacy or a cafe.
Brooks had previously shared some details and introduced Spiritos to the Dixwell Management Team last Thursday. (Read about that meeting here.) At this Thursday night’s meeting they laid out the vision for housing and jobs and took the time to answer neighbors’ questions about affordability, financing, and the safety of wood construction.
“I believe that it is going to be so transformative for the Dixwell neighborhood,” Brooks said of the proposed project. “I believe it will be transformative one in how we do housing and what housing looks like and who is actually benefiting from the process.”
Brooks, a retired firefighter, said with that job he couldn’t afford to live in any of the market-rate apartments that have been developed or are being developed all over the city. He said that working-class folks like him and people with lower incomes should be able to live in the communities that they serve and that their families have lived in for generations.
In other projects going up in the city, developers have agreed to set aside — sometimes after a little arm-twisting on the part of the city—10 to 30 percent of their apartments as “affordable” or “workforce housing” for those who make up to 80 percent of the area median income. Prime example: The brewing development nearby at 201 Munson St.
The Beulah project turns that formula on its head: 80 percent of the Dixwell Avenue apartments would be rented to people who make between 25 and 60 percent of the area median income, while 20 percent will be rented to those who can pay market rate.
That means that there could be households in the building making as little as $18,162 living in the development. Brooks promised that those tenants would not be relegated to shabbier, no-frills apartments while those who can pay more live in sumptuous accommodations. Everyone will be treated equally in their quality of housing and equitably in their ability to pay, he promised.
“That’s the beauty of a project like this,” Brooks said. “It brings equity across the board for individuals who can live in a home that is quality affordable housing.”
Brooks said Beulah has owned the land since 2007. It was initially going to be a site for Arrow Pharmacy; the deal fell through when Arrow went bankrupt. Beulah pursued a chain pharmacy like CVS for the lot and a doctor’s office, but nothing panned out. Brooks’s board members then pushed for a change of focus to housing.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity that we have in front of us,” he said. “This project is really going to be transformative in a very dynamic way and I think some of the ancillary benefits of this project is going to be about creating a long-term industry here in New Haven and taking advantage of the port.”
One neighbor asked how the site can accommodate so many apartments. It won’t, Brooks said. Beulah is seeking ways to expand the footprint of the site.
Though they can build apartments on the site as of right, the zoning ordinance requires one space of parking for every apartment. The developers would need to seek relief to reduce that parking to just 50 spaces. Neighbors suggested that they consider providing all 70 spaces since there also will be commercial activity on the site and parking is already at a premium.
To pay for the development, the developers plan to seek low-income housing tax credits and loan programs through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Connecticut Department of Housing, according to Jeff Spiritos. The commercial space would have to be developed with private funding, he said. The goal for the developers would be to get their application into the state by its Nov. 1 deadline. The state would make a decision on such applications by the spring of 2019. If the Dixwell Avenue project is selected, construction would begin in the fall with completion envisioned in 14-15 months.
An East Coast Model
The development team believes it can get the project up so quickly because of a new building technology called mass timber construction.
At its core, the process takes large pieces of wood — in this case, prefabricated into panels known as cross-laminated timber, or CLT — that are glued together so they can be used as structural panels that can replace concrete slabs.
The glue is environmentally friendly, said Spiritos. It does not contain formaldehyde.
He also noted because they are panels of wood and not individual sticks of wood, they are more prone to char and burn slowly in the event of a fire. That means that an apartment fire is less likely to spread throughout the entire building.
Spiritos said because those panels can be manufactured offsite, they can also be cut using a computer cutting machine that will carve out windows, doors, electrical outlets, and ductwork.
“That means they come to the site already prepared for everything that happens on site and that frees up the usual costs of construction,” he said.
“These new wood systems are really healthy and good but they also get assembled very quickly,” Alan Organschi added. “It takes less time, so there is less disruption to the communities in which you’re building, less cost for the developers and the communities to carry while you’re waiting for construction to happen.”
The building gets enclosed sooner and allows tradespeople to get inside sooner to do things like plumbing and drywall. Organschi said this new technology could also be a boon for New Haven because it would make a good site for fabrication facilities.
“New Haven is at the intersection of highways, freight lines for railways, it’s got an incredible harbor,” he pointed out. “We could start to build not only housing but people who build houses. Construction jobs aren’t the dirty jobs that they used to be. “
“They can be better and better and there is a need in the construction industry and we think we can be a pilot program for members of the Dixwell community and other people in New Haven to learn how to build this and be leaders in the industry so that they can not only work here but export their own work,” Organschi added. “They can go outside because they’re the experts in how to put these buildings together.”
There are some 600 mass timber buildings in England. Spiritos estimated that there are only a dozen multifamily residential and office buildings built with the technology in the United States. He did note that there are a lot of plans for such buildings, particularly on the West Coast in Portland, Vancouver, and northern California.
The Dixwell Avenue project would be a first of its kind mass timber mixed-use, affordable housing venture, and the developers hope a model for other communities.
Prospect Hill/Newhallville/Dixwell Alder Steve Winter said the project hit many sweet spots for him.
“It’s affordable, it’s extremely environmentally friendly, it has the potential to be carbon sink maybe even carbon negative, who knows,” Winter said. “It’s right in the heart of the community and it’s being presented in a way that is respectful to the community and a real dialogue I think. I’m very excited.”
Brooks gave a shout-out to former Beulah Land summer intern Yanbo Li. Along with fellow Yalie Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon, Li built a small model, that’s now on display at the church, of the proposed development area three years ago as an independent project to show what a future development could look like on the 340 Dixwell Ave. site. (Read about that here.)
After Li graduated with his architecture degree in 2016, he went to work for Gray Organschi Architecture where he started learning about the mass timber technology. But Li didn’t forget Beulah and since he was working in town he wanted to be of some help. He decided to reconnect and eventually helped put his current employer in touch with his former internship host.