Blvd. Housing Rehab Plan Hits The Skids

Markeshia Ricks PhotosA developer’s last-minute changes to plans to rehab an historic home on the Boulevard stalled before the Board of Zoning Appeals just as his time to close a financing deal with the bank is running out.

Just hours before a scheduled public hearing of the BZA Tuesday, an attorney representing the developer submitted revised plans to the board for consideration. The developer, Eyal Preis of Long Island, is now asking the BZA to grant him a special exception to put five apartments instead of the seven he had originally proposed. The seven apartments are down from the original nine that he had first proposed to put into a vacant existing residence at 1377 Ella T. Grasso Blvd.

Preis needs the special exception because he wants to build more than four units in a house which is zoned RM-1, for low-middle density. In that zone, conversions like the one he has proposed can have one unit per 1,000 square feet of existing gross floor area.

Neighbors have been fighting all versions of the plan, saying it would make the neighborhood too crowded. The issue has reflected New Haven’s ongoing discussion about how to build new housing, how densely to develop, and where.

Preis’ attorney, Peter Olson, said initial calculations had put the gross area at more than 7,000 square feet, but after recalculation based on a City Plan staff report and the exclusion of the basement and the carriage house behind the main house, the gross area was reduced to 5,344 square feet.

Now, in his third version of the plan, Preis seeks to create five apartments—two on the first floor, one on the second, another on the third floor and a fifth in the carriage house. Instead of being “micro-units,”  the smallest apartment sizes would range from 900 to 1,890 square feet and have between two and four-bedroom units, Olson said.

The 11th-hour revisions come on the heels of mounting neighborhood opposition — out in full force for Tuesday’s hearing — and what would have been a recommendation for denial of the seven apartments from city Deputy Director of Zoning Tom Talbot.

Talbot had recommended in his staff report that the board deny a special exception to allow seven apartments on the grounds that the developer had miscalculated the gross area of the house at 1377 Boulevard by including space in the basement that did not meet the height requirements to be counted as living space.

He said before the start of the hearing that even without a proper opportunity to review the new plans, he already had a concern for parking, which also would be reduced from seven onsite spaces to five. He said the plan for parking would be a problem because there would be no ability for cars to get out of the lot the developer wants to create without backing into the public right-of-way. Such parking requires an ability to turnaround, Talbot said.

Talbot told board members that they had two options Tuesday night for dealing with the proposal: Deny the proposal or continue the hearing if the applicant refused to withdraw.

Both options were welcome news for to neighbors in attendance who are seeking to stop Preis from turning the old home into a multi-unit building, particularly the small units he initially proposed.

It was bad news for Preis, however. Olson said that the bank that owns the house, Wells Fargo, had his client under a strict timeline for consideration to purchase the property. He said the financing deal, which depends on the zoning permission, expires on Wednesday.

Olson opted for the continuance of the hearing, although the BZA does not meet again until February, the next opportunity at which it could make a decision. He said after the meeting that he doesn’t know what such delays would mean for his client’s deal with the bank. He also said he could not comment on why his client was unwilling to create the four apartments in the building that he can as of right.

Trees? Or People?

Though the plan for 1377 Boulevard had changed again, neighborhood opposition to it did not.

Several neighbors wrote letters of opposition and handed in a petition with 46 signatures opposing the Preis project. Dozens of neighbors, including Edgewood Alder Evette Hamilton, came to Tuesday’s hearing, as planned, armed with anecdotes and information about the character of the neighborhood as a place that supported housing for one- to three family homes and the historic value to the Edgewood Historic District.

Edward Zelinsky, a former longtime Edgewood alder, said that the last-minute nature of the submission of the developer’s plans was exemplary of Preis’ lack of regard for the neighborhood and the city.

“We support development at 1377,” Zelinksy said. “We object to this development and this developer.”

A young Sebastian Bianchine lives in the house across from 1377 Boulevard. He advocated Tuesday to save the tree that is presently in the yard. It would have to be cut down to make room for parking, he said.

“There’s no need to cut down a tree to make parking for nine, seven or five apartments,” he said. “So, why do it?”

Neighbors also stated strong objections to the business practices of the house’s current owner, Wells Fargo, whom they said let the house go to pot. They questioned why Wells Fargo sought to sell to Preis when others have shown interest in developing something more in character with the neighborhood.

BZA Chairman Ben Trachten, however, cautioned neighbors against bashing Wells Fargo, pointing out that no one was there to represent the bank’s point of view. He also deemed such testimony irrelevant to the matter at hand.

While the majority of people in attendance Tuesday were there in opposition to the proposed plan for the Preis project, two people came out in support.

Robert Hale, who lives on Mansfield Street, said the project would bring “five more households paying taxes, spending money, putting eyes on the street” to a property that is now uninhabitable.

Christine Bishop, who owns a property at 202 Maple St., echoed Hale, pointing out that it would “bring the property back onto the tax rolls at a higher value and cure an eyesore in the neighborhood.”

Then the BZA voted to continue the public hearing until the next meeting in February.

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posted by: LookOut on December 13, 2017  9:50am

I attended most of this hearing but could not stay to the end.  Many of the opposition commentators seemed to be more interested in hearing themselves speak than in presenting a real message.  Thus, the hearing lasted WAY too long.  The other thing that was clear is that some folks were using this forum as a method to bash Wells Fargo…..people have the right to hate big banks but that was not the issue being discussed. 

A couple of important points of clarity;

1) This property has an active zoning exemption that allows resident upstairs and 22 people working on the ground floor and 29 parking places (this is from the law office use).  This is a real option for another buyer if this developer is chased away.

2) Current zoning allows 4 units on this site….so all of this noise is about the difference between putting 4 or 5 units in 5344 square feet.

Considering that I heard, I walked out last night glad that the people that I heard speak are not my neighbors.  Advocating for the rot of a beautiful house in a prime location is sad.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 13, 2017  12:45pm

Initially, I wasn’t convinced that this project required an exception, but upon further consideration, I think the developer’s most recent proposal makes sense.
A majority, 9 out of 17, of the houses on the block bounded by Maple, the Boulevard, Edgewood, and Ellsworth do not meet the 2,000 square feet per dwelling unit threshold. For instance, the house at 449 Edgewood Avenue also has 3 units and a net living area of 2,945 square feet or 982 square feet per dwelling unit. The house behind 1377 Boulevard at 158 Maple Street has 3 units and a net living area of 4,224 square feet or 1,408 square feet per unit. To me, it would make sense to allow a density of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 square feet per dwelling unit at 1377 Boulevard. That would allow 4 or 5 units in the house, or exactly what the developer most recently proposed. In addition to that, if the developer proposed to enclose and finish some of the areas of the property that are not included in the living area calculation, such as the garage, then I would think that a sixth unit could be added as well.
Also, isn’t it already the case that cars back out onto Maple from the parking area? What would change with this developer’s proposal?

posted by: Colin Ryan on December 13, 2017  2:24pm

This is the correct outcome all around. The developer should have just proposed the four units in the main house from day one and he would be swinging a hammer right now.

I am extremely curious how he was able to not only reach a deal with Wells Fargo but also get them to agree to a conditional purchase agreement. Who does he know at the bank? And what is that person’s phone number?

posted by: opin1 on December 13, 2017  5:42pm

It makes sense for the house to be a 2 or 3-family.  If I were a neighbor I would accept 4, given that it could sit vacant again. I can understand them not wanting 5 or more as that is quite different from the neighborhood.  Did the bank not have it listed on the market?  I’d be surprised if they couldn’t find a developer who be willing to purchase it and convert it to 2-4 units.  Hope they get a positive outcome for both developer and neighbors.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 14, 2017  5:47pm

I think these have all been good comments, and I don’t know that there is an obvious answer. I would just add that while the other houses on the block are indeed 1, 2, and 3-family houses, 1377 Boulevard is significantly larger than any other house on the block. Therefore, if accounting for the larger size of the house and the residential density on the block, it seems to me that 5 to 6 units would be in keeping with the character of the block. If someone can make it work with 2, 3, or 4 units, then great, but neighbors may want to be open to the possibility of more.

posted by: winchester on December 21, 2017  12:16pm

This property is back on the Market.  If anyone would like to see the property they can contact me anytime and tour the property - Noah Meyer 203-389-5377.  It has been on the market for 1 1/2 years and I have shown it to numerous investors, neighbors, non profits etc.    This property has been open to ALL bidders for the past year and half and now is again.