A project testing the feasibility of selling condos in New Haven won an endorsement from city planning staff, calling the proposal to convert an abandoned printing press into townhouses and apartments “a solid example” of adaptive reuse.
With a long-overdue traffic study in hand, an attorney representing Ocean Management made a final pitch to the Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday night asking for approval to install 30 residences at the former Lehman Brothers engraving plant, which has been shuttered for close to a decade.
With private financing from out-of-state investors, Ocean will be the first company to test if New Haven’s booming housing market can handle condominium sales or whether it’s working for only high-end rental apartments (for which there’s a current construction boom).
The company’s lawyer, Miguel Almodovar, had first appeared before the board two months ago, without details about how the plan would affect congestion on surrounding streets. With a 50-page study finally submitted, the project can now move ahead to the next stage of review.
The Goatville project, at 191, 197 & 199 Foster St., needs a special exception for a “planned development unit,” the city’s term for a major construction project where “tracts of land of considerable size” are refashioned into a coherent whole. In this project, Ocean Management would combine about one acre of land into a single project, and is seeking permission to be allowed to exceed normal density requirements by one-third.
Staff recommended that the zoners give the project a go-ahead at their next meeting. In the meantime, the City Plan Commission will give it a second look before writing its own opinion, focused mainly on the architectural design, soil erosion, water drainage and public access.
“The proposed application,” wrote Thomas Talbot, the city’s deputy zoning director, “represents a solid example of how urban residential space can be developed in such a manner as to not merely incorporate structural elements of the past, present and future … but to do so in a way that creates a space that is respectful of neighborhood scale and character.”
Home to one of the country’s preeminent commercial printing companies for almost 80 years, the modest East Rock industrial complex used to produce engravings, fine stationery and wedding invitations. It permanently closed its doors in December 2008 when Lehman Brothers Inc. (no relation to the felled Wall Street investors) went bankrupt.
The site has three factory buildings, a sliver of vacant land and a boarded-up, single-family home. Ocean plans to demolish two of the structures, including a warehouse that butts right up to neighbors’ property line on Nicoll Street.
In their place, the company would build six cement and clapboard, “Greek-revival style” three-bedroom townhouses, each with underground parking, said the architect, Wayne Garrick.
The company plans to erect a four-story, synthetic stucco, “simple Bauhaus-looking style” building with 18 two-bedroom units (each with metal-railed balconies) and a covered garage. Those units will separate bedrooms with a common area, rather placing them next to each other. “They could be geared to people with one room as a study or two roommates,” Garrick explained. “It’s an arrangement that allows some flexibility for living arrangements and privacy.”
The main two-story, reinforced-concrete building that once housed the printing press will also get another floor and be converted into six two-bedroom units. Garrick said they’d be “very generous in size.” At about 1,500 square feet each, they’ll have two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen.
“We want to use as much of the existing Lehman Brothers building as possible,” Almodovar said. “
Ocean Management, a rapidly expanding company, is owned by Israeli investor Shmuel Aizenberg. It’s been transitioning from a portfolio of trashed low-income rentals it picked up from slumlords into a wider mix of middle-class rentals, like the 21-unit apartment complex that opened in the gutted and rehabbed YMCA railroad building at 1435 State St. in Cedar Hill.
With the Foster Street development, it would expand into condominium sales, which aren’t prevalent in New Haven because of the difficulty of getting financing from banks.
Ocean’s team bought the Foster Street factory last year from a low-profile developer who himself had snatched up the property in bankruptcy court in 2010 but never did anything except let the weeds take over.
“Our overarching goal is to transform a vacant and unused industrial plant and reintegrate the property into the East Rock neighborhood,” Almodovar said.
In his advisory report, Talbot wrote that planned development units, across multiple tracts like this one, usually come with with a “more unified design plan.” But the varying ages for each of the buildings here creates the illusion of traveling through time, he said.
“Rather counterintuitively,” he wrote, the diversity of structures “results in an effect of integration and harmony organically created over a period of time rather than as a single project approved and constructed at the same time.”
That positive review wasn’t just an extra plaudit for the architect’s benefit; it’s actually a legal requirement for a project of this scope. According to the zoning ordinance, a planned development unit proposal needs to show “such unusual merit as to reflect credit upon the developer and upon the city” to win approval.
Talbot’s report expressed some concern about the project’s density, but concluded it is not out of line with the rest of the neighborhood. Talbot wondered in the report if there should have been a mixed-use element but decided that it’s “preferable” to be entirely residential to support other East Rock’s other businesses.
If it wins the necessary approvals, Ocean looks to open the property early next summer.