The old Hotel Duncan’s boutique successor plans to have a ground-floor restaurant, a first-floor cafe — and, at least for now, no unionized employees.
According to the new hotel’s owner, that’s not for lack of trying. On the hotel’s part, that is.
The politically powerful union pushing for an agreement to represent workers, on the other hand, inexplicably stopped taking his calls.
That’s what Graduate Hotels President Tim Franzen said in an interview on Tuesday night after he and local attorney Carolyn Kone pitched the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on two special exceptions for the Graduate New Haven, the new college-themed boutique hotel set to replace the historic Hotel Duncan at 1151 Chapel St.
The BZA hearing saw nearly a dozen Chapel West landlords, business owners, and economic development boosters voice their passionate support for the new hotel, and in particular for its application to receive a hotel liquor license and to have just one on-site parking space where 59 are required.
Afterwards, Franzen discussed the issue that had originally delayed and threatened to kill his plans for a hotel: Demands by the local arm of UNITE HERE — the union that represents both Yale workers and hotel workers, and that backs a supermajority of the Board of Alders — that Franzen sign a neutrality agreement that would pave the way for his employees to be represented. Under such agreements, management agrees not to interfere with a union’s efforts to sign up workers for representation.
The negotiations over a neutrality agreement “didn’t prove fruitful,” Franzen said. He said the new owners of the hotel were open to coming to some accord with the union, whose supporters sought to derail the new owners’ conversion of the former 90-room single room occupancy (SRO) into a 72-room boutique hotel before the owners succeeded in securing all necessary building permits from the city.
“They just stopped communicating,” Franzen said about union contact, or lack thereof, with his company.
Reached by phone late Tuesday night, local UNITE HERE spokesman Ian Dunn declined to comment on the status of negotiations between the union and the new hotel owners.
The Harp administration official who was in the midst of the controversy, former city Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson, said Wednesday morning that City Hall had reached an understanding with Franzen that it made sense to pursue an agreement with UNITE HERE. Nemerson said they concluded it would provide an opportunity to explore how such an agreement could work at a small, high-end hotel, which presents different challenges from conventional bigger institutions.
“What the mayor really wanted me to work out was the way a small hotel could go through the process and have an operating agreement that would be flexible to give the unions what they were looking for and also give the owner of the property the ability to financially manage a smaller property with an agreement,” Nemerson said. “That was the goal.”
But then, after much public pressure and private discussion, communications suddenly halted.
“For whatever reason, the conversation never really followed up. He just didn’t hear from them for a long time,” Nemerson said. “We just couldn’t understand why that conversation didn’t happen. It was going to be an interesting conversation how it would all work within the law governing union voting. It was not an easy thing to work out. And yet we wanted to try it. Franzen was willing to give it a chance.”
Booze And One Parking Spot
Kone and Franzen’s presentation to the BZA on Tuesday had nothing to do with union neutrality agreements, but rather with the new hotel owners’ bid to serve alcohol on premises and have essentially no on-site parking.
And this time no one connected with UNITE HERE was trying to thwart the Duncan’s plans.
The application, submitted by Franzen on behalf of Duncan New Haven Owner LLC, a holding company owned by the Chicago-based real estate company AJ Capital Partners, requests special exceptions for a hotel liquor license and to permit one on-site parking space where 59 spaces are required.
“The Special Exception for the liquor license is a requirement for all non-restaurant establishments serving alcoholic beverages in BD-1 districts,” the BZA staff report notes. “The related parking requirement is limited to the common portions of the hotel on the basement and first floor levels where alcoholic beverages are served, as opposed to the 72 rooms in the upper five stories of the establishment. There is no parking requirement for the rooms themselves.”
Kone said that the hotel’s new owners plan to open a new 61-seat full-service restaurant in the hotel’s ground-floor space, which used to house Thai Taste and, for decades, Heidelberg’s.
On the lobby level of the new hotel, plans call for a living room-type space with a bar that serves coffee during the day, and wine and beer in the evening.
“This is going to be a welcoming place,” she said, not just for hotel visitors, but for neighbors in the Downtown, Dwight, and Chapel West communities.
“In New Haven,” she said, “all of the hotels have hotel liquor licenses,” which allow them to serve alcohol beyond the confines of a restaurant. This application would only bring the new Graduate New Haven into line with the Omni, the New Haven Hotel, and the Study’s alcohol licenses, she said.
As for the parking special exception request, she said, the Duncan currently has only one on-site handicap parking space.
“It’s never had any parking,” she said, “and it’s functioned quite well.” She said the new hotel will have valet service for visitors.
She said the new hotel owners have also committed to renting out 25 parking spaces at the nearby Chapel York Garage, which is owned by Yale University. There will also be nine bicycle parking spaces at the hotel itself.
“We want to promote tourism,” she said, “and we want to promote a reduction in parking.”
BZA Chair Pat King asked Kone if she had read the condition included in the BZA staff report’s conditional recommendation of approval. That condition requires that the hotel provide the city with a written agreement between the hotel and the appropriate authority concerning the location and operation of valet parking prior to sign-off on a hotel liquor license permit.
Kone said she had, and that the hotel owners will provide a contract with the Chapel York Garage before requesting final sign-off from the city.
The hotel’s application now goes to City Plan Commission before returning to BZA next month for a final vote.
Standing In Support
Nearly a dozen people, ranging from the neighborhood’s alder to community management team members to local business owners and landlords, cycled past the microphone at the hearing as they offered their vociferous support for a company that, according to Franzen, has already poured millions of dollars into renovating and converting the historic hotel.
Franzen said the hotel should be open this fall.
Downtown Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu said the liquor license and the parking reduction both fit within a New Urbanist perspective that urban downtowns should be pedestrian-friendly and dense with a diversity of businesses.
Plus, he added, “you can’t really have a hotel without a liquor license.”
Dwight community management team member Linda Townsend Maier praised the incoming hotel for potentially bringing more pedestrians to the stretch of Chapel Street just west of York Street. She said the high-end Novella development at Park Street and Chapel Street measurably improved the perception of safety on that city block, just by virtue of increasing pedestrian traffic.
“It’s good not only for Chapel West,” she said about the new hotel, “but good for the neighborhood as a whole.”
Former city transit chief Brian McGrath, representing the Chapel Street Special Services District (CSSSD), said that the area has plenty of parking, and that one on-site space should not present any problems for that stretch of Chapel Street.
“Even when the Duncan was full,” he said, parking “was ok.”
And Arnie Lehrer, CSSSD’s secretary and a landlord in the area, said the new hotel will bring much-needed property tax revenue to city coffers, and will convert a formerly decaying building into a renovated, bustling hub.
“New Haven has another opportunity to bring income to he city,” he said, “with what I see very little negatives and a lot of positives.”
Paul Bass contributed to this report.