Duncan Owner: We Tried To Allow Union

Thomas Breen photosThe 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.

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posted by: wendy1 on January 9, 2019  10:02am

Housing or hotel, I’ll take either.  Good luck dealing with the zoning board, the BOA, and the half-assed weak unions here.

We all need unions but the local ones seem to shoot themselves in the foot every time they get a chance and I dont see them doing much for the city workers either.  Now, my union, the National Nurses Union, that’s a union.

posted by: robn on January 9, 2019  11:03am

Maybe UNITE finally realized that their blatant manipulation of city govt officials to get their own way was really bad optics.

posted by: ebw1957 on January 9, 2019  11:27am

Unions = Democrat party ATM

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 9, 2019  2:29pm

Requiring a special exception makes sense in certain circumstances. But requiring one so that a hotel can sell drinks?

posted by: OutofTown on January 9, 2019  3:20pm

If the City relates zoning approvals, through its actions or its statements, with the desires of a third-party labor union, the City will be open to serious litigation. Then labor union has become a de factor part of the zoning process, even though no laws support that relationship. 

The Alders will be subject to legal claims that their zoning decisions are biased, in light of their participation in labor unions.  The City is opening itself up to lost profits damage claims from property owners who lose zoning approvals because of union desires.  Lost profit cases are very expensive to litigate, and generally result in settlement. 

The City financially supports labor unions through litigation expenses relating to biased zoning decisions, and the potential loss of tax assessment revenue when projects fail.  Its a problem.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 9, 2019  6:49pm

Outoftown, with regard to a zoning variance, maybe. With regard to other zoning actions, not so much. There are narrow legal grounds for granting a variance, none of which have anything to do with the applicant’s stance towards unions.  With regard to special exceptions (the relief sought here) the zoning ordinance requires the BZA to determine whether the proposed use accords with “the public convenience and welfare”, a far more commodious standard.

In this case, the BZA rather the Board of Alders that is the decision maker. While the BZA’s decisions are sometimes appealed, I’m not aware of any cases where the BZA has been sued for damages. The Board of Alders is the decision maker in changing zoning districts or amending the zoning ordinance. But these are legislative actions and the board has virtually unlimited discretion.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 9, 2019  8:40pm

posted by: ebw1957 on January 9, 2019 10:27am

Unions = Democrat party ATM

No unions=Exploited Workers.

posted by: wendy1 on January 10, 2019  7:52am

I will fire the zoned out zoning board, revamp city plan, and encourage SMALL businesses.

It pisses me off that Yale can put up 8 acres/ half a billion dollar project on Prospect, the equivalent of a small town, in 2 years but public projects all move at a glacial rate.  And after years of waiting, they still f****** leak when it rains.

posted by: budman on January 10, 2019  8:52am

Here is what we need, plain and simple, people to rise up fight and defeat these members of the Board whose sole purpose is to be Unite Here spokespeople.  Who will step up in Westville?  We need to take our city back.  I am not saying that workers should not have the right to organize, but to make this a city requirement is extortion.  They do not have people’s interest at heart. It’s sole purpose is securing the welfare of Unite Here leadership.  It has nothing to do with the betterment of the people.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 10, 2019  2:51pm

Wendy, the mayor can’t simply fire the ZBA members. They have five-year, overlapping terms. The mayor can only remove members for cause and they have due process rights under the city charter.

posted by: win win on January 10, 2019  3:21pm

You expect slick talk from wealthy power brokers but what’s sad is when the people fall for it. Developer goes “over there! What’s that!?” and everyone turns their heads, then while we’re distracted he goes along with his agenda. Why is no one is asking whether this project and the way it’s being done good for the city, good for tax base, good for workers, good for people who struggle to pay rent, etc?

posted by: 1644 on January 10, 2019  10:34pm

Win:  The renovated hotel will certainly be more valuable than the old configuration, which means that it will pay more in taxes, especially after the phase in that the city grants to all major renovations and new construction. Given that towns’ only stable source of revenue is property tax revenue, the increased value is indisputably a good thing for everyone else.  With a higher level of service than the old hotel, the new Duncan will likely employ more people.  More demand for labor means a higher price for labor, even if only an incremental increase.  More demand is always better.  The new hotel’s leintele will be wealthier than the old hotels, as well, increasing foot traffic and trade at local business such as coffee shops, etc., increasing the value of their properties as well, and increasing demand for labor in those establishments.  As for people struggling with rent,  those who rent a spare room on AirBnB have likely already seen an increase in demand, as the only low priced downtown hotel option has disappeared.  Those who cannot or don’t want to pay the prices of The Study or the Omni can find spare rooms for as little as $40/night on AirBnB.  On the other hand, the handful of folks who were long term boarders have been pushed out to other apartments,  incrementally increasing demand for spaces renting for about $1K/mo. The stories in the NHI about Duncan residents show there is at least some demand for micro-apartments, boarding houses and communal living of the modern university dorm variety (think Yale’s Elm St. grad student housing), but Harp and the Alders have generally opposed such.  There is also a safety aspect to the renovation:  I cannot imagine the plumbing and electrical were in great shape.  It a great building, but iron and copper pipes corrode, and cloth and rubber wire insulation rots away.  We can count ourselves lucky we had no structural collapses or fires.

posted by: Dennis Serf on January 12, 2019  2:26am

“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”

Demands by the local arm of UNITE HERE pressuring and threatening local development. This seems to be a common theme in many NHI articles and the demands seem to run counter to the interests of New Haven taxpayers . I am not politically connected, and have not been politically involved in New Haven until last year’s 11% tax increase slapped me in the face.  I am trying to get my mind around the UNITE HERE group/influence. It seems to be everywhere, yet nowhere. And by that I mean I forever read about the UNITE HERE group influencing decisions ‘behind the scenes’ and off the record. But, I don’t see where the Alders or City Admin come out at Board meetings wearing UNITE HERE shirts and openly say. We’re doing X, because UNITE HERE wants us to.

So, I have some questions:

1. Is the UNITE HERE influence real? 
2. If it is real, again IF, who are the Alders/City Administrators putting UNITE HERE interests above those of New Haven Taxpayers?
3. Do these elected officials have an official platform that they make public? Something that reads, no development unless it hires UNITE HERE etc.  Or is the agenda/platform unwritten? That is, to what extent is there any transparency
4. Has anyone researched relationships among these interests and our elected officials, etc and willing to share it?

You can reply here or email me below.

Many thanks!

Dennis Serfilippi
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
https://www.ournewhaven.org/