Grand Avenue Dreams

Allan Appel PhotoA grocery, a deli, florist, a coffee shop, or an all-purpose hardware store so you wouldn’t have to drive five miles to pick up a nut, bolt, or screw.

An ethnic restaurant with tables on the sidewalk, to be welcoming. Something that says “neighborhood.”

And how about lowering traffic speeds, less loitering, and attracting foot traffic beyond clients of social service agencies?

Those suggestions came up at a brainstorming session Tuesday night about the future of Grand Avenue.

The suggestions led to a question: Can rezoning make some —  or any — of this happen?

Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg and City Assistant Director for Comprehensive Planning Aicha Woods convened about 40 people at the Conte/West Hills School library for the session to “re-vision”  the stretch of the Grand Avenue corridor roughly from Hamilton Street and the new Mill River Crossing development to Olive Street.

The City Plan Department has put this corridor and two others — lower Dixwell Avenue and lower Whalley Avenue near downtown — on a fast track for rezoning.

The idea for Tuesday’s “listening session” was to solicit ideas for what new uses locals want in the neighborhood; to focus on challenges to overcome in street-scape improvements; and then to see how rezoning from the corridor’s current general business (BA) designation to other current classifications or potentially a new “transitional commercial zone” might help to achieve agreed-upon goals.

The aim is to get more commercial and street level activity to “restitch” the area to downtown.

Woods said City Plan staffers are doing the project in-house. After one more public meeting in December, they hope to take the package of rezoning proposals for the three transitional corridors to City Plan commissioners, who would hold another public hearing; and then to the Board of Alders for final debate and approval. All zoning changes must be aldermanically approved.

Woods said she hopes the changes are formally approved and implemented by early 2019.

Longtime Lyon Street resident Pat McCardle was in one of the four groups into which participants were divided Tuesday evening to ponder the questions and then to report.

“I love my house, my neighborhood, New Haven,” she said. Yet she and others in her group questioned whether zoning changes alone can address loitering and safety challenges that recently have resulted in the closing of the only grocery in the area, the convenience store at Olive and Grand.

“They’d been robbed so many times, they had to put on a heavy door” , another member of her group said.

Wooster Square activist Bonnie Rosenberg bemoaned the loss of Frank’s Hardware, which used to be at Jefferson Street. She said she yearns for a place where she could go, walking out of her Wooster Square door, to pick up just the right screws and nuts she needs for a domestic repair job without having to drive to a big box establishment.

Such big box or flagship enterprises are not part of the aim, Woods emphasized, but rather using the zoning code for"infill” of the blank or gapped spaces along the avenue with smaller, local mixed-use activity.

“There’s a tremendous range of uses here already. Will zoning help?” asked Charlie Murphy.

“The BA zone in terms of uses is very liberal,” Woods said.

She mentioned many quality of life issues imperiling the vitality of the corridor. “Property and business owners are frustrated by the loitering, and I don’t know how that’s addressed by zoning,” she said.

“Our goal is not to restrict but foster opportunities.”

Then the participants were off and running with suggestions.

Apart from a revival of a beloved local hardware store, other participants spoke of wanting a fitness establishment, a market with front or street-facing seating, coffee shops, and restaurants.

“I don’t want another restaurant and bar district,” said Doug Royalty, a neighbor who sits on the Historic District Commission. “How about a vintage clothing store, or an old books store?”

At another table, Wooster Square advocate Murphy, Chatham Square’s Lee Cruz, and others discussed the Olive and Grand intersection, and particularly the curved turning lane in front of the firehouse might be improved both for safety and good looks.

Marge Pikaart, who volunteers with homeless projects in the area, bemoaned the condition of the State Street Shoreline East train station. Admittedly that location was out of the purview of Woods’ area, but Pikaart reported that some of the homeless men had asked to be allowed to help improve the neighborhood with projects like repainting fire hydrants.

“Why couldn’t we have a kind of work exchange?” she suggested. She spoke of a project that might ameliorate the problems with the peripatetic homeless population, and in so doing make the area more attractive to some of the new businesses people want.

Other ideas put forward included: extending the downtown “ambassadors: program to Grand; better lighting and maybe mural-ing of the dismal highway overpass at Franklin Street; mixed use development that included work-live spaces that will increase foot traffic after dark; and hiding Dumpsters from sight.

Other groups were tasked with enumerating what they love about the area and what chief obstacles loom.

Several people cited with affection Lenzi Park on Jefferson Street. One participant suggested that if a shop or market or business faced the park, that could activate that area and it could become a mini-focus of positive activity.

Chief among the challenges were the perceived lack of public safety of the area. That perception isheld primarily by outsiders, not by those who live in the neighborhood.

Another perception to be overcome is that the corridor is completely a pass-through and that the foot traffic is mainly social service clients. Maybe that could be remedied, one participant said, by putting in a “parklet,” by having a bike share station on the avenue, and having first-floor residences.

Longtime Lyon Street resident Mona Berman talked about air and noise pollution along her block drifting over from the avenue.

New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said officials should ensure that all commercial development and zoning changes take into consideration the proximity of neighboring residents.

Farwell ended up quite optimistic, at least in this instance, about the power of smart zoning to cure problems that un-thoughtful zoning has created.

A lot of our problems come out of big box” development.  she said as the meeting concluded. “Very good infill will create real economic benefit, and this is a very important thing to do. It adds value and decreases costs, like policing. That’s a more profound kind of development and benefit.”

Wood said she’ll make an effort to have a sampling or summary of the evening’s comments available on the City Plan website before the next public meeting. That will be in December, date to be determined.

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posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on October 24, 2018  1:19pm

YES to a Hardware Store. It’s absurd that I have to go to Woodbridge, Hamden, or Orange for nuts or bolts. C-Town has a limited selection but even that is pretty far away from downtown.

posted by: Patricia Kane on October 24, 2018  1:53pm

Start by putting graffiti artists to work on those ugly, scary and dark underpasses.
  Set aside some public spaces for people to spend time in safely and without being hassled by the police.
  Employ people from the shelter to clean up around town.
  Either re-design that ugly shelter, which I’m told is a mess inside (and also very profitable) or tear it down and make a small park.
  Make more attractive bus shelters where more people can sit and be enclosed in winter. Maybe folding doors? How about a design contest?
  Consult with architect Fereshteh Bekhrad, who used to head the Grand Ave. Business group, and has a list of recommendations.
    The energy on Grand Ave is wonderful, as is the spontaneous music in the summer months.  Don’t try to yuppify the place, but good signage would help.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on October 24, 2018  3:20pm

Typo here: There are no “big box” stores in the zone now, nor would the current BA zone and current lot sizes support this type of operation.

The heart of the issue is this: the BA zone, a creation of the Redevelopment Era, was established in may areas of New Haven during the early 1960’s. In most of them, particularily in those places which had once functioned as neighborhood “Main Streets”—places like Grand, Dixwell, Congress, and Whalley Avenues—the BA zone proved to be a killer of the local economy and healthy urban street life.

This is because the BA zone requires side yard set backs and parking ratios which destroy the continuity of street walls and the solid retail environments which this tried-and-true urban form nurtured by creating walkability, convienece, and community coherence. All these areas have floundered for the past 60 plus years.

Our neighborhood retail centers are not only important to supporting neighborhood life, they also have the capacity to generate more tax dollars per acre and greater social, employment and environmental benefits than many of the big “flagship” development projects which garner so much attention, hope, and, to often, public subsidies beyond their capcity to deliver. The City’s current initiative to rezone our neighborhood business districts is a very positive step.

posted by: boxerct on October 24, 2018  4:35pm

Can someone tell me why Franks Hardware closed?  Has anyone here actually visited a florist shop in the last 5 years? Does the section of Grand between the Mill river and downtown have enough residents per square mile to support small business?  Is there a plan in place to increase affordable housing in the area between the Mill river and downtown?  And finally, what’s so bad about “Big Box Retailers”?

The fact is that stores almost always close because they fail to turn a profit, and business owners don’t like losing money, so getting another Franks is probably out of the question.  Florist shops are going the way of Photomats, everyone buys floral arrangements online, and buys flowers at the local grocery or mom and pop store.  There’s almost no residential between the Mill River and downtown on Grand or on the side streets, it’s nearly all warehouse space, vacant lots or light industrial, so there’s certainly not the requisite “5000 shoppers within 5 minutes” required to open a successful small enterprise.  Finally, New Haven has missed the boat on Big Box retailers, they’ve all built up in the neighboring towns, and have no reason to open another location in a saturated market.

Focus on providing housing that’s affordable, dense, and attractive, leave some corner lots open for the mom and pop shops that will spring up, and re-purpose some of the warehouse space into lofts and apartments to start. Once population increases, enterprise will follow naturally.  And as Anstress Farwell aptly states, change the zoning to allow for buildings against the curb, remove the setback and parking restrictions.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on October 24, 2018  5:32pm

I was thinking that it may be a good idea to widen lower Grand Avenue and have there be two lanes in both directions to make it feel more like a city thoroughfare type of corridor.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 25, 2018  6:39am

Lots of people, including Matt Nemerson, have bemoaned the absence of neighborhood hardware stores. (I have fond memories of Bunnell’s on Orange Street.) But Home Depot, Lowe’s, et al. have put them on the endangered species list. I fear that it Is highly unlikely that we will see another Frank’s. (Grand Paint, down the block, is a good place to buy paint and related goods, but it is not a hardware store.)

Patricia, I have been pleasantly surprised that the mural on Humphrey Street under I-91 has not been tagged. The fact that it was done by a graffiti artist, with community support, may have something to do with this.

Boxerct, the completion of the first phase of the Mill River Crossing development will help provide a market for retailers on Grand Avenue. The development replaces Farnham Court and most of its units are subsidized. I believe the second phase will be starting soon. The development includes a retail space, which has not been fitted out.  I think it would be worth considering opening the space to push-cart style vendors, at least in the short-term.

_quinnchionn_, most of the buildings on this stretch of Grand Ave. abut the sidewalk. Widening the street would require taking them down. On the other hand, the fact that Elm Street is one-way disconnects Grand Ave. from downtown.

Finally, work has begun on the Mill River linear park, which will be an asset for this area. A small stretch (by The District) is already open. The rest of the work should be completed over the next two years.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on October 25, 2018  7:09am

@KevinMcCarthy

— What would your ideas be to make lower Grand (Avenue) better connected to Downtown?

posted by: boxerct on October 25, 2018  1:38pm

@Kevin McCarthy

I think the idea of pushcart vendors to start is brilliant..  it would serve a smaller, growing population, have a low enough overhead that vendors could turn a profit, and having vendors that can rotate in and out would draw folks to the area.  Perhaps the alders could see their way to getting one of the under or unused warehouses to open a floor or two for pushcarts to work out of.  It would also be an outstanding opportunity for start up businesses to get a foot in the door, and bring some diversity back to the retail landscape.

As to the argument that Homedepot and Lowes put the small hardware stores out of business, one only has to look to Goody’s in East Haven, less than a mile from a Homedepot, to see it’s not valid.  Goody’s stays in business by making sure that they’ve got the products the big box stores don’t carry and they’re thriving as a result. I’d venture a guess that the owner of Frank’s didn’t pay attention to filling that niche, or more likely there simply isn’t enough density in the neighborhood to support a full fledged hardware store.

posted by: Patricia Kane on October 25, 2018  2:03pm

How long til the push cart vendors are forced out of business?
  The hot dog vendor near City Hall was wailing when the license for his operation increased substantially some time ago. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but someone from the City could supply the details.
  Millions are given away in tax abatements, while small business (a push cart is a micro business) is burdened disproportionatley.
    Economic fairness appears to be missing.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 26, 2018  7:07am

Patricia, I don’t think indoor vendors would need the license you are describing. They would need other documents, such as a sales tax permit and, if they were selling food, a Health Department license. BTW, the hot dog vendor is still in business.

Boxerct and _quinchionn_,, thanks.  The city could support merchants in this area and central Fair Haven by making Elm Street two-way and posting signs downtown directing people to Fair Haven. With regard to hardware stores, boxerct is right that they are not extinct. But the big box chains have sharply reduced their numbers, in city neighborhoods and rural areas. For example, in the recent past hardware stores have closed on Whalley Avenue, Orange Street, and Grand Avenues. None of the surrounding neighborhoods had become less dense when the stores closed.

posted by: Patricia Kane on October 26, 2018  9:16am

KCM: I understood pushcart vendors to mean the kind I see on the streets. My point about the increase in their licenses v the huge tax abatements that are a routine feature of city governance remains.
As for a smaller bus, would not a small investment in a few smaller buses - similar to the Yale Shuttle - not save on gas and even insurance? To see a huge double bus lumbering along with a few riders appears wasteful. But I accept your explanation as to why it won’t happen.
As for the Humphrey St. mural, it would be a minimal investment for each neighborhood to inventory its own underpasses or spots in need of some love, then locate local artists to design something consistent with the neighborhood’s identity: its people, landmarks, activities. The Strong School is a good example of bringing energy to something that was previously just an eye sore. I wish every Management Team in the city would consider such action. Note: Strong School murals were a project of the Chatham Sq. Neighborhood Assn.
As for the supremacy of the big box outlets over the former small, neighborhood related businesses, nothing lasts forever. Nation wide malls are closing down, although not disappearing. As Douglas Rae points out in his brilliant book “The End of Urbanism”, change occurs and city government is not in charge.
Nonetheless, as the bowling league and civic associations have disappeared, along with the buggy whip, it is worth envisioning new ways of creating community and connection.
My thanks for all your good information.

posted by: RobotShlomo on October 29, 2018  1:25pm

@boxerct

Goody’s is good for some specialty stuff, but they are the exception now. I go there quite a bit, but I can’t go there for things like drywall or cement. Goody’s does get a number of contractors there who have lines of credit, and that’s how they make a lot of their money, but having a hardware store so they can sell nuts and bolts for a quarter to people in the neighborhood just isn’t feasible. And if they did carry the building supplies that contractors needed, then I imagine those who are saying how badly they want one, would be the first complaining about the trucks going in and out of there. And let’s not even get into the fact that they sell propane. I doubt anyone from zoning wants to approve a 500 gallon tank of propane on Grand Ave, not to mention the tankers or bobtails that deliver it.

It’s not the 1950’s anymore where Howard Cunningham sells you mouse traps. The days of the neighborhood hardware store sadly are numbered. I know, I used to work in one. And I know the city is doing a major buy in on this whole Millennialization, thinking that everyone is eventually going to want to live downtown, but when the reality of cheaper rents and no rage inducing traffic in the suburbs sets in, the exodus is going to commence. According to the Brookings Institute, it’s already happening and as usual New Haven is banking on nearly a decade old data.

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-04-03/millennials-moving-to-suburbs-will-change-economic-development