Alder, East St. Neighbors Oppose Homeless Shelter’s Move

Operators of a Grand Avenue homeless shelter looking to move around the block will have to wait at least another month before the zoning board can vote on its relocating request. The reason for the delay: missing paperwork, and an incomplete application.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s alder and some neighbors showed up to oppose the move.

That was the outcome of a hearing at Tuesday night’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) meeting at 200 Orange St., where one of the topics under discussion was the proposal by Emergency Shelter Management Services (ESMS) to move its men’s homeless shelter from 645 Grand Ave. to 923-925 East St. The board decided to extend the public hearing on the shelter’s variance use request to give it a little more time to get its application in order. ESMS is asking for a variance to permit an emergency shelter in a light industrial zone.

Deputy Director of Zoning Tom Talbot leaned over the mounds of paper spread before him to voice his concerns about the shelter’s proposal.

“In this package there’s a site plan, but it’s not to scale,” said Talbot, gesturing towards a rendering of the East Street location’s interior as provided by ESMS.

“The number of people that they can have in this building is based on the size of the living area, minus all of these hand-drawn proposed shower areas. I need those to scale. That’s a requirement of any applicant. It’s right on the application form. We’re not imposing a burden on these applicants that no one else has to deal with.”

Talbot’s concerns with the shelter’s application extended to paperwork yet to be completed —  namely, a new floor plan that took into account the East Street location’s proximity to a 100-year flood plain. Without such a plan, he would be unable to identify whether or not the sleeping area, and its nightly house guests, would be vulnerable to potential flooding.

“I think that the city and this board needs to know what the finished floor elevation is inside that building, given its proximity to the flood plain, before there’s any serious consideration given to people sleeping down there,” he advised members of ESMS and the BZA. “That’s what I’m looking for. And we need a floor plan done to scale.”

Although the reasons for Tuesday’s postponed decision on the shelter’s application to move were as much about the form as about the contents and underlying intentions of their proposal, the public hearing also bore witness to the beginnings of an equally substantive debate about whether or not the shelter would be welcome at all on that block of East Street.

A number of civilian witnesses came to the BZA hearing on Tuesday night to voice their support for ESMS’s proposal to move, as well as to praise the 28-year-old shelter’s history, mission, and critical importance to New Haven’s most vulnerable populations.

“Let’s be clear. The decision to be made by this board is not so much about whether or not the shelter will occupy this particular building,” said Rev. Dr. Brian Bellamy, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church. “The decision to be made is, will the shelter continue at all. If the shelter does not continue, it will create a huge void for the marginalized in this city. As good citizens, we have a moral obligation to make it so that people have a place to stay, particularly when we have 5 months of the year that can be below freezing.”

Former State Rep Bill Dyson, New Haven police officer Joe Greene, and St. Bernadette Church parishioner Ralph Esposito similarly offered public testimony in support of ESMS, identifying the shelter’s proposed move to 293-295 East St. as a matter of life or death for the shelter and for the social services it provides.

On the other side of the debate, Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg, the president and vice president of Bender Plumbing Supplies, and a group of concerned residents and property owners in the neighborhood submitted written letters of opposition to the shelter’s proposed move.

Tony Debrizzi, a sales manager at Bender, described the East Street building is an an industrial district slowly rising out of blight.

He argued that the building is an inappropriate residential location not only because of its proximity to the flood plain, train tracks, and dump trucks constantly ferrying huge loads of salt and sand, but also because that stretch of the emerging Mill River industrial district is ripe for a commercial revival that may be negatively impacted by the presence of the shelter.

“We at Bender are making a big investment in the area, because the city and some of the residents there have a vision for the area to be a design district, which is really needed in New Haven,” he said. “With Fair Haven Furniture, Reclamation Lumber, and Tile America nearby, this could be a place where people outside of New Haven could come and shop for home furnishings.”

“293-295 East Street sits in a geographically isolated industrial zone designated by the recent Mill River study as appropriate as for retail and design establishments — not social service organizations,” Alder Greenberg wrote in a letter. He also expressed a lack of confidence on the organization’s planning abilities.

Assuming ESMS can fix and finish the necessary paperwork for its application to move, Tuesday night’s debate between two competing visions for East Street will resume at next month’s BZA public hearing.

An earlier version of this article follows:

Homeless Shelter Seeks New Home

Thomas Breen photoThe neighboring strip club has no objection, but a flood plain may stand in the way of one of New Haven’s homeless shelters moving into a new home.

After two years of searching, operators of the shelter — Emergency Shelter Management Services (ESMS) — have located a new location after learning they need to leave their current location at 645 Grand Ave.The only hurdles left are building regulations, concerned city officials, the skepticism of a few reluctant neighbors, and the costs that come with being adjacent to the flood plain.

Tuesday night the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) will consider the Grand Avenue homeless shelter’s proposal to move into a new home at 293-295 East St.

ESMS representatives argue that the currently abandoned building at that address in an industrial strip along the Mill River would make for an appropriate new home for a religious not-for-profit dedicated to housing, feeding, and empowering New Haven’s male homeless population. The Grand Avenue shelter currently houses between 50 and 75 homeless men each night, depending on the season.

The group has already submitted to the BZA a variance appeal, coastal site plan, and stormwater management plan. However, according to Deputy Director of Zoning Tom Talbot’s assessment of the proposal and of the new site, the group still needs to put together one more site plan with ground and finished floor elevations because of the new location’s proximity to a 100-year flood zone as defined by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps.

Representatives from the shelter are concerned that this flood plan, if required by law, would set them back an additional $4,000 to create.

If ESMS board member Curtis McBride had his way, the Grand Avenue homeless shelter would stay just where it is. But the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH) is in the process of expanding the Farnam Courts development a block away. At first the thought was that the new Farnam Courts development would include the shelter, but that deal fell through, and ESMS decided to sell the property and move elsewhere.

The proposed new location on East Street is a quarter mile away from the current one. The 6,000 square-foot abandoned building stands in a relatively empty industrial stretch in the shadow of the former English Power Plant. ESMS board members said the site works for a shelter because it is isolated from a residential neighborhood, it is available, and it is close to Grand Avenue and Chapel Street bus lines.

“No matter what neighborhood that we move into, there will be some objections that will be lodged,” said board member David Generoso. “No one thinks that a homeless shelter is ideal in their neighborhood. But this spot on East Street would seem to be the location where we would incur the least number of objections.”

According to McBride, the shelter has received letters of approval and encouragement from the nearby supermarket Ferraro’s as well as from the police officers who patrol their neighborhood. The owner of the East Street adult dance club Catwalk has also said that she has no problem with the shelter moving in next door.

“Flood insurance and building regulations are issues we can take care of,” Generso said. “But if there’s an issue with one of the neighbors, and that neighbor may have some political clout, then that becomes an issue. If someone has the alderman’s ear, and then the alderman voices his disapproval for what we’re doing, that’s something that’s difficult to get around.”

The opportunity to establish good relations with the new neighbors is all contingent on getting approval from the BZA to move in the first place. Which means making sure the building is up to code, answering questions around minimum square footage per occupant and residential suitability in an area with high truck traffic, as well as coming up with an adequate solution for the issue of being in, or near, the flood plain.

According to Talbot’s staff report on the proposal, “a flood elevation Certificate, coastal permit and flood insurance may be required to ensure the safety of both occupants and property.” But a site plan with ground and floor elevations must be done up first in order to properly determine which of those requirements will apply for the new homeless shelter.

“It’s hard enough to move your personal home from one location to another,” McBride said as he and his board girded themselves for the upcoming BZA meeting, eager to get to the next stage of the move. “Now imagine how hard it is to move an entire shelter?”

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posted by: jim1 on February 14, 2017  3:10pm

That disgusting State St. shelter should be shut down and torn down and the owner exiled out of town.  We need a humane living space closer to the center of the city for our homeless citizens. And I recommend the 3 big buildings on my street for sale at discount by St. Michael’s which are on about 3 acres of land and close to a nice soup kitchen and other services.  My wife and I offer to work for free to run and maintain these buildings.  It’s time for city gov. and other citizens to show some humanity.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 14, 2017  10:32pm

Jim1, what “State Street shelter” are you talking about? Liberty offers a variety of services to the homeless but I wouldn’t call their State St. facility a shelter.

posted by: jim1 on February 15, 2017  8:44am

I’m talking about 645 Grand—-I didn’t think Liberty CS was apart of that.  Wendy and I have seen the interior, talked to some “tenants”, delivered bread there in the past, and saw a young man refused shelter in a blizzard because the guard said he had inadequate paperwork.  This shelter is next to a construction site known as Farnam Courts.

posted by: wendy1 on February 15, 2017  5:39pm

Good for Rev. Bellamy for telling the truth.

It is sad that even a crappy semi-industrial section of town is so NIMBY.  Where do we put these fellow human beings?  What would Jesus do?  From reading this article, it seems most folks dont have a clue.  And I still think the zoning board should be fired.

posted by: Hill Resident on February 15, 2017  6:06pm

Again with the NIMBY. Granted, the Grand Avenue shelter is not up to par, but ESMS is proposing to move it to a building that will be renovated. So in the Hill, they move the shelter from a ‘residential’ area to an area that is more ‘commercial’. But in Fair Haven you want it to stay (in it’s current dismal condition?) in an area that is residential instead of one that is commercial/industrial? The sales manager at Bender says ‘the city and some of the residents there have a vision for the area to be a design district’. Does that include the CATWALK ... a strip club that occupies a building that is much closer to Benders than the shelter would be? I mean really, we cry out ‘the City needs to do more to help the homeless ...’ but then we oppose the projects that aim to do just that! ESMS in Fair Haven, New Reach in the Hill. Both facing opposition from a few. Have we lost sight of the greater good? Do we want these folks to go back under the bridges and underpasses, or encampments in the woods? Stop being so selfish people.