Aaron Goode doesn’t see just 385 new apartments when he looks at vacant Munson Street land on which a developer plans to build. He also sees 598 parking spaces — as well as an already congested intersection and a pedestrian/bike trail that might be fenced off to people.
Goode, a founder of the New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal and a local traffic-calming activist, is asking the developers of the Munson Street project to think beyond the car.
He’s asking the developers — and city planning officials — to think “trail” — particularly the trail that snakes between the 13-acre home of the future development and Science Park. He wants them to think of more than recreational users; he wants them to think of commuters.
The Farmington Canal Trail runs right along the 13-acre tract of abandoned industrial land on Munson Street where California-based Double A Development partners plans to build all those that $75 million apartment complex now that they have won needed city zoning relief.
With the work underway, Goode argued that now’s the time for the city to address the traffic concerns in the area. Especially along the trail.
“Unlike many other trails in the state the [Farmington Canal trail] is used more for commuting than it is for just recreation,” Goode said. “It’s to go to work or for shopping up into Hamden and to go to schools like Yale, Lincoln Bassett. It’s an economic resource as much as anything.”
Double A’s Douglas Gray said the developers are open to discussing trail action and transit concerns — not quite yet, but as the design takes more shape.
An ongoing Connecticut Trail Census tracks the usage of trails all over the state with infrared pedestrian counters. It also shows that trail use, particularly around the Dixwell/Newhallville section of New Haven is year-round with between 2,000 and 3,000 people using the trail last December, even with snow covering it.
“It’s why I think [the city] should plow the trail, which the city never does,” Goode said. “It’s a transportation justice issue for people to not be able to get to work or get to school. I get that it’s not a priority in a blizzard but a week out they need to clear it.”
Prospect Hill/Newhallville Alder Steve Winter said he, too, would like to see more concern for the trail as the city prepares for a development that could put a lot more people on the trail who are commuting for work.
“We need to make sure that every New Havener has meaningful access to reliable transit. Plowing the path should be part of that, particularly for a city that prides itself on providing many transit options,” he said.
Goode said the way that people—pedestrian commuters and bike riders—interact with the intersection of the trail and Munson Street should be addressed by any traffic study associated with the forthcoming Munson Street development. Based on data from the trail census — data that he acknowledged is likely undercounted by monitors — he estimates that there were more than 100,000 uses of the trail last year. That can only increase in 2018 with the recent completion of two nearby Yale University residential colleges, he said.
He said he expects it to further increase in future years as more projects along the trail come to fruition such as the apartment complex coming to Olive Street in Wooster Square, the Munson Street project, and then the completion of the fourth phase of the Farmington Canal trail. After that point the trail will extend it from its current terminus at Temple Street to Long Wharf.
“The city has to think comprehensively about the whole Science Park area—what the traffic and parking problems are and what are the solutions,” Goode argued
He called the section of the Farmington Canal trail where it crosses Munson Street “the most dangerous at-grade trail crossing in New Haven.”
“There’s a lot going on there, not just with bikes and cars. You have all the Science Park workers crossing the street, especially in the morning and afternoon for work,” Goode said. “It’s a very awkward distance from the signalized intersection at Winchester and Munson, so you have people accelerating out of that when they get a green light. “
He said it is already a problematic intersection. He said he is concerned that the development’s plan for having an entrance near that crossing will only exacerbate the problems that exist.
“You just need to make sure that you have some kind of traffic calming treatment there respecting all of the needs of the users in the road,” he said.
Alder Winter said he has heard the same sentiment from community members who overall support the project.
“A development that’s well-integrated with the community can help energize local business and connect residents to the city through walking and biking the canal trail,” Winter said. “It’s really important we work together to make sure the project improves the safety and accessibility of the canal path.”
Winter said that any plan submitted to the city for the development must take a holistic approach to how it defines traffic.
“We need to make sure that the plan submitted to the city takes the whole picture of traffic impacts from biking, driving and walking into account, particularly where the canal path crosses Munson Street - right next to the only major entrance and exit to the development,” he said. “Opening up Argyle Street to Winchester and Shelton could help lessen the traffic burden on Munson and better connect the development to the neighborhood.”
A traffic study conducted for the developers of the Munson Street project claims that the future apartment complex, which is anticipated to cost more than $75 million to complete, would have no significant impact on traffic. The report also notes that the city has no plans for road improvements in the area.
Complex tenants and their visitors will be able to enter and leave the site through two driveways, according to the August 2017 study prepared for Double A Development by Fuss & O’Neil. One driveway will be on Munson Street, the other on Shelton Avenue.
“The east site driveway will provide full access and egress from Munson Street for residents as well as the general public,” according to the report. “This driveway will be adjacent to the eastern property line, abutting the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail and will align across from Canal Street.”
The Munson Street driveway will be open to both the public and tenants; the Shelton Avenue driveway will be gated for tenant only access, according to the report.
There had been some suggestion at a public hearing in December that Double A might be amenable to reopening a closed section of Argyle Street in attempt to make the development feel less like a gated community and to take some pressure of the two streets most impacted. But Fuss & O’Neil’s report recommends against creating a connection.
The report states that a connection “is not recommended as the Argyle Street right of way is not wide enough to support two-way traffic.”
In an interview with the Independent, Double A’s Douglas Gray noted other problems with Argyle Street, which was vacated to Winchester Repeating Arms many years ago. Now that Double A owns the 13-acre site, it owns part of the street. Yale actually owns part of the former street, he said. While people drive on it to get to the climbing gym, there seems to be no record of easements for such activity, Gray said.
Gray said he sees the trail as a definite asset to the complex.
“We’re one of the few apartment complexes that will be built,” he said. “There isn’t that much land left, and we want to take advantage of that greenbelt and the open space within the development.”
Preliminary plans call for a gate along the trail with several access points for tenants. As design plans sharpen, he said, his team is grappling with how it can soften the amount of asphalt and increase green space.
That’s another knock against reopening Argyle Street, he said. It would just be more asphalt in a plan that wants less.
Former City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg suggested that the development doesn’t need all the 600 parking spaces planned there. There are no plans to reduce that number. Gray did, however, say his team is looking at tucking parking under some of the buildings to reduce the amount of asphalt on the site.
He said he is open to discussions with city officials and people like the New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal, but he’d like to have that discussion when design plans take a bit more shape and when there are a few options to look at.
Goode said should he get an opportunity to participate in such a discussion, he’d point out some places that have found so much value in being located next to trails like the Farmington Canal that they’re using it in their branding. He said that’s happening in Dallas near the Katy Trail, where he said there are mixed results about how the apartment complexes interact with the trail.
He said he would point to Yale’s new residential colleges as a good example of how to create pen access to the trail alongside security features for the people who live there.
“I think it is enormously attractive in terms of recruiting millennials and that kind of thing — the kind of people who are moving back into urban areas,” Goode said. “To be able to tell residents, ‘Oh you can go right out your door, without getting into your car, you can walk your dog on the trail, you can take a bike ride on the trail 75 miles to Massachusetts and never have to get in your car.’ That’s, I think, a huge asset and selling point and it would be just a terrible missed opportunity to not create a mutual benefit between the trail and the development.”
Goode said that integrating with the trail is part of integrating with the community.
“The reason people live in cities is to not live in a gated community,” he said. “They want to live in a real neighborhood with access to a diverse population and access to things like open space. The Farmington Canal trail is a totally unique thing that we have in New Haven and to pass up the opportunity to use it as a resource and amenity for your residents, I think, would be shooting themselves in the foot not to mention shooting the city in the foot. We would like to work with them to figure out how to do this in the best way possible.”
Winter echoed Goode’s sentiments.
“In order for the project to best serve the surrounding community, the community’s input - particularly around integration and connection with the neighborhood - need to be included in the site plan review for the project,” he said. “The city and the developer should do everything in their power to address the serious issue of housing affordability in the surrounding neighborhood and to specify—and follow through—on commitments to hiring local residents to get the project built.”