Three vacant Wooster Square buildings owned by St. Michael’s Church may be more attractive to a prospective future developer now that they’re en route to receive 15 on-site parking spaces from the adjacent St. Michael’s Church lot, despite some continued neighborhood opposition.
That proposed parking space transfer was at the heart of one of the more contentious public hearings at Tuesday night’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) meeting in the basement of 200 Orange St.
Representatives from St. Michael’s Church, desperate to make two former church school buildings and a former convent building on Greene Street more attractive for a potential developer, applied for a special exception to allow for 11 on-site parking spaces where 61 on-site parking spaces are required at the historic church’s 29 Wooster Pl. location.
The reduction in parking at the church’s Wooster Place site would allow the church to assign 15 on-site parking spaces to the adjacent Greene Street properties.
A plan to sell the buildings to a partnership of Netz Group and Mandy Management fell through late last year after neighbors vociferously protested the terms of the deal. The church is still hoping to find a buyer.
“The whole point of this is to secure the financial future of the church,” St. Michael’s Pastor Robert Roy said about transferring parking spaces to the Greene Street buildings so that the church can sell those properties and boost its struggling finances.
A small cohort of Wooster Place neighbors came out to protest the church’s parking reduction application. They argued that the reduction in on-site parking for a currently struggling congregation is short sighted, and could have a dramatic impact on the neighborhood if the church were to change owners sometime in the near future and bring in more than the roughly 125 people it currently attracts for Saturday and Sunday mass.
“All in all, I just want to leave you with the notion that this is of extraordinary importance to a very beautiful neighborhood,” said Wooster Square resident Ralph Marcarelli.
While the BZA did not vote on the matter on Tuesday, referring the application to the City Plan Commission with the intention of voting on it at next month’s meeting, BZA Chair Pat King appeared sympathetic to the church’s argument that the application, while indirectly related to future development of the Greene Street properties, is only directly related to current parking requirements at 29 Wooster Pl.
She pointed out that a more popular future owner of the site would still have to come before the BZA to get more on-site parking. “Any other use of the structure subsequent to Saint Michael’s that would require more than 11 parking spaces,” the conditional approval in the BZA’s staff report reads, “would also need a new Special Exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals.”
The Church’s Pitch
Local attorney Chris McKeon introduced the application as coming from a historic Wooster Square congregation that has seen its membership dwindle dramatically over the decades and that simply does not need its current allotment of on-site parking.
Furthermore, he said, the city needs to do a lot line revision for the Wooster Place church and the three Greene Street parcels because the church’s boundaries in its deed, which dates back to 1889, do not correspond to the boundaries on the city assessor’s map. That lot line revision, he said, would result in 15 parking spaces being allocated to the three Greene Street properties and only 11 kept for the church: 9 striped spaces behind 29 Wooster Pl., and two handicap spaces on the Greene Street parcels that the church would retain the right to use.
Despite the proposed reduction in parking spaces for 29 Wooster Pl., McKeon said, the church has already signed two lease agreements with neighboring institutions that will bump up available parking for the church to 60 spaces. The church has signed an agreement with Iovanne Funeral Home at 11 Wooster Pl. to use 20 of its parking spaces. It’s signed another agreement with the St. Andrew’s Society around the corner on Chapel Street to use 25 of its parking spaces. And it has the right to use four parking spaces at the Conte School lot also around the corner on Chapel Street.
McKeon said the church at 29 Wooster Pl. has 484 seats, but only attracts on average 125 parishioners each weekend for Saturday and Sunday mass.
And to keep the BZA members focused on the parking application before them as opposed to on any prospective development of the Greene Street parcels, McKeon said, “Any future disposition of the Greene Street properties are of no consequence to this application.”
Subsequent church affiliates who testified in support of the application, however, made clear that this parking transfer is crucial for the church’s hopes to sell the Greene Street properties, located at 234, 240, and 250 Greene St., to a developer sometime soon.
“We can’t afford to pay the taxes” on the current Greene Street properties, Pastor Roy said. The 29 Wooster Pl. property, which is owned by the nonprofit St. Michael’s Church, is tax free. The Greene Street properties, which are owned by a for-profit subsidiary of the church, are not. Roy said the parking transfer deal would make any prospective sale a lot more appealing.
East Rock Alder Anna Festa, who is a trustee and parishioner at the church, said that she is aware of multiple churches in East Rock that have basically no on-site parking, and function just fine in the context of the residential neighborhood.
“I think we focus so much on parking,” she said, “that we forget we live in a city.”
Wooster Square business owner Bill Iovanne, who plans to lease the church 20 parking spaces, said he has witnessed the dramatic drop in church attendees over the decades, and that he has never noticed a parking problem on Wooster Place as caused by the church.
Opponents to the application, however, pulled no punches in their feelings that the church’s plan to reduce parking in the short term will have serious consequences for parking in the neighborhood for years to come.
“Up to 50 cars are parked illegally on the street during church services each weekend,” said David Atkins, who lives next door to the church. He said the church’s claim that the reduction in parking will have no effect on traffic in the neighborhood is “preposterous.”
He said the church’s 2014 application to the BZA regarding a similar parking reduction listed the number of seats in the church as 600, not 484. That higher number would require 75 on-site parking spaces, he said.
“We strongly oppose this proposal,” he said on behalf of himself and his wife.
Atkins’ son Luke then read written testimony provided by their neighbors, Vito and Joanne Bonnano, who also oppose the application.
“A deal sweetener for a slumlord is not a hardship,” he read, mixing up the threshold of burden required for a special exception as opposed to that required for a change-of-use variance.
“If 125 people are all you’re going to see on a Saturday or a Sunday,” Marcarelli added, “it’s evident the church is going to have difficulties sustaining itself.” That prospect of the church potentially going under in the not-too-distant future, he said, should be taken into account by the BZA as it decides on whether or not to reduce the existing parking.
“We don’t support this current application,” said Wooster Square neighbor Anstress Farweel, “but we do support the eventual sale and development of these [Greene Street] properties.” She suggested the church work instead with the New Haven Parking Authority to come up with some publicly managed lot where church goers can park, as opposed to relying on agreements with neighboring businesses.
Ultimately, the BZA referred the item to City Plan, with the advisement from BZA Chair King that the board can only take into consideration the merits of the application itself, and not any future plans for properties not included in the application.
“We can’t make this decision based on what may or may not happen in the future,” she said.