Neighbors Blast Church Conversion Plan

Buchanan AssociatesThomas Breen Photo“What’s going to happen to the neighborhood?” Ralph Marcarelli asked. “What’s going to happen to the church?”

Marcarelli asked that question at a heated hour-and-a-half-long community meeting Wednesday night. He was referring to the Wooster Square neighborhood, where he has lived for over 50 years. He was also referring to St. Michael’s Church, where he has long been a parishioner.

More broadly, he was referring to a developer’s plan to convert three of the church’s vacant Greene Street properties into 23 high-end apartments.

“I happen to disagree with the entire concept,” Marcarelli said.

Many of his neighbors expressed similar views at Wednesday night’s meeting. They said they worry about a potential loss of parking spaces and increase in vehicle traffic. They also worry about the developer’s association with a local poverty mega-landlord.

The Netz Group has proposed the plan for the three buildings, which are currently owned by St. Michael’s and which used to house the church’s convent and parochial school.

Netz, a real estate private equity firm chartered in Connecticut, based in New York, and publicly traded on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, is owned in part by Menachem Gurevitch.

Gurevitch is the founder and owner of the local real estate empire Mandy Management, one of New Haven’s largest owners of low-income rental apartments.

The meeting was organized by Netz Chief Investment Officer Frank Micali in conjunction with the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT). The meeting brought out around 25 Wooster Square neighbors to the Conte/West Hills School library at 511 Chapel St.

Throughout the meeting, Micali argued that the developer could make the project work financially only with a certain minimum number of units and minimum number of accompanying parking spaces.

Neighbors argued that the project’s proposed numbers of units and parking spaces are both too high for the residential neighborhood to support without fundamentally changing its character.

Meanwhile, St. Michael’s representatives argued that the church needs to sell these three buildings, and quickly, to help stave off looming deficits.

All three parties will next collide on Nov. 13 at this month’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) meeting, where the board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the church’s application for a special exception and for an assessor’s map adjustment. (More on those two items below.)

Netz’s purchase of the property is contingent upon both of those BZA approvals.

The Proposal

Micali, standing alongside architects George Buchanan and Brian Cleveland from the Crown Street firm Buchanan Associates, explained that the proposed development is still in its very early stages.

Netz has not yet purchased the former convent and two former St. Michael’s Church school buildings, which are located at 234, 240, and 250 Greene St.

The developer’s purchase of the properties, Micali said, is contingent upon BZA approval of the church’s application for a special exception that would allow for the church, located around the corner at 29 Wooster Pl., to have only nine on-site parking spaces. The church currently has 27 on-site parking spaces.

The church is also asking the BZA to correct an error in the city assessor’s map, which currently describes the church’s rectory within the property lines of one of the Greene Street addresses that the church is looking to sell.

If the BZA approves the church’s requests, Micali said, then Netz will purchase the three properties and start putting together more detailed and official plans for the site’s prospective development.

“We’re not that far along,” Micali told the group on Wednesday night.

As of right now, Micali said, here is what Netz hopes to do: convert the three vacant former school buildings into 23 upscale apartments. Eighteen of those apartments would be one-bedrooms, and the remaining five would be two-bedrooms.

Buchanan and Cleveland said that the one-bedroom apartments would be between 750 and 850 square feet each, while the two-bedroom apartments would be around 1,050 square feet each.

Micali said that the proposed apartments would rent for between $1,800 and $2,400 per month.

“Really, really high end,” Micali said. “It’s gonna add to the neighborhood. We’re betting on the neighborhood.”

He said the project also calls for the conversion of the school’s old gymnasium into an indoor parking garage with 14 new spaces. Since the developer plans on acquiring 18 of the church’s existing outdoor on-site parking spaces when it purchases the Greene Street properties, that would make for a total of 32 parking spaces for the 23 units.

Furthermore, Micali said, Netz plans to convert the former playground on top of the proposed indoor parking garage into a green space with artificial grass and a variety of outdoor amenities, giving the complex’s residents their own rooftop mini-park.

“We’re going to have the higher-end population living here with the higher-end units,” Micali said. “That’s the only way we could make such a small project possible. We have to maximize what we have.”

Passing around digital renderings of the proposed project, Buchanan said that his firm would design the new apartments with the same sensitivity to historic architecture that it brought to its conversion of another Wooster Square church, St. Casimir’s on Greene Street, into condos a decade ago.

“Our job is to keep the existing buildings as they are” Buchanan said about the former school buildings’ brick facades. “The notion was, ‘Unless you really have to do something dramatic, work with what’s there.’”

Frank Gargano, the chair of the church’s finance committee, said that the proposed sale of the three properties would be for around $1.2 million.

Decades ago the church boasted boasted thousands of members. Today it has a few dozen left, and is projected to end the year $80,000 in the red, according to Gargano. Fellow finance committee member Mel Sansevarino said that the church currently pays around $60,000 each year in property taxes for the three vacant buildings. He and Gargano said that the church has been trying to sell the properties for the past five years.

Neighbor Pushback

Thomas Breen photoAfter Micali and Buchanan’s presentations, the Wooster Square neighbors weighed in.

They continually said that they are interested in a developer converting the three vacant buildings into residential units. They continually praised Buchanan for his work on the conversion of the former St. Casimir’s Church and on other local historic restoration projects.

And they continually slammed Micali and the church for rushing to begin a project that would reduce parking spaces for St. Michael’s parishioners, increase vehicle traffic on Greene Street, and bring to the neighborhood a management company that they associate with exploitative low-income rentals.

“I’d love to see a really nice usage of those buildings,” said Wooster Square resident David Atkins. “But I’m very concerned about parking, congestion, and traffic.”

He asserted that 32 parking spaces will not be enough for 23 units, and that the proposed development will lead to more cars parking on and driving through Wooster Square’s streets.

Cleveland said that city zoning law only requires one parking space per unit in that section of Wooster Square. Micali admitted that, at the price points that Netz is looking to market these units, a 1.5:1 parking space-to-apartment ratio is much more attractive than 1:1.

New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell raised the concern that future owners of the church’s Wooster Place property will inherit the nine-space parking spot allowance if BZA approves St. Michael’s special exception application next week. If the church were to fold and sell off all of its buildings, Farwell said, the next owners would be limited to nine on-site parking spaces as of right so long as they retain the property’s use as a place of worship or communal gathering.

“If you go to BZA and they vote to approve nine spaces,” Farwell said, “it’s done.”

She called on Micali and St. Michael’s to submit a comprehensive traffic and parking plan for the proposed development even before the church goes to BZA for the initial on-site parking requirement reduction.

Marcarelli raised a different set of concerns about the proposed development. He said he doesn’t trust the archdiocese that technically owns St. Michael’s to reinvest the proceeds of the sale into the historic Wooster Square church.

He called on Gargano, St. Michael’s Pastor Robert Roy, and St. Michael’s trustee and East Rock Alder Anna Festa to provide written assurance from the archdiocese confirming its commitment to keeping the church open.

“The archdiocese has guaranteed that the money will stay with the church,” Festa said. “We need the money to survive.”

“Not The Mandy Management You Know”

Wooster Square resident Wendy Hamilton asked Micali about the exact nature of Netz’s relationship to Mandy Management.

“The starter of Mandy Management is an investor in Netz,” Micali said. “That’s it.”

“Are they going to be managing these buildings?” Hamilton asked.

“That’s a good question,” Micali said. “We’re not sure. However, it’s not going to be the Mandy Management you know.”

He said that the managers of the proposed upscale apartments will have to cater to tenants who are highly educated professionals.

“You’re talking about rich white people vs. poor black people,” Hamilton replied. “Mandy has the worst rep, so bad it makes the other slumlords look good.”

“That’s misguided,” Micali said. “They’ve done more for the city than anyone else.”

He said that Mandy has bought and renovated 332 properties in New Haven. He praised the company for what he described as the difficult and often thankless work of owning and managing low-income apartments.

He reiterated that Netz and Mandy are two separate companies. The former, which he works for, owns over $150 million in residential and commercial real estate in Florida, Georgia, and elsewhere, he said.

One attendee asked about Netz’s other holdings in New Haven. She asked if Netz collaborates with Mandy Management in the day-to-day operations of any of its Elm City properties.

“We are partners with some of the same people,” he said. “There’s definitely some cross-management. But I’m not gonna put Mandy Management in [this project], to walk in and meet a professional.”

Atkins criticized Micali for obfuscating the relationship between Netz and Mandy.

Atkins said that, if Netz and the church proceed with the proposal as presented on Tuesday night, “we’ll fight it tooth and nail.”

After the meeting, Micali said that the proposed development is far from certain.

In fact, earlier that day, he said, Netz’s environmental remediation contractor discovered four oil tanks buried beneath one of the Greene Street properties Netz is looking to purchase. Micali said that Netz and the contractor now have to determine if there is any underground spillage, and then recalculate the projected environmental remediation costs for the site.

But Gargano said that, even after the wariness of several attendees at Wednesday’s meeting, the church plans to keep its upcoming BZA public hearing data on the special exception for nine on-site parking spaces and the request to correct the assessor’s map.

“We can’t afford it,” Gargano said about the church’s continued ownership of the vacant properties.

Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch part of Wednesday night’s meeting.

 

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posted by: Noteworthy on November 9, 2018  1:56pm

NIMBY Notes:

I think they should take this property and turn it into 100 SROs. The liberals should love that - affordable housing right there in Wooster Square.

posted by: boxerct on November 9, 2018  2:49pm

This liberal thinks that it would be far better suited as senior living space.  Seniors are being taxed out of their homes, and the church and neighborhood could easily sustain a senior population that would allow people to stay in the neighborhoods they’ve lived in all their lives and also turn a “modest” profit.  The neighborhood is well suited for our less mobile residents with plenty of shops and services close by and the community is strong and stable.
I think it would be a win for the city, and something that our new governor would be happy to help subsidize, so no “mandy management” tax abatement would be necessary.

posted by: Esbey on November 9, 2018  3:23pm

1.5 parking spaces per unit is too many for this very walkable neighborhood.  Current residents of Wooster square ought to be given on-street parking permits, for free, that they are also free to sell to new residents and church-goers. With proper enforcement, parking problem solved. 

When you promise people something nice for free, in unlimited quantities, it often leads to trouble. This principle applies to bananas, BMWs, housing and on-street parking, but only with parking do “smart” people insist that it really ought to be free and unlimited. College-educated people say, with a straight face, that in order to keep parking free and abundant, housing should be limited and expensive. It that really the way your nice liberal morality runs?     

I do understand the neighbors’ concern with Mandy and maybe the church should look for another developer. On the other hand, if the church goes bankrupt, the neighbors are perhaps in bigger trouble. If you want another developer, you are going to have to be particularly welcoming to that developer.

posted by: wendy1 on November 9, 2018  4:13pm

I like the first 2 comments here.  I want new neighbors of any age and any income bracket.  I dont want more cars or Mandy.  I am glad the neighbors pushed back and now that a potential haz-waste issue has popped up, I doubt a Mandy closing here will occur.

posted by: Ryn111 on November 9, 2018  4:54pm

We should let the buildings remain vacant and pay no tax.

@YIMBYhnv

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on November 9, 2018  6:29pm

Um, New Haven kind of needs the property tax revenue…

posted by: jim1 on November 9, 2018  7:55pm

It looks like the church itself will close down with diminishing membership in the near future unfortunately as there are people who love it for many reasons.  I dont know what will happen to the neighborhood but if a developer moves in to remodel and renovate these historic antique buildings or any other attractive older buildings, I would hope they would have taste and integrity.  I may not be here to see it but that’s what all New Haveners deserve in all our neighborhoods——attractive safe “green” buildings, fair realistic rents, and fair treatment for tenants including property maintenance.  This is the opposite of Mandy.

Bikes and mass transit are the future not cars especially in central city locations like this.  I also recommend non-smoking buildings like mine.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on November 9, 2018  10:12pm

The headline is misleading: so far, at least, the church itself is not slated for conversion, only its convent and school buildings.

The racial and ethnic prejudice, implicit and explicit, exhibited in this debate, is not pretty.

When I worked for St. Paul & St. James Church, we ran an afterschool program and I used to pick up one kid at the Elm City Academy when it occupied that building.  The line of cars waiting to pick up children clogged up Greene Street every school day.  During the many years those buildings were used for a parochial school and then a series of charter schools, this kind of traffic and parking disruption must have been an everyday thing.  It strikes me that this must have been at least as much of a nuisance as would be likely to result from the buildings being converted to a mere 23 luxury apartments, most of which would probably be occupied by people who would be choosing them in part because they would not have to use their cars very often.

But I must say I love boxerct’s idea of senior housing in those buildings.

posted by: Mooks on November 10, 2018  1:31am

Senior housing is a great idea. Now you just have to come up with several million dollars to buy and convert the buildings. I suspect that will be more difficult to come up with than the idea itself.

I realize that some people are not thrilled about this but at the end of the day you can’t tell someone else how to invest their money. New Haven is a broke city in a broke State. Is it really wise to turn noses up at 23 new high-income households being brought to the city? Isn’t that better than leaving the buildings vacant and allowing the church to go belly up? People can come up with all the ideas and have all the opinions they want but unless there is capital to go with those ideas they are useless. These investors have capital to invest and if New Haven doesn’t let them do it here they will just invest in another area while these buildings remain vacant and the church struggles.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 10, 2018  11:16am

Most people are familiar with the acronym NIMBY. Some of the neighbors are espousing its cousin, BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything). Any development is going to generate some additional traffic.

The law prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of age, except with regard to adult communities. Such a development would fit well with the neighborhood. But this would probably require expensive modifications of the buildings

posted by: dad101 on November 10, 2018  12:27pm

The Wooster square community has always been politically influential and somewhat exclusive . It has fought change and growth at every corner! Reality the city has to grow its tax base and that includes this protected community. The property is available..unless you want to buy it and keep it as sacred grounds the reality is it is going to the highest bidder and they will grow the tax base. If someone came in and said they wanted to make it affordable housing this same community would be in a complete up roar over that too yet when they call elected officials they expect instant acknowledgement because after all it is WOOSTER Square..well let the building begin only on a slightly smaller scale because the only thing the developer should have to be held accountable is for the parking after all there already isn’t enough parking for the dual zone community that it is!

posted by: 1644 on November 10, 2018  12:41pm

jim1:  While people may love the church, it’s obvious that too few love it enough to attend and support it.  If neighborhoods want these institutions to remain, the people of the neighborhoods need to support them.

posted by: 1644 on November 10, 2018  2:29pm

Boxer:  If seniors are “being taxed out of their homes”, they would benefit from policies that would mean a lower mill rate.  The only mechanism the city has to lower the mill rate is increasing of the tax base, so long as the increases come from properties which pay more in taxes than they require in services.  For residential properties, that means developments like this, with lots of small, apartments unlikely to attract families with children.  It’s, also, helpful if the residents have some disposable income to support local retail. Those who want lower taxes should advocate for developments which maximize tax revenue and minimize tax burdens. For residences, that’s DINKS and singles of any age, but a bit of jingle in their pockets.

posted by: 1644 on November 10, 2018  2:34pm

Esbey: Why are current residents more entitled to free, on-street parking than future residents?

I agree that the parking requirements are ridiculous for a city that pretends it wants people to walk, bike, and take buses, and is concerned with global warming.  The city shouldn’t be pushing against a developer who thinks he can market apartments with limited parking.

posted by: Xavier on November 10, 2018  8:39pm

Church members want the big money to keep its doors open until the rest of them die off and are buried.

When the money runs out or is taken to pay for the bishops burial crypt in the big cathedral, (which just got LED mood lighting on it big steeple), Mandy, the mega poverty rental property owner (can’t say sl#m l0#$), buys the church building, converts it into other apartments (not condos because you can’t have an income stream from condos, just one sale and no more money coming in). Mandy the Man wants that cash streaming out of his poverty rentals and faux “high end” rentals to any place BUT New Haven.

Looks like the gentrification vampires have met their match with Mandy the Man.

Another possible scenario:
Because no one in that neighborhood will be going to a catholic church, the descendants of the Italians that once populated that area will buy the church from the bishop (because he needs more money for his $100 million fundraiser) and make the church a museum and community center.  At least those descendants can preserve the building as a nice piece of nostalgia of the good old days, as the catholic church is fading away. 

Next to go: St, Rose of Lima, St. Anthony’s, St. Joseph, and the Knights of Columbus (way too big and they are down sizing). The bishop just unloaded Sacred Heart in the Hill. Just watch what happens between the Union Station, Church St South and Yale property….$$$$$$

Too bad the bishop is not concerned about doing business with a poverty rental property baron. Carabetta Properties has their hooks into Bella Vista… these rental properties are better than the bank, a stream of $ out of New Haven. I think Carabetta is in the inner circle with the bishop. That is the next chapter.

posted by: wendy1 on November 11, 2018  12:44pm

Hey Kevin, call me a bananna.  If you want to help the planet , join the crowd and tie your tubes while you’re at it.  The church left these buildings to rot for too long and now it will take more than a million to fix them or restore their viability.

posted by: Howudoin on November 11, 2018  7:15pm

Simple. Take the buildings. Leave the church alone.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 12, 2018  7:29am

Howudoin, that is the proposal. As Gretchen notes, the headline is misleading.

Wendy, you are not a BANANA; you have advocated for the development of subsidized housing across the city. As for the cost of redevelopment, the developer has presumably inspected the buildings and determined that the current proposal works economically.

The BZA has to operate within its legal jurisdiction. It has no jurisdiction over what the archdiocese does with the sales proceeds if the development goes forward. And the BZA has to issue its decision based on the application in front of it. Anstress’ concern about the fate of the church building is understandable. But that is not the issue before the BZA.

As Xavier notes, there are lots of vacant and underutilized church buildings. This phenomenon is not limited to Catholic parishes. Most recently, the Church of the Redeemer has decamped from East Rock. Fairly soon, the congregation will need to figure out what to do with the property, which has lovely buildings but little parking.

posted by: The Haven Man on November 12, 2018  8:25am

This is a prime example of the older generations refusing to change. It is exactly why Connecticut is losing intelligent young college grads that move out of state. 

It is not 1950 anymore, let’s get the ball rolling. Most of these folks probably are retired and don’t even work anymore. If you need more parking move to some suburban area in Florida where there are 5 parking spaces per person. This is New Haven, we need more density and the tax revenue.

posted by: Politics 101 on November 12, 2018  9:11am

Admittedly, this is just a bullet point listing of potentially inconsistent thoughts:

* It’s a good sign (though muddled by the sheer number of response choices) that the NHI’s poll show that most people are fine with the project as designed and think that it either has enough or too much parking (52/83). A minority of people think that the project needs more parking (12/83).

* Too bad Mandy is a slumlord.

* Too bad, though unsurprising, that the Catholic Church thinks it’s just peachy to make deals with slumlords.

*  It’s not the fault of current Wooster Square residents that previous Wooster Square residents white-fled the neighborhood for the ‘burbs leaving their (beloved?) church to flail and flounder with an ever-diminishing number of congregants. The survival of the church is not on current Wooster Square residents.

posted by: opin1 on November 12, 2018  10:11am

On the one hand it would be amazing if these buildings could be converted and sold as condos.  Perhaps 1000 to 1500 sf per unit (maybe 12 to 18 units). With a reasonable purchase price of $1.2 million I’d be surprised if they couldn’t find a developer who could do that. That would be best for the neighborhood and the city.

On the flip side this doesn’t sound too awful. The current buildings comprise 28,767 sf and they’re only making about 20,000 sf of living space (I presume because of the conversion of gymnasium, etc).  Neighbors should be realistic about parking. 29,000 sf of existing buildings is going to require some parking no matter how it gets put to use (commercial, residential, educational, etc).  You can’t expect the buildings to get put back into use without some impact on parking - unless you want to keep the buildings vacant.

posted by: JCFremont on November 13, 2018  7:36am

Isn’t amazing that at one time religion built and ran Hospitals, Universities and Charities. Anyway I don’t see a city of bikes and trolleys I see more Ubers, take a look at the increase of car services in NYC. Sooner than later those cars will be autonomous while Public Transit will continue to run in the red with high staff levels and pensions.

posted by: westvilledad on November 13, 2018  7:52am

the BANANA acronym is funny!!!

the church isn’t going anywhere. it’s the old school building, the old meeting hall and the old convent. they have been empty for years. they had charter schools leas the space, but those schools have moved. the bottom of greene street doesn’t have any traffic. there is plenty of parking including a city-owned lot around the corner.  it’s a nice neibhborhood that can easily absorb more housing.  rent is too damn high in new haven and the only way to fix it is to build more units - especially great when converting abandoned and under-used spaces. build baby build!

posted by: Cordalie on November 13, 2018  4:40pm

We in Wooster Square are happy to live with all kinds of people.  We like long term residents, owners, mobile students, and the in-betweens.  Our recent Alder was the beloved Mark Smart.  We are concerned about property maintenance by landlords.  Parking has been a worry for some but many of us are carless. We want the best for all.  Please do not call us racist, we are not.

posted by: CaptainNutmeg on November 13, 2018  8:32pm

What a shame to see prime real estate wasting away and bringing in no revenue for the city. 23 lux units would be great for the neighborhood, our restaurants, and the farmer’s market.