“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.
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.
After 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.