City, Developer Face Off Over CVS

City of New Haven“Do not smirk,” snapped the developer. “I sat here and respectfully listened to your presentation, Matt.”

“I’m not smirking,” responded the city’s development chief.

“Yes, you are.”

“Look, this design is a generic unit B that I can find 800 times when I search Google images and it is an insult. I apologize for smirking, but somebody missed the boat here.”

That kind of frank interaction usually takes place in private government offices.

This one—between developer Scott Weymouth and city development chief Matthew Nemerson—erupted in public, as a private dispute over how to develop a stretch of Upper Whalley Avenue burst into public view.

The occasion was a public meeting with Westville neighbors at Mauro-Sheridan School Wednesday night called to discuss Weymouth’s quest to put a new CVS pharmacy at the intersection of Whalley and Dayton, where different developers had once unsuccessfully tried to put a suburban-style Cumberland Farms convenience store and gas station.

Arista Development LLC

Markeshia Ricks PhotoNemerson (pictured at left in the photo) said he wanted some sign that Weymouth’s team at Arista Development LLC had listened to concerns raised in previous conversations with the city about the site. He didn’t see it in the design Weymouth’s team revealed.

He argued that a traditional, suburban big box-style store with lots of parking is not in keeping with the Westville aesthetic. Nor is it where he believes the city is headed in developing walkable urban environments friendly to young families, adding value to nearby properties.

“We respect the investment, but you had four months to come up with something better than this generic unit out of the book,” Nemerson said.

Arista Development LLCThe meeting was the second time that the public got to hear from Arista, which is acquiring nine parcels of land near the intersection with hopes of building a 13,225 square-foot store that would not only have more parking, but also a drive-thru. The existing CVS at 1168 Whalley Ave. is smaller and has no drive-thru. CVS plans to abandon that site. (Read about the first public meeting here.)

CVS is the second chain to try to win over Westville neighbors in support of developing the corner. Cumberland Farms announced plans two years ago to put up a 4,500 square foot convenience store and 12 gas pumps at the same corner. Those plans flopped with neighbors as well as the City Plan Department, and never materialized. (Read about how that unfolded here, here, here, and here.)

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time that Mayor Toni Harp’s administration shared its vision for the corner, a vision that Nemerson said is in keeping with the ideas of new urbanist compact, walkable communities.

Nemerson presented an alternative plan for the site. It featured a mixed-use development with commercial space at the street level, and 35 or more apartments above. CVS has made it clear that it is not interested in building a store with housing above it, according to Weymouth.

So, Nemerson also presented a plan (pictured above) that would revitalize the CVS at its current site and add the drive-thru. “We think the north end can be just as dynamic as Westville center,” he said. Nemerson said that neighbors should not feel frightened that the CVS would pull up stakes if they don’t support the developer’s idea. He also suggested that the city is in contact with a number of developers who would be willing to construct something at that site more in line with the city’s vision if neighbors were interested in such a development.

That of course would mean Arista, which has a contract to purchase the properties that would need to be demolished to make way for the new CVS, would have to step aside, and the team gave no signs Wednesday night that they were willing to relinquish their plans for the site.

Weymouth (pictured above) said CVS has seen the plan to add a drive-thru to the existing store, but rejected it because the corporation wants to build a bigger store. “And if [CVS] were interested in doing that, they could have done it a long time ago,” he said. The other advantage of building a new store is that the old store stays open while the new store is being built, he said.

The developers presented an updated version of their design for the new, larger CVS. The biggest change: a reduction from 83 parking spaces to 66 spaces. They also completed a traffic study and found that the new store wouldn’t add more than one or two additional cars during peak travel hours of 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., which would be negligible. The developers would need to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals to get a variance that would allow for the reduction in parking spaces.

The consensus in the room was that neither vision for the site is quite the right fit. On the one hand neighbors said they want the CVS to stay in the neighborhood, but weren’t terribly impressed with the generic style of the new building. Some praised the ambition that the city was showing and its concern with the Westville aesthetic, but didn’t see how it would ever come to fruition.

“We have plenty of empty store fronts in Westville center,” one neighbor said. “I just don’t see this happening in Westville.”

Pam Allen (pictured) argued that in the city’s vision, there wouldn’t be enough affordable housing.  “If the rent is going to be $1,700, that’s not going to be affordable,” she said. She also raised concerns that a new CVS won’t generate very many new jobs for local people.

Chris Heitmann (pictured), executive director of the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, sought a middle ground: “Is it possible to achieve some compromise?” Heitmann echoed Nemerson’s characterization of the plan for the CVS, calling it “cookie-cutter.” “I hope that we can move toward development that is less about the needs of drivers and more about the people who live here and walk here every day,” Heitmann said. The developers said they are open to aesthetic changes, but they need the city and neighbors to be more specific about what they want.

Upper Westville Alder Richard Furlow, who favors the new store, organized the meeting. He said that the dialogue will continue and he will work to corral the various concerns and ideas of neighbors.

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posted by: David Backeberg on May 29, 2015  12:42pm

Good for Nemerson laughing at the plan. It’s a bad plan. If it’s really the case that CVS will only build suburban style “parking lot and one-floor buildings” on a site that is currently multi-story with apartments and retail, then good riddance. The status quo is much better than this design. Cities need density, and even the 66 parking spots is ridiculous. Whatever formula came up with that number is crazy. They never fill their existing parking lot, nor do the two Walgreens stores already on Whalley, nor the other CVS at Orchard & Whalley that already has a drive thru. The people who will go to this store will walk there, or ride the bus to the stop directly in front of the store.

posted by: anonymous on May 29, 2015  1:15pm

The city’s vision for the site would add tremendous value to the surrounding area, both in terms of area finances but also health and quality of life. 

The developer’s big box plan would destroy the neighborhood, and should be approved under no circumstances.

posted by: Powers on May 29, 2015  1:31pm

I’m no huge fan of the Harp administration, but good for Nemerson for sticking to what we know about how the fabric of cities is held together.  The city’s design is FAR superior to the developer’s.  It is a design worth fighting for for the good of the neighborhood and the city at large.  Glad to see someone is fighting for common sense here.

posted by: DataGirl on May 29, 2015  1:56pm

CVS has a store in Davis Square, Somerville MA [near Boston] that is in keeping with the new-urban, non-suburban aesthetic of that neighborhood. There are definitely things I’d rather see for this space, but if CVS is the only option there’s a precedent for arguing with them for a more Westville-friendly design.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 29, 2015  2:14pm

Three thumbs up for the City here

posted by: HewNaven on May 29, 2015  2:17pm

He argued that a traditional, suburban big box-style store with lots of parking is not in keeping with the Westville aesthetic. Nor is it where he believes the city is headed in developing walkable urban environments friendly to young families, adding value to nearby properties.

I have to admit that Matt Nemerson has turned out to be a really good planner for this city, especially arguing against inhumane developments like this Arista proposal. Thanks, Matt!

posted by: Noteworthy on May 29, 2015  2:33pm

Smirking Notes:

1. Arrogance is a bad trait in a city dying for investment and increased property tax rolls.

2. The city’s version is silly. The new urbanist concept works in an area without tons of idling traffic, lung clogging soot and traffic. It doesn’t work on this corner.

3. Anybody who spends five minutes sitting at that corner will be able to tell you that - and the concept that people will actually be sitting out there at tables is even funnier. That would be taking your life in your hands.

4. That corner is not only a major connector to downtown, it is a major connector to points South both in Westville and West Haven and access to I-95. It is extremely busy with semi-truck and car traffic.

5. Nemerson’s idea is actually better suited at the current CVS store site up the road. While you still have the traffic, you have excess parking; you don’t have turning traffic, and the idling traffic is not at a three way light with a gas station. It would only be on the one side of Whalley. Moreover, it would join up with other existing residential on Whalley and extend it.

6. The one who needs to rethink their position is the city. Exit high horse, remove foot from mouth and be cooperative and practical.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on May 29, 2015  3:55pm

The City’s proposal fits the character of the neighborhood, and would help support the community’s long-standing effort to make the streets safer. It does this by rebuilding mixed-use residential buildings on the corner, buildings which “read” clearly to motorists as being places used by local people, and places of common interest. Dayton Street is a lovely Street, the City plan will help protect it and support the quality of life and property values of its residents. Thanks Matt!

The CVS plan negates these common and constructive community values, and would cause serious damage to the area. Besides the ill-fitting chain-drug- box store being set back from the corner (which can increase the speeds drivers feel are acceptable in an area), the plan also calls for a major driveway on Dayton. Not only is this likely to be a traffic hazard, it would be damaging to Dayton Street as a place to live.

posted by: Tilsen-Haven on May 29, 2015  4:40pm

Where is the dedicated bike lane in front of the story and the bike parking?  Why does the diagram show hazardous above-ground utility poles being put up along Whalley and Dayton next to a new development?

posted by: Billy on May 29, 2015  4:50pm

I agree with other commenters that the City plan is far better than the CVS plan.  HOWEVER, I am growing tired of the aesthetically characterless design of these kinds of buildings. New Haven is getting full of this boring design of buildings, that will be the regrettable marker of the 2010’s.

I agree with Pam Allen that we need more AFFORDABLE housing in this city. So many of the apartments being added right now (Howe and Chapel, College across from Co-Op, Mechanic and Lawrence, etc.) are beyond the reach of most of our residents and families. We may have a property tax problem, but we have a more serious affordable housing problem.

posted by: Ch H on May 29, 2015  5:02pm

Many thanks for the detailed article. I hope this is the beginning of the end for the CVS expansion plan. That said, the city’s vision is just as cookie-cutter in its way as the developers’ is in theirs.

Interesting that DataGirl mentions the CVS in Davis Square, Somerville MA. I looked at the city’s mockup and thought immediately of the kind of generic, second-rate gentrification that took over Mass Ave in Arlington/Somerville.

If the city’s plan isn’t radically committed to affordable housing, it will destroy the character of Westville just as surely as the CVS juggernaut.

Good work by the city, putting pressure on the developers. Now it’s time for the public to put pressure on the city.

To the traffic study I say, in your dreams. CVS expects to make the supersite pay by bringing in only 1 or 2 cars during rush hour? Here, too, the city is at fault in its own right.

The Fountain/Davis/Whalley configuration is already a rush-hour nightmare that starts at 3PM when Mauro-Sheridan lets out (think school buses). Unfortunately, I expect the Whalley site to be demolished and rebuilt sooner than the city will apply its wits to a traffic pattern.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 29, 2015  5:30pm

So where does Zoning come in on this?
The City, via Nemerson, selectively signs on with a “vision” in some neighborhoods and throws others to the developers.
Where was Nemerson when Dwight and West River had THEIR vision for a livable city instead of the Daytona Race Way?
I’m no fan of CVS’s generic designs that are overtaking our cities like Kudzu.
But why single out one project from all the others?
There is no plan of development or consistency in New Haven.
Political expendiency (i.e. another politically powerful neighborhood) versus what the people want everywhere, not just in Wooster Sq., East Rock or Westville.

posted by: Paul Wessel on May 29, 2015  6:07pm

I’m puzzled by a couple of things here:

1.  This corner is ripe for commercial development - first by Cumberland Farms and now by CVS - precisely because of the number of cars that flow by there daily.  We may want something that looks like the (non-profit) developed West Rock Avenue and Whalley shops, but that’s not what the market is driving toward here.  It was great when that corner was the M&T Deli, not so wonderful when it became a liquor store - and look at the picture of the existing residential there now.

2.  Why does the city’s rendering have a bakery on the first floor?  This is a CVS development project.  What was the city’s strategy here?  And why do this in public, where the most likely outcome is getting the developer’s back up? 

3.  While the city’s “vision from Whalley Avenue” graphic might be heartwarming (although very much a cookie cutter rendering itself), it somehow omits that rather than a nice lawn across the street, there’s a gas station and newly constructed DOT wall and land that drops quickly off to the West River. It’s really an awful place for new residential. 

4.  The existing CVS across the street is pretty miserable, but the site actually reaches deeper into the residential fabric of the neighborhood behind it.  Why not “get to yes” by wresting some interesting development there, and perhaps spinning off some annual payments to the Westville Village Renaissance Association in the process?

Hopefully the neighborhood, developer and City can find Heitmann’s middle ground where everyone is equally unhappy and happy with the outcome.

posted by: quinn127 on May 29, 2015  8:21pm

I wonder if they’re doing anything with the other side of the parking lot where the existing CVS is, Because if you take a look on the picture where it’s the proposal of a New Store it clearly only focus on the part where the existing CVS is located. What about the other part of the parking lot that’s near the intersection?

posted by: fastdriver on May 30, 2015  8:30am

Arrogance, rolling eyes and smirking seem to be prevalent in this state! Too much power for some!

posted by: Bradley on May 31, 2015  7:52am

Re. the comments on affordable housing. We do not expect grocery stores to give discounts to low-income people to deal with the very real problem of hunger; we expect the government to provide programs like food stamps and WIC. Why should we expect, through planning regulations, developers to provide subsidized housing to address the very real problem of housing unaffordability? Instead, the federal and state governments need to increase housing supports such as Section 8.

Noteworthy - “a city dying for investment”? Have you noticed the hundreds of privately-financed market rate apartment units being built? Moreover, most of these developments are mixed use and will also be adding commercial space.

posted by: robn on May 31, 2015  8:32am

Nemerson is right and look no further than the Walgreens on York and George for an example of the planning disaster he’s trying to avoid. That would be especially the case in this area. CVS should see an opportunity in a captive audience of numerous customers that would occupy the surrounding high density housing. The city should try to find a development partner for CVS, try accommodate a clever condoization of the residential portion, and devise a clear exit strategy for a partnership split if necessary. How they would accommodate both residential and retail parking under current city rules is a mystery to me but heck, maybe this is the project that lets the genie out of the bottle and codifies some creative minimization of parking reqs in zoning.

posted by: Elihu on May 31, 2015  12:45pm

We cannot let CVS dictate urban planning and policy in our city, as if the flavorless corporate chain has appeared as a magical manifestation of “the market.” It’s OK to holdout until more creative capital comes to the fore.

posted by: Mitchell Young on June 1, 2015  11:02am

Matt puts his big boy pants on.

Cities have to have confidence in who they are and whet they want to be.

Companies like CVS or others and developers will also learn where the marketplace and political leaders are heading. It is unlikely that a confident city would want a suburban style development for where the CVS is.

Whalley avenue is too much a highway already. Changing that considering its place as a transportation artery is probably not easily doable. It seems both fair and reasonable for business to recognize that New Haven will not just place a suburban style development in a neighborhood that it is trying to improve.

The developer and CVS will have to move here - I don’t think the city can - I don’t think the neighborhood is desperate for a larger CVS.

posted by: abg22 on June 1, 2015  11:53pm

This is a perfect example of a property tax system that perversely incentivizes land-banking and low-intensity land uses like drive-thru pharmacies and surface parking lots. How many confrontations like this one between Messrs. Nemerson and Weymouth—or transparent and destructive land-banking like what Centerplan is doing on Route 34 West—must occur before the city realizes that we need some form of Land Value Tax (alongside form-based code) to prevent our major corridors from being overrun with drive-thru pharmacies on every corner? Bridgeport gets it and is pushing for enabling legislation for a LVT pilot. Or does Nemerson actually enjoy begging developers to ‘do the right thing,’ even though they never will?
>

posted by: robn on June 2, 2015  8:46am

ABG22,

Firstly, CT has a spending problem, not an income problem. The Leg has to stop spending lavishly on employees (an almost impossible wish since the leg is captive of AFSCME).

Secondly, I disagree with your thoughts on LVT; its probably worse than our current system. Our current property tax structure is biased against the development of heterogeneous places like New Haven (hydraulic taxation radically penalizes good behavior and rewards bad behavior). It also bases taxation on a projection of potential wealth (if a property sale occurs) rather than a transaction yielding actual income. LVT is even more of a ghost projection of wealth. We should tax income and in most, but not all cases, transactions yielding income.

posted by: Lao ri on June 2, 2015  9:33am

Getting rid of the Hess gas station across the street would go a long why to improve traffic at Dayton and Whalley.
Hess sold it’s retail to Marathon which will soon update the station with it’s Speedway style station. Good time to revisit their zoning and create a safer intersection.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on June 2, 2015  9:58am

A reminder that the tax on the sale of real estate was supposed to “sunset” years ago. Instead it was not only continued, but there was an increase in many towns.
At the same time, property values have dropped.
The archaic idea that real estate was hot and people were raking in huge profits was the original basis for the tax. Now it is just a penalty for selling.
I am no fan of the whining currently going on by big business about the increase in taxes on business, but if the Legislature won’t listen to the people and won’t listen to business and get to work on a rational tax plan, then expect to continue living in a financial bog.

posted by: robn on June 2, 2015  10:26pm

Back to that rent thing. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition agreed with 30% of your income as a rule of thumb.

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/how-much-you-need-to-earn-to-afford-rent-142514541.html

posted by: mohovs on June 3, 2015  9:16am

Great job Matthew Nemerson, The city needs someone with an urban planning vision beyond just looking at the tax roll and bending to any plan that comes along. As we have seen too often in the past.

posted by: Mister Jones on June 3, 2015  1:34pm

Tough corner, traffic, run-down buildings. Plenty of room for improvement, but I agree with Matt that the CVS plan is terrible—transplant their box and “abandon” the existing site, so the neighborhood gets the worst of both worlds. Better to find a way to rebuild at the current site. It’s been a box store since at least the 60’s. (Was it a Pegnatoro’s or Crown Supermarket, or both?)