“New Urbanist” Westville Zone Proposed

City of New HavenAn assisted living facility would be OK, but not a boarding house. An apartment building could rise four stories and have a first-floor pharmacy — but no convenience store. Boutique hotel? Fine. Motel? Not fine.

And never shall there be a drive-through fast food restaurant in the heart of the Village.

Those are just some of the rules for how to develop Westville’s commercial core contained in a new plan currently before the Board of Alders.

The plan is to create a new special zoning district for Westville Village. Drawn up by the City Plan Department, the change would allow Westville Village, currently zoned General Business, or BA, to have its own Village Center Mixed Use designation, or BA-2, zoning district.

For that to happen, alders need to approve an ordinance text amendment first creating such a zone and then a zoning map amendment to change Westville Village from BA to BA-2. The request will go to the City Plan Commission for review, then back to the alders for a final review and vote.

The recommended special zoning designation is the result of a nearly two-year collaboration between the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance and students in the Yale Law School Community and Economic Development Clinic. It came in the wake of the fire that destroyed the former Delaney’s Restaurant & Tap Room at Whalley and Central avenues.

The students, after receiving 370 survey responses and conducting nine focus groups to gather more detailed information, learned that neighbors want development that favors “New Urbanist” principles —  mixed uses, denser development, less surface parking, human scale, pedestrian-orientation over cars —  while maintaining the eclectic nature of the village. They recommended in their report that the city create a new zone for Westville Village using the Neighborhood Center Mixed Use, or BA-1, zone designation as a guide. (Read a previous story about the students delivering their report here.)

That’s exactly what the city is now looking to do, according to acting City Plan Director Michael Piscitelli.

“The proposed text and map amendments to the New Haven Zoning Ordinance presented to you are primarily intended to facilitate the preservation and enhancement of the existing village character of this area while providing opportunities for very specific types of physical development that will ensure its continued economic viability,” Piscitelli wrote in a letter to alders. “These changes will help affirm this to an extent that current zoning regulations cannot.”

Piscitelli said the language governing the proposed new BA-2 zone for Westville will be similar to a BA-1 zone, which currently applies to Grand Avenue between the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers, but with some “fundamental” differences in the pattern of development. He said the BA-1 zone regulations are designed for the more linear commercial development that you see on Grand Avenue, while the BA-2 zone regulates a zone that is a bit more diffused, less linear zone.

“The physical form of the district is regulated in a number of different ways,” he wrote of the proposed BA-2 zone. “To maintain and restore the traditional two- to four-story height of buildings in the Village new buildings must be at least two but no more than four stories in height.”

He said uses that would make it hard for pedestrians to navigate the Village, such as a business with a drive-thru, would not be permitted. And while many of the uses allowed by right in the current General Business, or BA zone will continue to be permitted, they will be subject to a higher standard of review, he said. The zone would allow for some first-floor residential uses.

WVRAPiscitelli also noted that developers will be encouraged to build up to the street, while solid security gates are prohibited. Landscaping, fencing, and screening standards are also established by the text amendment. The BA-2 zone would have the same parking standards as the BA-1 zone, reducing the need for off-street parking in the district, reducing the potential for empty parking lots and encouraging shared-parking for more efficient use of parking resources, he said.

“The most significant change, however, is that the FAR [floor to area ratio] standard to regulate the density of development in all other commercial districts in the city has been eliminated; the primary means of limiting density is now based almost exclusively on a 50 toot height limit.”

He said these changes are important for the building of infill projects, like the forthcoming redevelopment of the old Delaney’s site. He said the zone change would be consistent with what is happening at that site.That project, which is proposed to be three stories, is headed to the Board of Zoning Appeals next week, which will be before the proposed zoning overhaul for the village is reviewed by the City Plan Commission. It can be approved under existing rules.

Markeshia Ricks PhotoWVRA Executive Director Lizzy Donius said in the wake of the fire that destroyed the Delaney’s building, Westville Village was in dire need of increased development and investment. Her predecessor, Chris Heitmann, enlisted the Yale clinic students to help WVRA. The work that the students have done will help the city address some of the underlying issues that have been barriers to development and growth.

She said the zone changes would incentivize mixed-used development and increase density, while also protecting against one-story drive-thrus or eight-story buildings.

“In the time since we undertook this project we have seen exciting progress towards our vision of a Westville Village that is denser and more vibrant,” Donius said. “Two exciting projects — the coming restaurant at the old First Niagara Building and a new mixed-use development on the old Delaney’s lot — are already underway. And the two large, stubbornly vacant properties that bookend the Village — 781 Whalley and 500 Blake Street and its large parking lot — are drawing attention from potential developers.”

She said the two large lots present big opportunities “for the right developers with the right projects to increase the density of the village.” 

“Westville is an incredible community full of true diversity of every kind and a vibrant spirit anchored in artistic expression and a dedication to community engagement,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to live and to work, and I think many potential developers and investors see the potential.  These zoning changes are designed to help the kinds of projects that will make the Village thrive easier to implement. ”

Andrew Parker, one of the Yale Law clinic students who worked on the recommendations, said being able to work with community leaders, elected officials and the city’s planning professionals was “a great learning experience for us.

“We have really appreciated the trust placed in us to help craft a proposal that will serve the needs of the Westville community,” he said in an email. “Overall, the process has shown us how rewarding community activism and engagement can be.”

Piscitelli called the proposal a “nice team effort with this being driven by the community with the support of the Yale Law clinic doing quite a bit of drafting.

“It validates the community input,” he said.

He also sees a marketing benefit for attracting developers and for businesses trying to attract tenants to empty storefronts. Piscitelli said the change is something that could happen in other parts of the city but not necessarily any time soon.

“This is one where we want to see how it plays out over the years,” he said. “Westville has some open and available parcels and it’s important to get these right.”

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posted by: anonymous on February 13, 2018  3:37pm

Great work on the report. However, from a regional perspective, capping building heights at 4 stories in this area is a big mistake, given that this area is a transit hub close to downtown that is served by three of the best bus lines in the state.

The zoning should allow up to at least 6 or 7 stories.  Assuming well-designed buildings, that is considered to be the most efficient level of density without sacrificing any quality of life. 

So that people like teachers, caregivers, and police officers can continue to live in Westville as rents rise, perhaps the zoning could at least include an encouragement (sometimes known as IZ or IHZ) allowing developers to add 1-2 extra stories if they set aside a few units for affordable housing.

As bus service gets cut back, state government should prioritize good transportation service to those areas that are allowing increases in density and economic activity.

Also, the parking requirements should be eliminated or severely cut back within this zoning plan. Let the market provide parking, and stop prioritizing space for storing cars over space for human beings. We are basically requiring developers to subsidize parking spaces for higher-income people, instead of providing more housing or other amenities that are desired by the neighborhood. Many other cities are eliminating parking requirements entirely in areas like this.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on February 13, 2018  8:09pm

I think for Westville to become better there needs to be something that people of all ages can do. There should definitely be much more activity in the area. As for the height of proposed buildings I actually think that some of the buildings should be 8-10 stories tall. Westville needs to stand out in a unique way. So, why not just build some taller buildings in the village? In my opinion Whalley Avenue should be only two lanes in both directions with protected bike lanes and also a median in the center of the corridor.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 13, 2018  9:24pm

For the most part, I think the proposal makes sense. But some of the provisions strike me as overly prescriptive. For example, what is the problem in having a convenience store on the ground floor of an apartment building?

posted by: robn on February 13, 2018  10:12pm

A link to the guidelines would help readers make some sense of a vague story. For instance, is s 50’ height limit really the only bulk requirement? If so, pretty naive.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on February 13, 2018  11:11pm

@Kevin McCarthy

Convenient stores are too common to be on ground floors of apartment buildings. More people would rather have coffee shops, sandwich deli shops or a restaurant. Especially residents who live in neighborhoods like Westville, Upper State Street, East Rock, Wooster Square, etc…

posted by: doubleblue on February 14, 2018  8:06am

It is so refreshing to read about “new urbanist” projects that are actually… new urbanist.  Too often, shrewd developers abuse the term to cram ugly subdivisions central shopping malls in the middle of greenfields down the throats of semi-rural communities.  Or to justify rezoning existing, sometimes historic, stable neighborhoods, to totally unacceptable levels.  This project is something that applies new urbanist principles to achieve the goals of new urbanism—smart growth, increased walkability, mixed-use—to improve the quality of life of residents.  I moved away from Westville some years ago, but I have been watching with concern about what would happen to the Delaney’s site.  It is so refreshing to see a proposal that would actually improve, and not diminish, Westville.  I am really impressed.

posted by: CT DRV on February 14, 2018  10:16am

@ Quinn- For working class people, convenience stores are coffee shops. There where we get our breakfasts (a classic New England breakfast sandwich on a hard roll, usually <$3 and not a four dollar muffin) and our coffee (Green Mountain out of a plastic pump-pod for a buck, not an artisanal cold brew at $4). As we get denser, and more walkable, and more New Urbanist, let’s not let all the benefits of this school of urban planning to only benefit the more wealthy denizens of Westville. There’s enough luxury vendors in Broadway, let’s make the new Westville (and the coming improvements) accessible to everyone.

On that note, this plan is a good one, but there’s something missing from the conversation as it pertains to my above point: Where’s the demand for affordable housing? Too many times these walkable communities only serve those who have six figure salaries and/or college degrees. The benefits of New Urbanism must extend to the growing new working class- people of color, service sector workers, and those without a college degree. This means affordable housing in an area where a one bedroom can run $700/mo- four years ago.

posted by: 1644 on February 14, 2018  3:39pm

ANON & QUIN:  Westville is trying to be a village, not an urban core.  It is a streetcar suburb, with nice, single family homes on lots of 10-20K square feet, with broad, tree-lined streets.  Four stories is plenty dense enough to provide a hyper-local customer base for local retail.  High rises would destroy much of the value of the area’s homes.  Let Westville be Westville.  For a hopping neighborhood, with dense housing and late-night music venues, lets work on the Ninth Square.

CTDRV:  Why push down one of the few New Haven neighborhoods (with Prospect Hill/Livingston) that has consistently maintained itself, providing, amongst other things, a tax base for the city and a customer base for many New Haven businesses downtown and elsewhere.  As for a $700/mo one bedroom, you will need way-back machine to take you to the 1990’s.

Btw, anon, the area is easily affordable for teachers and police officers, although not so much for caregivers.

posted by: ADAK on February 15, 2018  9:48am

I applaud all the work that has been done in the past decade to sustain, but also push forward, the Westville Village area. The residents and business owners of Westville (and the surrounding neighborhoods) consistently come together to preserve and highlight this historic area. As New Haven grows, laws must change that benefit the community—and I hope these adjustments do just that. Westville has been “on the cusp” of a revitalization for years, and perhaps soon all the vacant land will appear more enticing for redevelopment.