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A Union Station rezoning proposal got a thumbs down — for now — from City Plan commissioners, amid concerns that it might not make sense to build so many new apartments next door to an active railyard.
That was the outcome of the latest monthly City Plan Commission meeting, which was held online via Zoom on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
The four commissioners present voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Alders turn down two related rezoning proposals that would allow for denser residential and commercial development on the surface parking lot right next to the historic train and bus hub on Union Avenue.
They also voted to “urge city staff to reengage with the community” on the most appropriate zoning and future uses at the Union Station site, before coming back with updated proposals.
These two zoning updates now head to the Board of Alders for at least one committee-held public hearing, deliberations, potential amendments, and a final full-board vote.
The proposed updates before the City Plan Commission on Dec. 20 were put forward by New Haven’s parking authority — a quasi-public agency that has long managed the day-to-day operations of the state-owned Union Station, now under the terms of a recently inked state-city partnership.
One proposal is a petition to amend the New Haven zoning map to change the designation of around 7.33 acres of land located at 170 Union Ave. from BE (Wholesale and Distribution) to a new Transit-Oriented Development zoning district, to be known as a Transit-Oriented Community (TOC) zone. The other proposal is a petition to amend the New Haven zoning ordinance to define what exactly would be allowed in a new TOC zone.
“This is a really significant step for the Union Station area to promote the walkable, pedestrian-friendly district that’s envisioned that extends from Long Wharf to downtown,” City Plan Department Executive Director Laura Brown told the local land-use commissioners in support of the rezoning proposals.
Park New Haven Executive Director Doug Hausladen took the lead in presenting the TOC zoning updates to the City Plan Commission at the December meeting.
He said that one of the main goals of this rezoning effort is to allow for the development of the so-called “East Lot” — a 1.77-acre surface parking lot adjacent to the historic Union Station building, right across the street from the city’s police station. He said the partnership hopes to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for new development at that site over the coming year.
Architect Karen Patriquin presented three “massing”-focused alternatives that showed what the site might look like with a new apartment building, a new office building, or a new hotel, all with groundfloor retail and — per the zoning proposal’s strong preference — underground, rather than surface-level, parking.
Hausladen noted that the east lot stands right next to Union Station’s existing 850-space garage. The “west lot” on the other side of the station, meanwhile, is where the state and city plan on building a new “multi-modal parking garage” with a bus depot on the ground floor.
“Uncomfortable & Disruptive” Living Next To Train Tracks?
Hausladen said that the rezoning proposals include three main changes designed to shape what ultimately gets built on the east lot.
The first would allow for minimum setbacks of 20 feet, a five-foot increase from the requirements in the BD zone, with the goal of allowing for wider sidewalks.
The second would set a parking maximum of 85 parking spaces per acre, with underground parking allowed as of right and above-ground parking requiring a special permit.
The third would set a floor-area ratio (FAR) maximum of 10.0, with a potential increase to 12.0 based on a project’s environmental sustainability and level of public plaza space. That higher FAR should allow for the construction of a much taller apartment or office or hotel building than allowed under the current rules. For comparison, Hausladen said, the apartment tower at 360 State St. has a FAR of 6.7, the office building at 195 Church St. has a FAR of 8.73, the 100 College St. lab/office building has a FAR of 4.8, and the 157 Church St. office building has a FAR of 20.4.
The parking lot next to the train station “theoretically should be our most dense parcel in the city,” Hausladen said, given that there are four commuter rail lines and regional rail, commuter buses, and plenty of employer shuttles right next door, not to mention 50,000 jobs within a 15 minute walk.
While commissioners and members of the public largely supported the idea of rezoning the area to allow for the creation of lots more housing, some wondered how much might be too much — and how to handle the potential nuisances of living next to a transit hub.
“There will be lots of vibrations and loud noises and other impacts,” Commissioner Adam Marchand noted about apartments placed right next to a railyard. “Who would really want to live right next to a train station and train tracks? Perhaps it would be uncomfortable and disruptive.”
While such residences are surely built next to such transit hubs in cities across the country all the time, he said, “what I don’t know is what special features such projects must have to mitigate the vibration and noise and air quality impacts of such proximity to rail.” Maybe the state building code already covers those concerns.
Maybe the city’s zoning code needs to be updated to take those into account. Either way, the city and the parking authority need to clearly address that issue before he’d feel comfortable voting in support of the rezoning. “It may be great to live next to a train station and active train tracks,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Local architects and urban planning experts Robert Orr and Anstress Farwell also raised concerns about what the zoning as proposed would allow to be built next door to the train station.
“The size of the property will become the size of the building. The height restriction will become the height of the building. It won’t encourage smaller-scale approaches that might be more appropriate,” Orr said about the site next to Union Station. “Walkability is also walk appeal.” Would too tall of a building wreck that appeal?
Farwell called for the city and parking authority to bring these rezoning proposals back to Hill community members and city residents more broadly to get public input on not just the implications for the west lot — but also on how redevelopment might affect the historic Cass Gilbert-designed Union Station building, and the planned new bus hub-garage on the west lot.
Attorney Ben Trachten, speaking up as a private citizen as opposed to a legal representative for anyone involved in the discussion, said he supports “95 percent” of the Union Station rezoning proposal and its overall goals of allowing for more, denser housing to be built near the transit hub.
One of his biggest concerns, however, is the incorporation of a decades-old “use table” into the definition of the new TOC zone.
That use table would allow, for example, the “sale of automotive accessories, parts, tires, batteries, other supplies” as of right in the TOC zone.
“It’s time for a reimagination of what the uses are,” Trachten said. “Many of those columns and rows are inapplicable to modern day uses,” including the row pertaining to “poultry slaughtering” (which, per the TOC proposal, would not be permitted in the Union Station proposed zone).
Commission Chair Leslie Radcliffe agreed. “The use table needs more work,” she said. “It needs to be more specific. Let’s actually consider where we want to do this.”
She noted that these uses would apply not just to Union Station, but to any other part of the city that might be rezoned as TOC in the future. She was disheartened to hear from the city’s zoning director that the city has no specific other areas of New Haven in mind to apply this TOC zone to — even though one of the reasons given for having a more flexible use table was that this could in the future apply to more than just the Union Station area.
Radcliffe also called for “more engagement between the city and the public” before the rezoning proposals get a final vote.
With that, the four commissioners present on the Zoom meeting voted unanimously in support of sending the Board of Alders “a recommendation that it not pass the item as presented, but instead urge city staff to reengage with the community” on the matter.