Public offers alternatives for Union Station development in New Haven

NEW HAVEN — Two towers of housing with retail and commercial space, as well as raised landscaped plazas would greet train passengers arriving in New Haven, rather than a flooded surface parking lot or expensive second garage.

That was one of the proposals discussed at the second part of a two-day charrette where residents devoted part of their weekend discussing what they see as the more valuable use of the 1.6-acre lot now tagged as the site of a $60 million 1,000-vehicle garage to serve Union Station.

Architects Rick Wies and Fereshteh Bekhrad looked at this parcel and came up with a plan that also sets the tone for future redevelopment of the Church Street South property across the street, as well as conversion of the current police station to an income-producing property.

Wies said over the last 50 years the presence of the rail yard behind the station has resulted in dysfunctional streets and building layouts in the area, with Union Station being the one “viable and street friendly building” on Union Avenue.

“Everything else has been antithetical to any notion of street friendliness and access,” he said.

Wies and Bekhrad proposed one level of parking by depressing the lot by five feet and putting the new buildings some 5 feet above the current street level to avoid the flooding problem in that area. The first story of the estimated 10-story towers would be retail and commercial use.

“As you go upward, it becomes a mix of office and residential,” with a variety of heights and structures across the site, but no structured parking except for the first depressed level, Wies said.

Bekhrad said they created plazas, setbacks and walkways around the building for access to the stores and to bring in light.

“It is very important that all of this space is opened up to the street for safety and security,” Bekhrad said, who hoped it would result in a vibrant pedestrian walkway for shoppers and residents.

This area now, except for the train station, is “so dead and ugly and nothing there and this is the entrance to our city,” Bekhrad said. “It is very very important to be able to create something that will be alive and moving.”

She said the buildings could be open and accessible on three sides, with a plaza above the retail space where the residential towers would be located with eight residential units of some 750 square feet on each of the floors.

They are proposing multi-level townhouses to the left of the towers for an additional 60 apartments and a total of 180 parking spaces. Bekhrad, who is also a developer, estimated the cost of the 280,000 square feet of construction at $50 million, which does not cover the cost of the land.

She said this could bring some $7.2 million in income for a developer with an estimated $1.8 million in taxes to New Haven. She said the figures are rough at this point.

“It would be a very good companion to the Union Square,” which is an enhanced entry to the train station, Bekhrad said.

This plan and the others discussed are theoretical and would need state approval as the property is owned by the state, although New Haven has been managing the garage and station for decades.

Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, who organized the two-day charrette, said the state Department of Transportation is taking comments from the public on its proposed 10-level garage through the end of the business Tuesday.

She urged the several-dozen residents who attended the discussion to send their opinions about the garage and whether the property should used for an alternative use.

Comments can be emailed to john.wyskiel@ct.gov or call 860-594-3303.

Farwell said she hoped the comment period is extended, but to be safe, people should make their opinions known by this deadline.

She was asked how likely it was that the state would revise its plans, something the city has been lobbying for in recent years.

“I have to say, I think we are being listened to. We wouldn’t have gone to this effort, if we didn’t feel, with the change of the administration and the fact that this is really a national issue,” change could be coming, Farwell said. Ned Lamont will be sworn in as the new governor Wednesday.

“Every city around the country is realizing that the pattern of development that focused on cars and parking has actually injured the economy and the livability of cities,” she said. Farwell said it has been a long time coming, but the efforts of people like those who came to the charrette are being heard.

“Your comments are not going to fall on deaf ears,” she said. The purpose of her effort was to show the state how much more the city and state could get with a different development.

Because of state rules on tax exemptions for colleges and state property, more than half of New Haven’s grand list is not taxable. That, coupled with the strained finances at the state level, Farwell said, means New Haven “can’t afford bad urbanism,” which is exemplified by the 1,000-car garage.

“The state can’t put something that would be negative and have a lot of externalized costs when the city has so much state land off the tax rolls, highways included. I think there is a growing awareness of this,” she said .

She said the dialogue will continue. A resident said the point is to show that other things are possible and more productive for the site.

Playing devil’s advocate, one member of the audience asked whether anyone would want to live in an apartment that looked out at a rail yard.

Bekhrad said from the third floor and up there is a view of the harbor beyond the rail yard and you can’t see the tracks from three sides of the suggested development.

One man said there is an apartment complex under review in Port Chester, N.Y., that abuts rail tracks there, while someone else said a young commuter to New York City would welcome this location for the convenience.

Someone else asked about the train whistles and would that be annoying. A resident of Wooster Square said she and her neighbors “love the sound of the trains.”

“These are good elements of urban living,” Bekhrad added.

Architect Robert Orr said New Haven is a changing city with 31 new co-working and entreprenurial spaces in place, but none near the train station.

“We are thinking of this as a potential site for innovation and entreprenurship where people can set up businesses … with 10 to 20 people. They are what used to be called office space,” Orr said.

To give the audience a visual cue as to what can fit on 1.6 acres, he showed them Saybrook College at Yale University.

Orr said the spaces he proposes could be built by several developers. He said they could use inexpensive containers that would be stacked and then clad with an appealing facade. The architect said they view the project as an entirely pedestrian environment.

He said they inquired as to what tax revenues are generated by buildings near train stations. He said four structures built at the corners of the station in Stamford generated $10 million in taxes.

Orr said New Haven is not Stamford, which attracts a lot of investment bankers, but once New Haven “starts to get rid of the glum, as I am always saying, thinks better of itself and starts to make it a more beautiful city, attract more people to it, there is no reason why this project” couldn’t generate at least $5 million in tax revenue.

“We think it is practically doable. We think it is dynamic,” Orr said.

Neil Olinski and Ryan O’Hara, transportation engineers, looked at Union Avenue itself and different layouts for the road.

Olinski said they looked at a “road diet” for the avenue, eliminating one lane to make it three. The left over space could be put toward bike lanes, while also shortening the crossing distance for pedestrians, which is safer.

“It kind of brings it back down to a more human scale, rather than a wide-open highway,” Olinski said.

A second iteration suggested that only buses come through there with access to the current garage for drivers from an extended Columbus Avenue. Bike lanes could also be added as well as a landscaped median.

The point is to reduce the vehicular traffic to make it safer, O’Hara said. More vehicles, such as adding a new garage, makes it less safe.

Doug Hausladen, executive director of the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking, was pleased with the turnout of the effort organized by the New Haven Urban Design League.

“From the city’s perspective, we were very impressed and appreciative of our community’s response and collected efforts. It is a holiday season with a very important project being released on a tight timeline for comments. The timeliness of this effort by the community is really helpful to keep informing the decisions of what infrastructure is needed in the 21st century for New Haven and the state,” Hausladen said after the Saturday session.

Mayor Toni Harp on Monday said the need for a second garage has decreased from three years ago and is expected to continue to drop. She said she hasn’t talked to the DOT lately about the garage issue, but her staff has.

“I think they are open” to more dialogue, Harp said. She speculated that the continuing push to build the garage from the DOT has as much to do with parking for its growing number of workers at the rail yard as the need of commuters.

New Haven pushed for the garage for decades, but arguments about who would run it and other issues delayed a resolution until now when officials are rejecting the idea of a garage completely as antiquated.

mary.oleary@hearstmediact.com; 203-641-2577

Source Article