New Haven Zoning Changes Embrace New Urbanism

New Haven Zoning Changes Embrace New Urbanism

New Haven’s rewriting its zoning rules to make it easier to build apartment buildings mixed with stores in the center of town. At least that is part the goal of the latest round of proposed text amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance.

City Plan staff unveiled a proposal during this month’s City Plan Commission public hearing to overhaul the language in the zoning ordinance that governs building in the city’s business zones — nine zones known as the “B” family of zones — that are mainly downtown and in arterial business districts like Grand and Whalley avenues.

The recommended changes would make the physical standards such as the setbacks from the street and the floor area ratio, or FAR, the same for commercial and residential buildings in those districts.

Builders of apartment buildings would no longer have to include front and side yards, under the proposal. In all parts of downtown except those bordering on residential neighborhoods, they would now need to provide only half a parking space per dwelling unit, rather than the current requirement (depending on the district) of a full space or three-quarters of a space.

The new rules would also create an across-the-board maximum standard for almost all of downtown of one dwelling unit allowed per 1,000 square feet of interior gross area for residential construction projects. The rules would no longer insist that commercial space go on the first floor of mixed-use buildings; they would state a “preference” instead of an “insistence,” according to a summary in a City Plan advisory report.

These changes would promote more projects like those that have received special permission in recent years, like the Novella on Howe and Chapel Streets and College Square at College and Crown.

The commission voted to keep the hearing open for its December meeting so that the public can continue to provide input on the proposal.

City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg called the current ordinance relics from the 1960s that don’t reflect the current thinking about planning, or economic development. The old idea, enshrined in zoning codes: Downtown is for commerce, not residential living. The new idea, enshrined in the latest city Comporehensive Plan but not yet incorporated into zoning laws: Downtown is for residential living, commerce, and medical uses, all mixed together.

Because the zoning rules haven’t caught up with the principles of “new urbanism” — featuring denser, mixed-use development geared more to street life and pedestrian life rather than the car — city agencies routinely spend months granting special permissions to projects that might fit well with how New Haven envisions developing in the 21st century. But the special exceptions are also easy to challenge through lawsuits.

“The text amendment is intended to integrate mixed use into business and commercial districts. That includes most of central New Haven as well as the arterial business districts,” Gilvarg said

Today, densely built buildings downtown with first floors that might feature a small grocery store, coffee shop, bodega, or restaurant seem like a given. But the process for building such developments is everything but straightforward, City Plan Commission Deputy Director Tom Talbot said.

“Under the current system, in many cases, to accomplish this kind of thing [developers] need a whole variety of variances regardless of whether the Board of Zoning Appeals approves them or not, they are legally insupportable. All anyone has to do is say, ‘I don’t like this. I’m going to call my attorney,’ and that’s it.”

Talbot said that 50 years ago people didn’t live in downtown New Haven except for at the Taft. The way that the ordinance is currently written allows for the building of separate commercial buildings and residential buildings, but doesn’t envision two such uses occupying the same space. He said under the amended ordinance it would standardize such developments and lessen the need for variances. Because of the high legal burden needed to justify a variance, he said the current process leaves developers open for legal challenge.

Incremental approach to zoning changes back to top

Gilvarg said that City Plan is taking an incremental approach to updating the zoning ordinance rather than creating a zoning commission to work on it over the next three to five years. The latter course would cost more money than the city can afford, she said. City Plan has already tackled the light industry district text of the zoning ordinance, amending it to permit more retail and services uses than had been previously permitted and to create standards for residential uses. The Board of Alders approved the amendment in October.

It’s not that the city is trying to encourage more residential uses in industrial districts, Talbot said, but it is trying to allow reasonable uses for existing industrial structures that he said “have outlived their uses for industrial or even commercial purposes.”

“Either you all for these older structures to be used for residential purposes or someone comes along and takes them down and in many cases they are buildings worth taking down,” he said.

Given the level of interest in development in the city’s business districts, it was paramount to take on the much more complicated and oft-used “B” family of zones.

Gilvarg pointed to the recently completed Novella apartment building as an example of a project that was built in a BD-1 zone that needed a number of variances so that it could be a multi-story, multi-family residential project over retail. It also was a project that was at one point threatned by a lawsuit over whether the developer had met the hardship requirement for the variances he’d asked of the city.

“That’s not necessarily a good practice,” Gilvarg said of one-off zoning decisions. “We want to enable this kind of development to happen either without benefit of zoning relief, or with very minimal relief.” The change also would make it harder to challenge such plans.

“It’s really complicated for us to work with this ordinance,” Talbot told City Plan commissioners at the hearing this past Wednesday. “It’s not complicated for you to understand or even for the public to understand. It’s complicated because of the way the ordinance was and is written. I would say even if everybody was on board for a major amendment to the zoning ordinance that it would take years and this is something that really has to happen. It’s a major impediment. I can’t imagine being a developer and having serious interest in this community and being confronted with all this.”

“Fortunately it hasn’t stopped them,” Gilvarg added.

“But it has slowed down things and it has cost a lot of people a lot of money to no good purpose,” Talbot said.

Talbot said the text amendment would eliminate different bulk and area standards for residential uses in business districts.

“The bulk and area standards will be the same for all uses that are permitted in business districts including residences,” he said.

Gilvarg told commissioners that even though parking requirements have been reduced — as planners envision fewer apartment-dwellers owning cars than in the past — more reductions may be appropriate. As it stands the parking requirements for residential developments in the majority of the B family of zones is one-to-one. Talbot said in the BD1 and BD3 the requirement is .75 per every one unit.

“We may not have reduced them as much as some folks in the city might like,” she said. “We’re taking a conservative approach. If I knew that we had an extremely attentive, well-funded and flexible transit authority in the city that could respond to parking reductions by adding bus service and bus stops, we might have been able to take a less conservative approach to it, but we are incrementally reducing parking as we go through these commercial zones.”

Talbot added that the city doesn’t want to be responsible for reducing parking for a private development to a point where the demand for parking becomes a city problem. He said what some might find suprising is that the city spends nearly as much time arguing against too much parking rather than trying to get people to reduce parking. He said some developers see more parking as a selling point for potential renters and buyers, or they see a financial opportunity to lease the spaces to generate an income.

“We often get people who would rather more parking than less,” he said.