Neighbors Skeptical About Adding Floors To Unger’s Flooring

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The owners of Unger’s Flooring have a plan.

The longtime, struggling Grand Avenue retailer is looking to add two floors of apartments to its buildings, add townhouses in the back of the rarely used parking lot, and rescue a long-blighted building adjacent to the lot. The plan would also include converting an old masonry building across the avenue into five more apartments

The result: “An adaptive reuse of three blighted structures in a corridor where there’s a mixture of homeless people, neighborhood people, and it could certainly use some life.”

The was the vision and language of attorney Ben Trachten Tuesday night as he and architect Ken Boroson presented the adaptive reuse plan for 873-897 and 880 Grand Ave. to the Downtown/Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT) at a Zoom meeting.

The site includes the Unger’s building and the two adjacent parcels to the east, along with 880 Grand, currently leased space for the storefront church Centro Missionario De Restauracion.

All together, the plan would create out of 873-897 Grand Avenue 34 living units, said Boroson. The plan calls a configuration of larger units of two and three bedrooms plus dens, including the proposed townhouses recessed to the rear of the parking area and backing into the properties along Lyon Street.

The other building, a masonry structure further east on the south side of the thoroughfare, would be a simpler conversion, said Boroson. It involves the adding of two stories, creating a retail space in front along with a living unit at street level, for a total of five new dwellings.

All the new units, said the presenters, would be rented at market rate.

Trachten said the plans are highly preliminary and designed to be respectful of the residents of Lyon Street. There was nothing preliminary or provisional about the reaction from neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting.

Mona Berman, a longtime Lyon Street resident, said she and her neighbors were armed with three pages of questions and concerns. Berman led a petition-driven charge in 2019 to reject the city’s Gateway District zoning changes for the Grand Avenue corridor.

Although the plans that Boroson and Trachten laid out on Tuesday were largely residential, the past came back to the present in neighbor Mona Berman’s take on the proposals.

“We’ve been through this before,” she said. “Grand Avenue had been designated a ‘gateway corridor,’ but the lots are small for commercial, and it’s completely enveloped by residential. There are a lot of serious issues here.

“I’ve reviewed this, and we have a list of questions, three pages long though tonight’s not the night to get them all answered.”

Still she aired a number of the concerns. For example, “If Unger’s stays in business, there are no loading areas shown” in the documents presented Tuesday night.

Neighbors also asked whether residential units on the first floor would have doors opening onto the avenue; and if future residents of the townhouses might be skipping across Lyon Street backyards to get into their future homes.

“These projects contradict what we’ve spent hours and hours studying,” Berman said.

“Whatever was in the past,” replied Trachten, “doesn’t affect the current owner’s ability to file an application for site plan and zoning relief.” That will be required for a range of issues with the project, including side yard and wall height variances and permission for first-floor residential units on Grand Avenue.

Another neighbor, Linda Reeder, said her read of the documents was that, “You have apartments opening their doors into people’s backyards. Are you planning on fencing to keep people from cutting through Lyon Street to get to their places?”

“That’s something I need to get clarification on,” Trachten replied.

Reeder added that for security reasons she would prefer offices to first-floor residences.

Another neighbor, Rahul Shah, expressed disappointment that the plan is for all market-rate units.

“This is adaptive reuse of three blighted structures. It could certainly use some life. Whether that’s market rate or affordable is beyond me. But some residential use with ground floor retail would be a good use rather than just being a corridor of travel to downtown,” Trachten answered.

“There’s been a long and difficult zoning history there,” Trachten acknowledged. “There’s been ornate doors on that dilapidated building for years. But there’s a new owner and we hope to advance a project to bring housing choice to the area rather than see Unger’s shut down.”

DWSCMT Chair Ian Dunn invited the presenters back to have a fuller discussion about the project.

Trachten and Boroson didn’t immediately accept the invitation.

Dunn reminded the attendees that a CMT only listens and advises, however passionately; the actual decisions and approvals are at the BZA and City Plan hearings. He urged people to attend those and air their concerns there, in September, when Trachten said he hopes to see the proposal on teh agenda.

“You’re undertaking projects in an area where the regulations don’t fit anything anymore,” said Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League. “And that’s one reason it needs a lot of closer attention for basic street planning and making the pedestrian experience an enjoyable one.”

“Some of the issues , I wasn’t aware,” said Boroson. “And I thank you.”

Tags: Unger’s, Ken Boroson, Ben Trachten, Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team

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posted by: Pedro Soto on July 21, 2021  4:47pm

The immediate residents of this area have lived there for decades and to their credit, kept Lyon and William street a small but vibrant connection of Wooster Square even as it is tucked away between train tracks and the highway.

However, they are also pretty used to having things be exactly the same, with Grand Avenue being essentially vacant. They don’t want to have any sort of intensification of use on Grand, which is diametrically opposed to what the city wants.

I was most distressed when they banded together to kill the extension of the historic district due to a willful misinterpretation of what the district entails, and a clause that to date has never once been interpreted in a manner that they were so forceful about.

There isn’t going to be a plan which passes their muster, because the status quo is what they want.  There absolutely is a worry that large buildings and use will butt right up against the back yards of many of the homes on the street, and traffic may increase due to cut through traffic. But these are not intractable problems.

The city should do the best they can in good faith to speak to these issues, however, the residents of this area are adamantly opposed to anything happening Grand Ave, so at some point the city is going to have to decide if turning this into a vibrant, walkable street (which would then open and connect the Hamilton Street area to the rest of downtown and restore the former commercial and residential corridor that once existed there.

Look at old pictures of this street. it was once shoulder to shoulder with building for almost 2 solid blocks with a trolly line down the middle, with the homes tucked behind the commercial buildings. The current wasteland is an aberration of the historical use of the area.

posted by: Heather C. on July 22, 2021  3:41pm

Thank you to the neighbors and the commenters who raised concerns and gave suggestions for the redevelopment around Grand Ave- Fair Haven near Downtown and Wooster Square. Often the neighbors have legit concerns that if appropriately addressed by the developers would dissolve some of the conflicts. Grand Ave does not need high rise buildings, it does need eyes on the street. Retail isn’t just clothing, it could be tailors, a laundromat, an environmentally safe dry cleaners, a major chain moderately priced grocery store like ShopRite, a UPS store, a crafts/locally produced/farmers market/co-op, a food and goods import market and wholesalers for Latinix items, a Halal Middle Eastern and Pan-Asian market and import and wholesaler stores, restaurants, coffee shops/cafes, a bakery, a deli, a major chain pharmacy, a credit union/bank, an ice cream/frozen treats shop, a gas station, entertainment, activities, etc. There are a large amount of new residential developments being built nearby and a movie studio coming to the area, those people living and working nearby will need goods and services, entertainment and activities, and places to eat and drink without having to drive to other neighborhoods or out of the city to get those needs filled. There are many empty commercial and industrial buildings and empty lots in the Fair Haven and Wooster Sq and other neighborhoods that could be rezoned, renovated, rebuilt attractively with a healthy mix of residential, goods and services, and entertainment and activities, in keeping with the scale and style of the neighborhood, and that would be a benefit to creating a vibrant community, rather than an ugly looming high rise bedroom community that rolls up its streets at night. Those areas in the city formerly zoned as industrial or commercial need to be rethought as mixed use zoning that can be more flexible to make sure that our real estate is fully utilized and not vacant due to outdated zoning uses no longer in demand.

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