Parking Replaces Housing, Thanks To Zoning Rules

A local landlord won city approval to convert the site of a former four-family house…

Thomas Breen photoA local landlord won city approval to convert the site of a former four-family house into a surface parking lot in … wait, what?

That wasn’t a typo. At a time when parking lots across the city are bursting into new housing, this lot has flipped that script, thanks to a restrictive underlying zoning code.

ZoomThat housing-to-parking sign off took place during the latest regular monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission. The virtual meeting took place online this past Wednesday evening via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

Commissioners voted unanimously in support of local landlord Menahem Edelkopf’s site plan for converting the 0.15-acre corner lot at 1471 Chapel St. into 15 spaces of paved surface parking.

“We all kind of wished and hoped that there could be some other use for this lot,” said Westville Alder and City Plan Commissioner Adam Marchand. But the underlying zoning regulations left few other options.

Thomas Breen photoLocal attorney Ben Trachten agreed.

“Given it’s a corner lot and undersized, nothing could be built on it,” he said. “So this is the one compliant use that is doable. Much as Alder Marchand said, it’s not the best, but it’s what we have.”

The property is already being used as a parking lot, albeit an unpaved one. That wasn’t always the case.

For decades it held a four-family house, which suffered significant damage from a fire in 2016 and subsequently sat vacant for years. Edelkopf’s company bought the property in May 2019 and knocked the building down later that year.

This spring, the landlord won a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals allowing for off-street parking spaces to be located in the lot’s two front yards. (Per the zoning code, it technically has two front yards, because the site is at a corner, of Chapel Street and Sherman Avenue.)

City Deputy Director of Zoning Jenna Montesano explained to the City Plan commissioners during a February meeting that the landlord initially wanted to build a new four-family house on the 6,775 square-foot site.

But such a use — that is, new housing — would be “nonconforming” per the underlying zoning regulations of the RO (Residence-Office) District. The city zoning code for that district requires that new single-family, two-family, and multi-family residences be built on a minimum lot area of 7,500 square feet, with a minimum average lot width of 60 feet, a maximum building coverage of 25 percent of the lot area, and a minimum 25-foot front yard.

So the landlord’s hands were relatively tied. He was a victim of what Montesano described at the time as “our outdated zoning code.”

On Wednesday night, the commissioners recognized that Edelkopf’s site plan would indeed improve the conditions of the property as it currently exists as a gravel lot, even if it would not—and could not—result in new housing.

The site plan calls for the construction of a surface parking lot with an associated on-site drainage system and lighting. It will consist of 15 parking spaces, including one accessible space, as well as three bike racks.


“When the site is fully built out with vegetation and fencing, it will be a true enhancement to the neighborhood,” Trachten said.

“It’s not my ideal of what should be there,” Marchand said. “It’d be great if we could have a house or the house next door could grow into it.” But, when strictly comparing what’s there now to what’s envisioned in the site plan, this project does represent an improvement, he said.

Commission Vice Chair Leslie Radcliffe agreed. She also noted that she drives by the property frequently, and commended the landlord for keeping the lot clean, orderly, and well-maintained.

Paving and landscaping and lighting, she said, “will make it a much nicer parking lot.”

Before the commissioners took their vote, Trachten said that the current surface parking lot preserves the possibility of a building in the future.

“It does allow for future development,” he said, “if zoning regulations change.”

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on August 25, 2020  8:10am

The headline is misleading. The site is currently a parking lot because a fire badly damaged the building that was there and it was too costly to repair. The owner could have sought variances to permit the building of new housing on the site, but chose not to. I am not questioning the owner’s (or Ben Trachten’s) judgment here. But the site will remain a parking lot for the time being due to interaction of the fire, the economics of development in New Haven, and the zoning code, rather than merely the latter.

Jenna Montesano is right that the code is outdated. Pre-COVID,  she and others were working on amendments to the code that would permit a broader range of housing types in the city. Among the ideas under consideration was making it easier to build on lots like this one. Facilitating such redevelopment would be one useful tack in addressing the shortage of affordable housing.

CityYankee, 30% of New Haven households don’t have cars. At a meeting of my community management team last night, a developer presented a proposal specifically aimed at households that own no or only one cars. He noted that his firm’s existing development across the street is 98% occupied in part because people can live there without a car.

posted by: Heather C. on August 25, 2020  3:38pm

Zoning in NH needs to change for many reasons. The ridiculous thing is that a four family house was on that lot for decades and it should have been able to be rebuilt, at least on a smaller scale. Parking shortages is an issue that all cities deal with but because of public transportation and walkability, it shouldn’t take precedence over housing, especially since this address has lots of nearby parking garages/lots and on street parking and it’s not near many restaurants or shops. The city needs to do serious zoning overhauling and city planning for the vision of the city and its market trends for the year 2030 and beyond. Commerce is increasingly an online market, not brick and mortar. Science, technology, medicine and the arts, restaurants and bars (after the pandemic is over) will be the future of New Haven. Housing trends need to be projected into the future needs for the next several decades. Walkability and bicycle friendly streets will become the draw for living in the city. Public transportation and ride services and shuttles will become increasingly important to the desirability of living in the city. With global warming and the increasing debt of the current 20-40 year old population, the private automobile will no longer be a
viable option in the future.