Long Wharf building moratorium advances in New Haven

NEW HAVEN — A proposed one-year building moratorium on Long Wharf is now one vote away from adoption — after alders and city planners made clear that certain projects, like Fusco’s planned new 500 waterfront apartments, would not be affected by the land-use pause.

That was the outcome of Tuesday night’s Board of Alders Legislation Committee meeting, which took place in person in the Aldermanic Chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

The four committee alders present for the meeting voted unanimously in support of an amended version of the City Plan Department’s proposed 12-month building moratorium for the area covered by the Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan.

If OK’d by the full Board of Alders, the moratorium would temporarily restrict developers from submitting applications for building permits, site plans, variances, special exceptions, special permits, and rezoning amendments for lots in the waterfront area bounded by Water Street to the north, the New Haven Harbor to the east, Union Avenue to the west, and Hallock Avenue to the south.

Thanks to an amendment endorsed by the committee alders on Tuesday night, however, that moratorium would include a number of ​“categorical exclusions” — that is, land-use activities to which the building pause would not apply. 

Some of those proposed ​“exclusions” would include cannabis establishments looking to operate within an existing structure in the district, which would cover a Massachusetts-based dispensary that is eyeing a potential move to the soon-to-be-former home of Long Wharf Theatre.

Another ​“exclusion” would apply to ​“matters which involve implementation of existing approved general plans” that have been approved pursuant to Section 65 of the city’s zoning code, which would cover Fusco Harbor Associates’ plans to build up to 500 new apartments at 501 Long Wharf Dr. (See more below for a full list of Long Wharf moratorium proposed ​“exclusions.”)

The proposed moratorium now advances to the full Board of Alders for further consideration and a potential final vote this fall.

City Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli, Deputy Economic Development Administrator Carlos Eyzaguirre, City Plan Department Planner II Esther Rose-Wilen, and city Deputy Corporation Counsel Roderick Williams told the committee alders on Tuesday night that the goal of this moratorium is to give the city time to redo the area’s zoning to promote denser residential, retail, and commercial development along New Haven’s mostly industrial waterfront — and to discourage currently permitted uses like new gas stations and truck repair facilities.

Such a zoning overhaul would be designed to ​“increase allowable uses, discourage detrimental uses that contradict the goals of the Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan, and encourage multi-use spaces and mixed-use development,” Rose-Wilen said. 

It would also set new ​“resiliency requirements and sustainability measures” to ensure flood protection and minimize urban heat islands.

While the City Plan Department has already started working on writing this new land-use law for Long Wharf, she and Piscitelli and Eyzaguirre said, the city needs time to finalize the language, get community input, and shepherd it through the City Plan Commission and aldermanic review and approval processes.

“This is a place to fight for,” Piscteilli said about Long Wharf. ​“It has great value for the city, not only economically,” but socially, culturally, and environmentally. ​“Long Wharf is the city’s neighborhood. It truly is a place for all of us.”

Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison expressed some hesitation about the proposed land-use pause. The city has long wanted to transform Long Wharf into a denser, mixed-use, more interconnected and sustainable part of town, she said.

“Why is this time going to be so different that we need to put the breaks on anything and everything that might want to come here?” she asked.

Piscitelli pointed out that Long Wharf as it currently exists is ​“the manifestation of the original construction of I‑95.” When the highway was built decades ago, he said, and the soil scooped out to make way for the highway laid out on Long Wharf, the city deliberately planned for the district to be industrial, with low density and big lawns.

Now, he said, as detailed in the 2019 Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan, ​“we want higher density.” The city wants to introduce more places to live and shop in the district. And, crucially, the federal government is putting hundreds of millions of dollars behind various resiliency and economic development initiatives specific to the area — including a $160 million planned new flood wall along Sargent Drive, and a $65 million harbor navigation project that will allow for larger ships to drop off cargo at New Haven’s port. 

“The big difference is we’re getting pressure from others” this time, Piscitelli said. ​“It’s not just a local thing.”

That said, he continued, ​“we’re very cognizant that we don’t want to jam everything up.” Thus the list of ​“categorical exclusions” that is now part of the amended proposed moratorium. In general, those exclusions would apply to existing buildings — like, say, the new restaurant moving into the former home of The Greek Olive. However, if a new restaurant like, say, a Taco Bell wanted to build a brand new building on Long Wharf, that would not be allowed under the moratorium as proposed.

Piscitelli also told the alders that the city does not plan on leaving the moratorium in place for the entirety of its proposed 12-month duration. Since the City Plan Department has already started working on new zoning language for the district, the city hopes to have those new zoning rules in place in less than a year. If and when those new zoning rules are adopted, the moratorium would be repealed.

And if the city does not succeed in rezoning the area in 12 months, Piscitelli added, the moratorium would automatically expire, unless if the alders decide to extend it.

The only member of the public who spoke up about the Long Wharf building moratorium during the public hearing portion of Tuesday night’s meeting was local attorney Matthew Ranelli, who is the legal counsel for the Long Wharf-based builder Fusco Harbor Associates.

He said that Fusco supports the proposed moratorium, which he described as ​“a perfect tool to allow the zoning regulations to catch up with and reflect the plan and the vision that’s been developed for Long Wharf.”

“The biggest threat to that vision,” he continued, ​“is piecemeal development under the existing regulations.” He said that the proposed moratorium presents an ​“opportunity to bring the vision to fruition” by translating the ​“conceptual plan” of the Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan into the ​“detailed plan of regulation” — namely, updated and overhauled zoning rules.

Ranelli proposed one amendment that the committee alders ultimately agreed with and voted in support of. That amendment updates the ​“categorical exclusions” section of the proposed moratorium to more specifically align the term ​“general plans” with its definition in the Section 65 of the zoning code.

While his client believed that the proposed moratorium as originally written would exclude Fusco’s 500-apartment plan because that is part of a general plan in an already amended Planned Development District (PDD), Ranelli said, he wanted to make sure that the moratorium’s language was crystal clear on that front. The committee alders agreed, and recommended adopting his proposed amendment.

Westville Alder Adam Marchand, Amity/Beaver Hills/Westville Alder and Majority Leader Richard Furlow, and Morrison all spoke up in support of the proposed moratorium during the committee’s deliberations on the matter.

“Let’s give ourselves the time to write those regulations” and make sure that they fall in line with how the city wants to see Long Wharf built up, Marchand said.

“I like the fact that this moratorium is only for a year, and it will expire,” added Morrison. ​“I think that this is a good step in the right direction.”

“This is a prime piece of real estate, and it makes sense to get it right,” Furlow said. ​“We are building quickly throughout the city. Buildings are going up. Apartments are going up. Some of these are good. In 10 years, we’ll find out if some of these buildings are actually what we wanted to have.” He praised the City Plan Department and Economic Development Administration for their ​“foresight” in wanting to make sure the zoning laws aligned with the city’s plan for Long Wharf.

“Let’s pump the breaks on this,” he said. ​“Let’s get it right.”


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