Neighbors Skeptical About Adding Floors To Unger’s Flooring

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: Carl Goldfield on July 21, 2021  4:14pm

That section of Grand Avenue is presently a vacant, unattractive wasteland.  I’m really surprised by what appears to be mindless, knee jerk opposition from neighbors who can only benefit from a revived corridor.  What are they thinking?  Whenever I travel down Grand (which is somewhat frequently to pick up my subs at Grand Apizza-the best in town) I find my self wondering when this end of Grand, close to downtown,  will be rejuvenated as is happening along State and Water etc.  So here it is and the only thing these neighbors can come up with is “no”.

posted by: Dennis.. on July 21, 2021  4:30pm

Grand Ave hasn’t changed in the 50 years I’ve been traveling that road. Now we know why. The people who rejected the city’s Gateway District zoning changes for the Grand Avenue corridor, and who aren’t trying to work with these developers are doing a major disservice to the neighborhood, and the city’s taxpayers.

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: Politics 101 on July 21, 2021  5:20pm

The NIMBYs on Lyon Street cannot be made happy. I respect the willingness of the property owner and the architect to try but no one should pretend that those NIMBYs will ever be happy with anything other than the status quo, which works for them but is bad for everyone else in the neighborhood—myself included—who might hope for neighborhood retail or additional housing or social services or anything really on that strip. These folks protested a youth shelter, they should have NIMBY tattooed on their foreheads so everyone knows where they stand when they show up at community meetings moving forward.

posted by: Politics 101 on July 21, 2021  5:27pm

also—I’m not sure why you broke up last night’s DWSCMT meeting into two articles. Having them in one article would have forced engaging with the question of why the nondescript apartment building proposed for Crown Street was fine to the attendees but the nondescript apartment building on Grand Ave was so upsetting to them.

posted by: CityYankee on July 21, 2021  6:46pm

Yes, commenters,  how dare the people that live there presume to have a sayso in what happens to their neighborhood?  How dare they question what a developer wants to do?  The CIty obviously has no questions or concerns , as usual, about a group with a sack of money coming to town with an idea and not much detail.
How dare people ! 

On the other hand;  what is to stop a developer from building what is allowed in a space that they own?  CMTeams are not a shadow legislative body and cannot impede legitimate uses of a property. This area had industrial as well as residential cheek-by jowl so why is that not OK anymore?

As you can see,  I am torn on which side to land. I’d like to see more of the proposal.

posted by: anonymous on July 21, 2021  6:53pm

This is great! The density should be much higher though – 6-8 stories at a minimum. New Haven needs tens of thousands more housing units if it wants to address the problem of skyrocketing rents.

posted by: tbialecki on July 21, 2021  11:44pm

So I’m 68 years old and when I was like 10 years old I would ride my bike down Grand Avenue from Fillmore Street in Fair Haven to the Y on Chapel Street and the section of Grand discussed in the article was just beginning to fall out of grace and redevelopment did its best to recreate commercial businesses – just not enough mixed-use density or foot traffic that is required for a successful Main Street. There are so many successful examples in the US. One of my favorites is Magazine Street in New Orleans – diverse in culture, mixed residential and commercial/retail, literally six miles of a main street that runs alongside dozens of residential neighborhoods –
are there conflicts and occasional heated discussions about development proposals – yes but the adjacent residential streets and Magazine a truly mixed-use street, are some of the best in the City. This section of Grand is long overdue for a new life.

posted by: tmctague on July 22, 2021  6:18am

The sink hole in that lot is massive, I fear the whole block will go down.  Update the story with some photos of the sink hole..!

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on July 22, 2021  9:38am

The neighbors raise a number of legitimate issues, such as fencing to prevent the prospective residents from cutting through yards to get to Lyon Street. But I would like to second Pedro Soto’s comments. This stretch of Grand Avenue, unlike the portion in Fair Haven, is blighted. It would benefit from developments like these.

And the zoning requirement for a special permit for ground floor residential use no longer makes sense. We all appreciate “eyes on the street”, to use Jane Jacobs’ phrase. If the owner of this property can find a retail tenant, great. But bricks and mortar retail is struggling nationally. There are empty storefronts across the city, including in recently built mixed-use developments. There is no reason to believe that mandating the creation of more retail space is going to help this problem.

Politics101 regarding your second comment, Paul can speak for himself. But these are separate projects with different owners in different neighborhoods. And the Crown Street project is likely as of right, requiring merely site plan approval. In contrast the Grand Avenue projects will need BZA/City Plan Commission hearings.

posted by: tmctague on July 22, 2021  10:49am

Valentino Tailors in Hamden plans to move somewhere on this stretch of Grand Avenue.  Not sure if they plan on reviving or associating with the Martone Cleaners business, which appears to be making a run for the city’s Most Visually Unappealing Business Award. 

The large surface lots that dot the stretch from Adriana’s to Lucibello’s are only occupied when church is in session.  No offense to the beloved Lucibello’s, but that property is maintained at a minimal level.  Same goes for Fire Station 4, covered with invasive Virginia creeper?  Would be great if that was a nice intersection.

The empty storefront on the corner of Olive and Grand is perplexing – great location across the street from hungry firefighters, and more convenient for Wooster Sq residents than Meat King Farm.  I bet lots of businesses could thrive there. 

The area has a ton of ‘economic’ potential given the number of new apartments within 0.5 mile radius.

posted by: Lyon Street Resident on July 22, 2021  11:18am

OK, a couple things: Residents on Lyon Street are not opposed to improving Grand Avenue. We just want responsible, appropriate development. Something left out of the article is that the blighted building at 873 Grand has been owned by Achtov LLC, the developer proposing this project, since 2013 and they abandoned it to blight during that time—broken, boarded up windows, etc. So yes, there is skepticism when the same developer who made that stretch of Grand worse says they’ll make it better.
Regarding the Gateway: I was among the residents who spent a lot of time working on a counter-proposal to the proposed Gateway regulations for Grand. Grand Avenue is narrower and has shallower abutting residential lot depths than on Whalley and therefore needs a different Gateway solution than Whalley does. Among other things, we proposed a four story height limit because it is a more appropriate scale for the street, and because we didn’t want to deprive abutting residential properties access to a little sunlight. We want appropriate development. There needs to be a balance between density and quality of life.

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.

posted by: Womanjournalist on July 23, 2021  10:47am

as a William St resident I think grand ave could benefit from having a neighborhood watering hole type bar. Just one guys opinion!

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on July 23, 2021  9:27pm

Heather, any of the uses you mention would be an asset to any neighborhood. But I am unaware of any interest by any of them to locate at this site. The storefront tmctague mentions has been vacant for most of the past five years, at a minimum (I bike past it regularly).

Physically, the Audubon development is quite close to this site. But psychologically it is distant, because of I-91 and the railroad tracks. The new developments on Chapel Street are also physically close. But I suspect their residents will focus on Wooster Square Park and downtown, rather than Grand Ave.

posted by: Heather C. on July 25, 2021  2:39pm

Kevin McCarthy- yes, but the time are changing, along with the massive amount of new residential developments around Wooster Square and Downtown and I’m sure soon Fair Haven will follow, which will be mostly market rate rental units, the proposed development on Grand Ave will bring new residents whose needs must be met. The proposals I made above will appeal to these new residents, especially a major chain (not bargain prices) grocery store and pharmacy.
Womanjournalist Mentioned a watering hole, I’m not a fan of bars/clubs because clientele can cause quality of life issues for neighbors, but a cafe/coffee shop can attracts lots of people to hang out and socialize with others in the area, one with patio or rooftop seating outdoors can breathe a lot of life into the surrounding community.

posted by: Another Lyon Street Resident on July 26, 2021  3:40pm

For the record, in spite of what the headline suggests, no objections were raised to adding floors above Ungers.

In my mind, the issue is not so much the plan as the developer, Achtov LLC, who has owned at least one of the north side properties since 2013 and has not been a good neighbor. After an aborted attempt to begin redevelopment without full approval in 2014ish, they have simply allowed the property to decay. Trachten tried to elide this history by suggesting that the property is under new ownership before admitting that Achtov LLC is still the owner. Instead, he said that the ownership of Achtov LLC itself has recently changed. This may be true, but I can’t find any record of this.

My bottom line concern is that Achtov LLC’s history and current plan both suggest that the best that we can expect from them is continuing halfassery if they are not kept under strict supervision by responsible neighbors.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on July 26, 2021  6:27pm

Heather, one component of that change is in retail. Brick and mortar stores are struggling, whether they are in neighborhood centers, downtowns, or malls. Nationally, the retail vacancy rate was nearly 11% in the first quarter of this year. Locally, retail spaces built as part of residential developments have remained vacant for months to years. (The most pertinent example of this is the retail space built as part of Mill River Crossing, a couple of blocks down Grand Avenue from these sites.) The residents of the new developments will undoubtedly have real purchasing power. But they will likely make many of their purchases on-line.

Another Lyon Street Resident, one of the meeting participants objected to having tenants of the development being able to look in her back yard. FWIW, a three-story apartment building overlooks my back yard; it’s not a big deal.

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