201 Munson Street & The Architecture of Community

January 16, 2018

While the following article happens to focus on the 201 Munson Street Development and the surrounding Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods, very similar articles could also be written about the Novella and the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood, or the Hill-to-Downtown Developments in the Hill.

In 2017, a 10.84-acre site at the apex of the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods was cleared of its 20th century industrial buildings. Before then, the earliest building on the property dated from the Winchester Repeating Arms era in 1909, while more recent research and warehouse buildings were built in the 1980s by the Olin Corporation. A series of 1960s structures represented the bulk of the former industrial campus at the intersection of Munson Street and the Northampton Railroad – now the Farmington Canal Trail. The property sat contaminated and vacant for years. Recently, a real estate developer acquired the property for $0 excluding remediation costs and was granted a requested zoning change from the Heavy Industrial IH zone to the most permissive RH-2 High Density Residential zone in order to allow a several hundred unit (395) market rate residential development for the site as of right.

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In the 19th century, 201 Munson Street was a manufacturing site as part of the Winchester Repeating Arms factory complex. Ammunitions cartridges and other firearm components were manufactured, assembled, and tested on the site, then exported to a wide market using the Northampton Railroad, which traversed the site. Two working class neighborhoods, Dixwell and Newhallville, grew up around this industrial complex and the wages from the manufacturing operation supported mortgages, weekly local retail establishments, and a dense network of civic and social organizations in the surrounding communities. In the mid-20th century, modern warehouse sheds housing research functions joined the masonry factory buildings on the site. By the early 1980s, however, employment in manufacturing, in general, and at the Winchester plant, in particular, went in decline.

Dixwell and Newhallville, which had been dense, bustling urban neighborhoods filled with owner-occupied houses with rental tenants, locally-owned retail establishment, and auxiliary business firms that contracted with Winchester into the 20th century, became impoverished communities by the end of the century. Foreclosure, abandonment, and vacancy led to instances of arson to collect insurance money, facilitated the illicit drug trade, and eventually allowed real estate investors to buy up houses and convert them into extractive rental properties. Beginning in the 1970s, Community Block Grants encouraged some development in the neighborhood, but this mostly revolved around demolishing multi-family buildings in order to construct single family houses. In the mid-1990s, the City, through its Livable City Initiative, acquired hundreds of abandoned buildings throughout several working class neighborhoods and demolished them. The remaining vacant lots were often noncompliant with zoning regulations, so the City would sell the lot to an adjacent property owner for use as a driveway, side yard, or garden in some cases. In others, vacant parcels would be turned into community gardens or transferred to a developer for construction when the lot allowed for it. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Yale’s Building Project through the School of Architecture have built houses in the last couple decades on some of these vacant lots. Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a non-profit affordable housing development organization, has focused on Newhallville in recent years to renovate distressed houses acquired through foreclosure, abandonment, vacancy, and transfer from the City.

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(From left to right) A marginally maintained investment property; a recently renovated owner-occupied house; a poorly maintained investment property; a well-maintained owner-occupied property

Very little new construction has taken place within these neighborhoods without substantial subsidy from an institution, labor, or a government program. For that reason, a privately-financed projects like 201 Munson Street may seem appealing.

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Looking towards 201 Munson Street from the intersection of Henry and Ashmun Streets c. 1982

As a result of the Olin Corporation’s abandonment of the site and decades of vacancy, decay, and lack of demand for industrial space, nearby residents experienced property devaluation, a zone of inactivity, and a reduction in employment prospects. In turn, this provided a real estate developer with the opportunity to profit from a low value former industrial property. What had been a source of blight for the neighborhood, is now being invested in by a California-based developer hiring a Colorado-based remediator and Texas-based architect and financed by private equity. The investment product being delivered, a market rate residential development, may compete with nearby residential properties, induce further land speculation, raise adjacent property values, and have a number of other impacts, which may provide opportunities or challenges for existing residents depending on their foresight and capacity to respond to these changes.

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Preliminary Site Plan for 201 Munson Street development proposal (July 2017)

201 Munson Street, as a large parcel embedded in a neighborhood and contiguous with Science Park, may have been better reserved as a site for future jobs in commercial office, retail, research, or biomedical laboratory space. Due to the preponderance of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, over-housed seniors in large residences, and underused garages, rear yards, basements, and attics, there is enormous capacity in adjacent neighborhoods to absorb the demand for new housing units if the 1,300 residential property owner-occupants in Dixwell and Newhallvile can be engaged, motivated, and supported to act. As of 2018, there are 125 publicly-owned vacant lots in the adjacent neighborhoods in addition to 128 privately-owned vacant lots, and according to the 2010 US Census, there were 875 vacant housing units in the same neighborhoods. In the absence of a robust, informed, and agile local culture of widespread and small-scale residential development, national real estate investors have swooped in to fill that role.

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It is, however, a good thing that the contaminated site is being remediated and invested in. That the development would pay around $2 Million in building permit fees is also appealing to city officials. The site plans thus far presented, on the other hand, are less encouraging. Expansive surface parking lots, perimeter fencing, and an insular building arrangement are inappropriate for the site. New through streets, greater intersection density, building frontages that face neighbors cordially, and organizing amenity, residential, and open spaces into a coherent civic and urban ensemble should be important pieces of any development effort.

“ […] the garden suburb [has] value as a conceptual model for the redevelopment of the vast, virtually empty urban wastelands that lie within established cities in what can be called the ‘middle city,’ a deracinated zone between downtown and pre-automobile-era suburban development where neighborhoods […] have been largely abandoned and now, virtually empty of people and buildings, have no discernible assets except the infrastructure of streets and the utility systems buried under them.”

Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City

-Robert AM Stern

Increased street intersection density has been linked to increased traffic safety. Five new streets could be opened through the site connecting it to the surrounding neighborhood. Re-opening Argyle Street poses a challenge because part of the historic right-of-way was sold to an adjacent property at 61 Shelton Avenue for use as a side yard and driveway. Perhaps the property owner would be willing to sell the right-of-way in exchange for an easement or a guarantee of access for parking along a re-opened section of Argyle Street. The developer of 201 Munson Street has already acquired 23 Shelton Avenue and proposed a gated private lane for the development. A third street could be created at 53 Shelton Avenue, a city-owned lot located midway between Argyle Street and 23 Shelton. Lastly, an opportunity exists to create a fourth new street off Munson and terminating at Argyle Street.

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Alternate Plan for 400 residences and parking spot, retail, amenities, and open space (PDF)

Another issue emerged during the public hearing process for the zone change. While some public commentary commended the developers for investing in the community and others spoke of their interest in welcoming new neighbors, many comments reflected a skepticism towards the high rent prices and the lack of employment opportunity for existing residents. While these concerns are not directly related to the land use planning process, they reveal a deeper problem not only with the 201 Munson Street proposal, but the underlying conditions that produces it and other real estate investment products similar to it.

In addition to 2-1/2 story frame houses, Dixwell and Newhallville also contain row houses and factory buildings, which provide an architectural language that can be translated onto conventional multi-family residential buildings. For instance, the Italianate-style John B. Carrington development at 127-147 Henry Street dating from 1875 is an expansive row of attached four story residences cleverly massed and detailed with dormers, sunken ground floors, and separate duplex entrances. Likewise, the ca. 1879 G.W. Goodsell Italianate-style row houses show detailing for wood frame buildings. More recently, a market rate residential development, the Corsair, deployed a conventional three story wood-light frame corridor apartment building along Mechanic Street, but added front stoops for ground floor tenants and balconies for upper units facing 19th century frame houses across the street.

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View of the Corsair development’s Mechanic Street frontages in 2017

Like other recent developments, 201 Munson Street exposes the deficiency of New Haven’s local development capabilities and an inability to respond to market conditions. In this vacuum, national real estate investors step in. Early site plans and architectural renderings for 201 Munson Street have shown conventional multi-family residential designs that are common in suburban gated communities in the sunbelt. Hopefully a more appropriate design that speaks the language of the surrounding neighborhood – in terms of urban design and architecture – will emerge before the proposal goes for site plan review.

Six Scenarios for the Future of 201 Munson Street

First, even if 201 Munson Street, for whatever reason, does not go ahead as planned and the status quo prevails in Dixwell and Newhallville, steady expansion of Yale’s Campus, Science Park, and 201 Munson Street-esque developments will likely continue, resulting in rising property values and speculative real estate investments in the long term. In the immediate future, absentee landlords will continue to exploit low-income renters and perpetuate poverty, chronic unemployment, displacement, homelessness, and crime impacting the entire Newhallville and Dixwell communities, which also includes a steady middle and working class population of homeowners. Public subsidies, foreclosures, deferred maintenance, and stagnant and declining commercial activity will persist into the near term.

Second, if the 201 Munson Street development moves forward as currently planned, the project will likely exist as an island. Overabundant parking, funneled access points, perimeter walls, privatized amenities, absent walkways, and separation from streets will conspire to isolate the development from the surrounding neighborhoods. Additionally, the investment of 395 new market rate residential apartments may lead to rising nearby property values and further real estate speculation, which could lead to displacement of existing residents and encourage long-time middle class homeowners to “cash out” bys selling to investors and leave the community.

Third, if the developer of 201 Munson Street could be convinced to deliver a better conceived and designed project for the site, it would vastly improve the proposal in many respects. Reduced parking, buildings that face the street and neighboring houses, amenities open to the public, and commercial space and residences facing the bike path would go a long way to engaging with the site’s context and making for a more urban and sustainable development. However, the issues of real estate speculation and investment as they relate to gentrification remains.

Fourth, might there have been a scenario where 201 Munson Street was not rezoned to residential or is rezoned to commercial and those 395 units of housing are provided by renovating existing buildings? Existing property owners might benefit from investing in their properties to attract higher paying tenants, or by selling their properties to real estate investors looking to flip houses. While some units might occupy previously vacant apartments, or basements, or new infill buildings on vacant lots in this scenario, this process would likely require displacement of existing tenants.

Fifth, would it be possible to make a concerted effort to avoid displacement while accommodating 395 or so new residential apartments into the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods? Is there room for an additional 400 units in the area immediately surrounding 201 Munson Street? Could the residential amenities spaces planned for 201 Munson Street be reimagined as traditional storefront businesses or social clubs along Dixwell or Winchester Avenue, the neighborhoods’ main thoroughfares? How could displacement be avoided and how might zoning be relaxed to allow higher density development? Might new units be allowed on previously nonconforming lots, in basements, in garages, and by subdividing underoccupied properties? Might a portion of building permit fees be set aside for future affordable housing development? How can existing residents be inspired, encouraged, and supported to invest in their neighborhood and reap the benefits on that investment? Can we encourage a “Rent Local” movement to support local landlords rather than funneling rent out of the City through large property management companies? Are there strategies for disseminating information, educating, and training residents in real estate investment, residential design, and finance through new and existing programs? Do existing residents have the interest, the financial capacity, and the ability to take on the task?

Sixth, is there a risk that speculative rental housing is being over-built in New Haven? In the late 1980s, the condominium market crashed and several developments were abandoned in New Haven at various stages of the process from design, to construction, and leasing. Also, many rental properties bought speculatively with the hopes of being able to flip were abandoned, burned for insurance money, or went into tax delinquency. To this day, there are partially-built abandoned foundations on Quinnipiac Avenue from this era, and vacant buildings and vacant lots throughout the city. Westville Manor in the West Rock neighborhood was built as a market rate development in 1983, but by 1986 was acquired by the Housing Authority of New Haven where it has since been used as public housing. While condominium units can be rented out in the secondary market, what happens when rental developments are over-built? Would they become student, hotel, or elderly and disabled public housing? Is this a risk at 201 Munson Street and other such developments?

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Aerial Images of Universal Drive in North Haven in 1991 (left) and 2017 (right)

Eclipse Development Group, the same California-based developer for 201 Munson Street, previously developed North Haven Commons on Universal Drive in 2008. This project redeveloped a former industrial site along the railroad to Hartford. As industry in the area declined, Universal Drive was reimagined as a regional shopping center, which has expanded since the 1980s. Several defunct railroad right-of-ways were repurposed as a recreational hiking trail along the Quinnipiac River. Unfortunately, windblown debris from the nearby shopping centers to the north, including from North Haven Commons, constantly litter the landscape, despite efforts by concerned citizens to clean the trash. For a developer that specializes in redeveloping brownfield sites, it’s concerning that more care isn’t taken to ensure that refuse from the shopping plaza doesn’t end up along the banks of the Quinnipiac River. Hopefully a better stewardship plan will be provided for Munson Street, though the residential investment product will likely be managed by one of several large real estate management companies with few local ties.

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Trash collected from the Tidal Marsh Trail in North Haven