January 16, 2018
In 2017, a 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 market rate residential development for the site as of right.
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 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 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.
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 property owners could be engaged, motivated, and supported to act. 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.
It is, however, a good thing that the contaminated site is being remediated and invested in. 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.
Increased street intersection density has been linked to increased traffic safety. Four 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 align a new street with Ashmun Street off of Munson.
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.
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.
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 one of several large real estate management companies with few local ties.