To Yale’s dismay, Toad’s plans terrace

The owner of Toad’s Place has already secured fire marshal approval, and will likely get zoning board approval, for a 40-person rooftop terrace.
The owner of Toad’s Place has already secured fire marshal approval, and will likely get zoning board approval, for a 40-person rooftop terrace. Photo by Victor Zapana.

If Toad’s Place owner Brian Phelps has his way, the iconic club known for concert venues and Saturday night dance parties will also be known for popcorn, coffee and tea. Phelps would have his vision actualized: an “L”-shaped, 40-person terrace for patrons who want to light up a cigarette.

But if Yale officials have their way, the Toad’s terrace, as it is proposed, would not exist at all.

The proposed plan for Toad’s Place’s new rooftop terrace includes a 6-foot fence to block cigarette butts, as well as a counter to sell espresso, soda, tea, cookies and popcorn to those seeking relief from the crowds in and outside the dance venue.
The proposed plan for Toad’s Place’s new rooftop terrace includes a 6-foot fence to block cigarette butts, as well as a counter to sell espresso, soda, tea, cookies and popcorn to those seeking relief from the crowds in and outside the dance venue.

The designs of the club’s rooftop have already been approved by the city’s fire marshal, and the next milestone before Toad’s can begin construction — approval by the New Haven Board of Zoning Appeals — is all but expected at a BZA meeting tonight. Although Yale officials raised health and fire concerns about the project in a July letter, they ultimately have no authority in the board’s decision tomorrow.

Final approval is left to the state Liquor Control Commission and the city’s Office of Building Inspection and Enforcement. But as long as the designs are approved by all three bodies without delays, a rooftop terrace may very well open for students in the spring, said James Segaloff, a New Haven lawyer who has represented Toad’s for the last three decades.

“Before you guys go on spring break, you could go up on the roof,” he said Tuesday.

Phelps announced in June that he was seeking approval of the plan, but at a BZA public hearing in July, he received a letter of opposition written by Associate Vice President and University Properties Director Abigail Rider on behalf of Yale. In the letter, Rider claimed that a rooftop smokers’ area would facilitate smoking, which would contravene public health policies set by the University, as well as city, state and federal governments. She also said Toad’s customers would be able to flick cigarette butts off the roof and onto the heads of bystanders, a fire and health hazard.

But she ultimately has no jurisdiction: EWP Realty LLC , not the University, owns the land. (Yale owns the rest of the York Street block.) Still, Segaloff said he understands the University’s concerns.

“I think that may be a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction,” he said of Rider’s letter. “It would have possibly been more productive to give us a chance to talk about this rather than sending a letter with all the objections.”

Rider did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday.

In the end, today’s decision by the BZA will not be affected by the potential fire and health concerns raised by Rider, because the issue the BZA is legally bound to consider is the project’s projected effect on parking. If, as a result of the terrace’s installation, an influx of patrons arriving by car leads to noticeably fewer available parking spaces on Broadway and along York Street, the BZA would be compelled to reject the plan due to zoning codes.

But the city’s Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking issued a terse report in August supporting Toad’s on the matter: “No transportation problems anticipated.”

Influenced by this report, the City Plan Commission, which advises the BZA, voted to recommend approval. City Plan Department Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75, who is not affiliated with the BZA, said only about one in 10 of City Plan Commission recommendations on average are not followed by the BZA.

Yale’s concerns may never be addressed: Smoking is not illegal in the open air, as it would be the case on the roof, and the fire marshal — who considers matters involving fire, such as flying cigarette butts — already approved the plans in late June.

At the July BZA public hearing, Phelps and Segaloff emphasized their plans to build a 6-foot wooden fence around the space as a cigarette-butt barrier. Since that meeting, Phelps said he has tweaked the design to include a horizontal extension to the top of the fence, a cantilever, an added defense against spent cigarettes.

Many of the two dozen students interviewed in Ezra Stiles and Trumbull college dining halls this week said they thought a terrace would benefit Toad’s patrons: “It prevents the mass of smokers from huddling outside,” Eva Jimenez ’12 said.

Phelps and Segaloff have also addressed some issues raised early in the application process, including the potential for excessive noise and perceived lack of access to a fire exit. At the BZA public hearing, Phelps and Segaloff maintained that although the rooftop terrace has no fire exit and only one staircase near the York Street side of the club, the plans are acceptable by building code standards. Phelps added that no music will be played on the terrace.

Even if the BZA approves the current design, the addition of the cantilever may require Toad’s officials to seek reapproval by the city’s fire marshal. And Building Inspection and Enforcement Executive Director Andrew Rizzo still needs to assess both the roof and design for structural integrity, edge protection and access to an emergency exit.

None of the codes outright prevents the rooftop terrace from being constructed. Rizzo said that “as long as it meets the codes,” the terrace will be built.

In current designs, the terrace will have a vending area near the York Street side of the club that would sell popcorn, cookies and non-alcoholic beverages. If Toad’s officials receive approval by the liquor commission, customers would be able to bring alcoholic drinks to the roof.

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