In a divided 3–2 decision Wednesday night, the Board of Zoning Appeals voted to reject a proposal by Toad’s Place owner Brian Phelps to create a 400-square-foot rooftop terrace, citing a potential strain on neighborhood parking.
Plans for the terrace had been widely expected to gain approval from the BZA, since the City Plan Commission ruled in August that Toad’s expansion would not unduly burden local traffic and parking. But Wednesday’s ruling puts the construction of the terrace — which would have increased the club’s maximum capacity by 40 people, to 750 from 710 — on hold unless the BZA decides that the expansion will not push the need for parking beyond what the neighborhood can accommodate.
Phelps’ lawyer, James Segaloff, said he was unsure how the club will proceed. “All the experts [in city planning and parking] concluded there were no problems,” said a shocked Segaloff after the meeting. “I don’t see any basis for the conclusion.”
Although most rejected proposals cannot be resubmitted for 12 months, the BZA also voted to allow Toad’s officials to hand in a revised design next month for reconsideration.
City Plan Department Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75 said she was not surprised by the decision: The terrace’s construction is a clear expansion and thus there would have to be an increased need for parking, she said. Gilvarg said it was up to the BZA to decide whether the projected increase was excessive.
Although Gilvarg said in an earlier interview that the BZA rarely rejects proposals for which the City Plan Commission recommends approval, as was the case for Toad’s, now that the BZA reached a conclusion, it will be “very unlikely” that the BZA will change its decision, she said.
BZA members remained divided after the meeting over the terrace’s effect on neighborhood parking. Deputy Director of Zoning Thomas Talbot said there unquestionably would be increased demand for available parking spaces along York Street. The deciding factor, he added at the meeting, is whether the area can handle it.
BZA chairwoman Cathy Weber asked the board at the beginning of the pre-vote discussion — the longest of all the votes the BZA completed Wednesday — not to be influenced by concerns raised over the summer by University Associate President and Director of University Properties Abigail Rider that the terrace would create potential health and fire hazards.
In July, the City Plan Department recommended that the City Plan Commission deny the plan because it may increase parking congestion and noise in the area. The City Plan Commission then voted to table the decision to recommend the plan to the BZA until they heard from the traffic department.
In early August, city parking director Michael Piscitelli issued a terse report supporting Toad’s (“No transportation problems anticipated”), and the City Plan Department changed its recommendation from denial to approval of the plan. The City Plan Commission voted in August to recommend the project.
Despite these recommendations, Weber concluded that the area could not accommodate the additional demand for parking. When asked why she disagreed with the reports that favored the Toad’s expansion, Weber asserted her authority: “But we’re the Zoning Board of Appeals.”
Weber said she visited the club on several occasions and was “not too pleased” with the parking situation. She said that due to Toad’s, nighttime York Street and Broadway parking was “at, if not over, capacity.”
But BZA member Walter Esdaile, a self-described bar hopper, said during the meeting that he does not think the increase of up to 40 patrons will not cause any effect because not all, or even most, will be driving to Toad’s.
Now that the BZA has rejected the proposal, Phelps must tweak the design, created by Steinberg Architects of North Haven, and resubmit it to the BZA. The BZA would then resubmit the design for scrutiny by city staff and the City Plan Commission.