Development could connect Wooster Square to Downtown

When Ray Kimsey ’73 ARC ’75 was at school in New Haven 40 years ago, crossing from downtown into Wooster Square was like entering a “no man’s land.”

Four decades later, as president of the Atlanta-based architecture firm Niles Bolton Associates, Kimsey is seeing that area beginning to turn around. The project would redevelop 87 Union St., bringing roughly 285 residential units and several new storefronts to a parcel of land just southeast of the train tracks, three blocks from Wooster Square. The developer, Petra Development, will pitch the project to the City Plan Commission at its Sept. 17 meeting, trying to convince city officials to permit a zoning change that would give the site a classification commonly given to land downtown, but with a minor amendment limiting the height and density of development.

“The whole point is to build a neighborhood, a community,” said Noel Petra, a partner at the development firm. The proposal calls for retail space along Olive and Union Streets, and for a set of townhouse units along Fair Street, which will have a widened sidewalk furnished with trees and ornamental lamp posts. “It will have the same kind of effect as brownstones,” Petra said.

Along Olive Street, the building will be set back to accommodate outdoor seating, he said. Residents have expressed interest in a lunch-and breakfast option or a coffee shop, he added, in addition to restaurants that will remain active at night, bringing foot traffic to the area.

A plumbing supply company currently occupies the site, which sits across the street from the Union Street Dog Park. Petra said he is considering trying to lure a doggie daycare center or veterinarian to the Union Street side of the apartments to fit with the existing landscape.

The proposal will follow plans for similar development on the adjacent Comcast site at the corner of Olive and Chapel Streets, where Spinnaker Residential is building apartments.

Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81, the city’s Economic Development Administrator, said the Petra project could solidify a trend toward mixed-use development in the untraveled area between downtown and Wooster Square, currently divided by the train tracks and vacant property.

“Oftentimes it’s the second project that proves the theorem,” Nemerson said. “Right now Fair Street is a ghost street. This will create a frontage where there is no urban edge now.”

He added that the twin developments could create a “continuum” to Union Station, a vital component of the broader Downtown Crossing project, which seeks to reconnect downtown to the Hill neighborhood and improve access to the train station.

Petra said he envisions graduate students, hospital employees, Yale professors, scientists and entrepreneurs taking primary advantage of the new housing options. From studio apartments to three-bedroom units, he said, the complex will cater to a wide range of residents.

“The project will support Yale and its effort to make New Haven a great place for people to come,” he said, citing enhanced activity in the lower Chapel Street area as an example. “Our own retail will be about activating these streets and creating a community here.”

The proposed apartments draw design inspiration from nearby architecture, including Union Station, brownstones on Court Street and Yale’s Steinbach Hall at 52 Hillhouse Ave.

Fair Haven resident Arne Helland, who has lived in New Haven for 40 years and frequents the dog park opposite the site, said the project would help address the lack of businesses across State Street Bridge from downtown. He said Wooster Square is already an attractive neighborhood, but that its accessibility to downtown — for work or for shopping — could be vastly improved

While East Rock is already highly developed by Yale and other entities, he said Wooster Square and the area near the Medical School has room for development to accommodate the increasing demand for housing in the city.

Petra Development has had an office in New Haven for 32 years.

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