After decades as a 484-unit parking lot, the parcel of land containing Trinity Baptist Church on State Street is one step closer to housing hundreds of residents and even more vehicles than the original lot.
The South Norwalk-based developer Spinnaker Real Estate garnered city approval for the project on Wednesday night when the City Plan Commission unanimously voted to allow the construction of Audubon Square. The $75 million project will include a 269-unit mixed-used apartment complex wrapped around a 648-unit parking garage on the parcel of land bordered by Orange, Audubon, Grove and State streets.
“We applaud the vote of the City Plan Commission,” Mayor Toni Harp said in a Wednesday press release. “We believe that this project will add jobs, economic vitality and vibrancy to the city.”
Spinnaker bought the land last May for $5 million from Frontier Communications and hopes to begin the construction process in the third quarter of this year. Once he completes the project’s 18-month initial phase, which includes the construction of 3,900 square feet of street-level retail, the developer plans to eventually add 280 more units of housing and additional retail space.
Before releasing plans to the public last November, the developers hosted several community meetings and sometimes went door-to-door to talk with area residents and seek their input.
Some residents, such as Peter Maniatis, the owner of local eatery Zoi’s on Orange Street, told the News in November that the plan looked “well-designed” and “well-thought-out.” But for Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, president of New Haven Urban Design League, the plans came as a surprise.
When she met with the developers earlier in September, they had positioned the parking garage at the corner of Grove and Orange streets, Farwell said. But when she saw the plans again in November, Spinnaker had changed the location of the garage to the corner of Orange and Audubon streets, a move Farwell said was a way of concealing the parking garage.
If Spinnaker had stuck with the September plans, the developer would have had to obtain a variance from the city, which is appealable. Farwell believes the changes in the November plan were meant to avoid prolonging development on the project.
Audubon Square Project Manager Matthew Edwardsen did not respond to requests for comment.
When Farwell originally saw the Spinnaker-provided traffic study for the area following the new project plan shown in November, the company’s analysis only included the impact the new garage and buffer zone would have for vehicles. Before Wednesday’s meeting, Farwell reached out to the city to obtain further information about the traffic table. In response, a city employee did not provide her with information and instead told her to submit testimony.
In her testimony, Farwell asked that a study be conducted to also analyze the impact on pedestrians and cyclists. But unbeknownst to Farwell before the meeting, Spinnaker had already updated the traffic study on the company’s own terms to include pedestrians as well as bikes and had also had the study peer reviewed.
“A zoning strategy has proceeded and precluded any considerations about urban planning. … It’s manipulative and it’s devious,” Farwell said. “It’s like collusion that has been put together to make sure that you don’t have to do something responsible on Audubon Street.”
Along with Farwell, several neighborhood residents attended Wednesday’s meeting, said Jonathan Wharton, who cast a vote of approval for the project as a member of the City Plan Commission.
Wharton agreed with his fellow member Edward Mattison LAW ’68 that the city could visit the macro effects of traffic at a later time.
“It was an ideal project because we need to see more mixed-use development,” Wharton said.
The commission did not want to be in the way of a promising project, Wharton said, especially as in previous projections the city originally believed it would have to help fund a parking garage on the site. As it stands, Spinnaker is funding the entire project.
Audubon Square will also bring in more property for the city to tax, thereby increasing revenue, Wharton added.
Wei Liu, who lives a block from the incoming development, was not anticipating a new complex. But he said he was not surprised one was being built, adding that a wrapped parking garage was also in construction near the Kline Biology Tower. And as he enjoys the neighborhood, Liu said he is glad more people will be able to live in it, too.
Before housing vehicles for more than three decades, the lot was home to the New Haven Register’s newsroom and printing press.