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As climate change progresses, should big new housing projects go forward on a flood-prone shoreline? New Haven grapples with the issue

New Haven City Engineer Zinn by Thomas Breen.gz2_720_475_88_sha-100.jpg
Thomas Breen
New Haven Independent
New Haven City Engineer Zinn.

The New Haven City Plan Commission unanimously advanced a proposal to build up to 500 new apartments on Long Wharf — despite the advice of a top state environmental regulator who advocated rejecting waterfront residential developments as unduly dangerous due to climate-change-induced flooding.

That was the outcome of Wednesday night’s latest regular monthly meeting of the City Plan Commission. The four-hour-long virtual meeting took place online via Zoom.

The vote capped nearly two hours of presentations and discussions, following up on several hours more that were dedicated to the topic during the commission’s Oct. 6 special meeting.

The commissioners ultimately voted unanimously in support of a zoning ordinance text amendment to modify Planned Development District (PDD) #53 to allow for residential use of up to 500 apartments at 501-585 Long Wharf Dr. They also voted unanimously in support of a coastal site plan review associated with that proposed zoning update.

The zoning update has been submitted by the Long Wharf-based developer, the Fusco Corporation.

Fusco plans to build up the largely vacant 4.3-acre waterfront site right next door to its current Maritime Center office complex. The proposed mixed-use development is slated to include roughly 410 new apartments spread across two 10-story residential towers; a two-acre landscaped public park along the water; and a public market and food hall.

The proposed PDD amendment deals only with the underlying zoning of the Long Wharf Drive site. If the Board of Alders ultimately gives final approval to the zoning change, Fusco would still have to come back to the City Plan Commission for a detailed site plan review covering issues ranging from the project’s building height to parking layout to stormwater management to coastal durability.

Nevertheless, Wednesday night’s vote marked a significant victory for the proposed transformation of that section of Long Wharf into a dense residential hub — as well as for the city’s efforts to attract private builders to help realize a public vision for a more intensive, multi-use redevelopment of the largely underused and industrial waterfront.

“There’s a real opportunity to thrive, even with the uncertainty of climate change,” city Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli said on Wednesday night as he testified in support of the PDD amendment.

Hill Alder Carmen Rodriguez agreed. “Rather than continue to have the farm of tanks that we have out there, we’d like to see this area be developed, and be developed in a safe manner so that the lives of New Haven residents and the quality of life changes in that area,” she said. She said Fusco’s proposal for the site is exactly what’s needed to help make Long Wharf a “walkable, livable, buildable area.”

The proposed PDD amendment now heads back to the Board of Alders for a committee hearing before advancing to the full local legislature for further debate and a final vote.

Not everyone who weighed in on the project Wednesday was as enthusiastic about Fusco’s proposal.

In advance of the City Plan Commission meeting, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Land and Water Resources Division Director Brian Thompson penned an eight-page letter to the Board of Alders and the City Plan Department about the proposed zoning amendment.

The City Plan Commission had held off on voting on the proposed zoning amendment on Oct. 6 specifically to give time for DEEP to weigh in on the proposed waterfront apartments.

When DEEP’s advice finally came in the form of Thompson’s letter, it did not look favorably on the project.

The Connecticut Coastal Management Act (CCMA) states that municipalities should “manage coastal hazard areas so as to ensure that development proceeds in such a manner that hazards to life and property are minimized,” Thompson wrote, quoting the text of the state law.

Allowing a residential use where such a use is currently prohibited seems to fly in the face of that mandate, he said.

“The proposed development of the flood-prone district with significant residential density increases, rather than minimizes, the hazards to life and property inconsistent with this policy of the CCMA,” he wrote. “The proposed modifications would create a pathway for a large population of residents to live in an area that is exposed to existing impacts from coastal storms and flood events, which will be exacerbated in the future due to climate change. Accordingly, we recommend that the Board of Alders not allow the proposed modifications to PDD #53, as currently proposed.”

Thompson further detailed concerns about future state or federal funding having to be dedicated to building out new structural flood-protections for apartments built along the water. And he expressed concerns about how and where the city would relocate such a large group of residents from the proposed new apartments tower in the case of a “hazard event.”

“Based upon all of the forgoing comments and our review of the applicant’s materials, along with City of New Haven planning documents,” Thompson wrote, “residential development in this already flood-prone area where such development is not currently allowed does not reflect sound coastal management objectives and should be prohibited, not encouraged.”

If the Board of Alders does ultimately adopt the zone change contrary to DEEP’s advice, Thompson concluded, “we will continue to be engaged and available for consultation.”

Fusco-hired attorney Matthew Ranelli responded to the DEEP letter Wednesday night by defending the proposed residential development as environmentally responsible, economically viable, and in line with what the city has clearly articulated as its goals for the Long Wharf waterfront.

He also urged the City Plan Commission to keep in mind that DEEP’s guidance was just that — guidance, not a binding mandate to follow whatever the state regulatory authority said.

“We think we meet all the goals of the Coastal Management Act and enhance many of them,” Ranelli said, “including improved public access, reduced impervious surface, increased greenscapes,” and a more comprehensive stormwater management system, all “without doing any harm to the identified coastal resources.”

He said that Fusco has taken into account the state’s estimate of 20 inches of sea level rise by 2050. Even with that estimate, he said, the proposed residential development will be well above the base flood elevation.

The irony of DEEP’s advice is that it would allow for the further industrial development along the waterfront, Ranelli said, simply because that use is already permitted. The push for a zoning change stems in part from the goals laid out in the city’s recently adopted Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan.

“New Haven has decided for itself after a years-long review that New Haven has enough industrial uses on the waterfront,” he said, “and in some ways is overburdened by them at the expense of residents.” Changing the underlying zoning to allow for residential use on the site is in line with what that city-adopted plan says it wants to do.

City Plan Department Director Aicha Woods agreed with Ranelli’s pitch. She urged the commissioners to support the zoning change.

“We will continue to work with the applicant and hold them to a high standard,” she said. “I think this is just the beginning of a lot of conversation about resiliency and climate change, as well as growth and economic opportunities in the Long Wharf district.”

Before the commissioners took their vote, City Engineer Giovanni Zinn—the city’s top official responsible for responding to the ravages of climate change—also threw his support behind the Fusco proposal.

He said the city takes seriously the concerns raised by DEEP. He said the city shares the goals articulated in Thompson’s letter: To minimize hazards to life and property. To ensure that the city, state and federal governments do not have to build new structures to protect people and property along the water. To be able to get people out of waterfront building in emergency situations.

Based on this early stage zoning-related review of the proposed development, Zinn said, Fusco’s team has taken into account and addressed many of those concerns.

The first-floor elevation of the residential buildings will be at 15 feet, he noted. “It’s quite high, two feet above the base flood elevation,” and six feet above the ground floor of the nearby Canal Dock Boathouse.

He praised the proposed residential development as relying on “a naturally vegetated slope above the existing structure, rather than putting in more [new] structures” to handle storm surges. And he said the “type of construction of the building”—which Fusco has described in previous presentation as “Type 1 construction”—will make the development better suited than not to withstand the effects of climate change.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” Zinn said. “There’s a lot of detailed review that has to go forward. ... I do think looking deeply at the details here, that we’re able to find a way to create this district that is at the end of the day in concert with the larger aims of the Coastal Management Act.”

City Plan Commission Chair Leslie Radcliffe noted that there will be plenty of other opportunities ahead for more detailed reviews of these proposed apartment buildings. She said she was satisfied with Fusco’s presentation Wednesday night to advance the proposed zoning change.

“The efforts you have made to address sea level rise [at the proposed new residential development] and knowing that there hasn’t been flooding in the Maritime Center” next door both led to her deciding to vote in support.