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Waterfront apartment project advances in New Haven, despite climate change flooding concerns

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.

Plans to build up to 500 new apartments on Long Wharf won a key aldermanic approval — after two city department heads made their pitches for why New Haven should not have to wholly abandon waterfront development, even amid climate change.

That vote came Wednesday night during a virtual joint meeting of the Board of Alders Legislation and Community Development committees.

The discussion that took place—particularly among Wooster Square Alder Ellen Cupo, City Engineer Giovanni Zinn, and City Plan Director Aicha Woods—revealed perhaps the clearest articulation yet of the philosophical, environmental, and engineering tightrope that city officials hope to walk when helping shape the future of Long Wharf.

On the one hand, the city is seeking to encourage the development of the largely industrial and underused waterfront into a vibrant, dense, urban neighborhood.

On the other, it’s bracing for greater sea level rise, floods, storm surges, and other water-filled ravages associated with climate change—all of which might imperil the lives and property of that hoped-for new neighborhood.

“This project really takes a ‘live-with-water’ approach,” Woods told the alders Wednesday night. “It doesn’t deny that there’s going to be climate change, or that there are risks involved. It takes a number of measures to reduce those risks.”

Zinn agreed. “This is a very interesting time for our waterfront,” he said. “A time of a lot of potential. A time of a lot of risk. And a time of a lot of planning and deep thought on the future of what New Haven’s relationship with its waterfront is.” If planned appropriately, this project could fit well within a larger, more intensively used, and more city-connected waterfront neighborhood.

That project in question is the Fusco Corporation’s plans to build up the largely vacant 4.3-acre waterfront site at 501-585 Long Wharf Drive into a proposed mixed-use development with 410 new apartments spread across two new 13-story and 15-story residential towers; a two-acre landscaped public park along the harbor; and a public market and food hall.

Before moving ahead with more detailed plans for that proposed development, Fusco has pitched the city on a zoning change that would allow the Long Wharf-based developer to build up to 500 apartments on the Long Wharf Drive site.

On Wednesday night, the two committees’ worth of alders unanimously voted in support of that proposed zoning change—which would take the form as a zoning text amendment to modify Planned Development District (PDD) #53 to allow for residential use of up to 500 apartments at 501-585 Long Wharf Drive.

The local legislative show of support came a week to the day after the City Plan Commission also unanimously recommended approval of the zoning change.

These two recommended approvals pave the way for a likely favorable vote on the underlying zoning update by the full Board of Alders later this year.

“The land has laid fallow for many years,” Fusco President Lynn Fusco said on Wednesday night, echoing comments she made to the City Plan Commission earlier this month. “That is largely because of market reasons. We believe that now, with the residential market as ginned up as it is, and the equity market, it’s time to build.”

“We always wanted to do something more than just have an office park here,” she continued, referring to the current Maritime Center office complex that has stood next door to the proposed residential development site for the last 35 years.

This project gives Fusco—and the city—an opportunity to have “more of a ‘there, there’” on Long Wharf, she said.

During the development team’s hourlong opening presentation to the local legislators, local attorney Matthew Ranelli brought up a letter written by a top state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) official. That letter called on the alders to reject the proposed zoning update because of the climate change-induced risks that apartment dwellers would face living on the water in the years and decades to come.

Ranelli responded to the environmental regulator’s admonitions, one by one.

First, he said, the state’s official sea level rise estimate is 20 inches by 2050: “We are aware of those estimates. We looked at those estimates and others, and we designed our project with those in mind, to be resistant and to accommodate potential sea level rise in the future.”

Ranelli said that the first-floor elevation for Fusco’s first planned building is at 15 feet, well above FEMA’s base flood elevation of 13 feet.

That’s not even the first floor where people will be living, he said. That’s where the food hall/commercial space would be.

The first floor where apartments would be is at an elevation of 26 feet and 6 inches—or a full 13 feet-plus above the base flood elevation.

In the event of a storm, he said, the building is designed to allow floodwaters to enter and flow through the parking area—but “not into the commercial area, and certainly not in the residential area, which is elevation 26.”

Ranelli also differed with DEEP’s warning that any kind of residential development along the harbor would be inconsistent with the state’s Coastal Management Act because that act requires municipalities to minimize the risk of exposure of people and property to floods.

“We exceed the safety standards in New Haven’s own flood damage prevention regulations,” he said. “We exceed the elevation requirements for that regulation. We also exceed the newly adopted building code requirements, which take into account sea level rise and wave action. We’ve taken care to manage risks and still build responsibly in a way that advances New Haven’s goal of redeveloping Long Wharf,” as laid out in the city’s recently adopted Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan.

“We obviously take these issues seriously,” Ranelli concluded. Fusco has long been located down on the harbor, he said. The company is well aware of what it means to manage a building, like the Maritime Center, that stands adjacent to the water and therefore at risk of storm surges and floods. “Obviously we have planned for them and taken them into account” for this proposed new residential development.

A full 2 hours and 40 minutes into Wednesday night’s meeting, an alder finally asked city officials directly about their take on the DEEP letter— and about why the city is in support of a project that DEEP is so clearly worried about.

DEEP Land and Water Resources Division Director Brian Thompson “says that we should deny this” proposed zoning change, Cupo told Zinn and Woods. In light of that clear warning, “Why should we approve this zoning change?”

Zinn began his response by praising Thompson and DEEP. He said the city shares many of the same concerns raised in that letter, and maintains the same goals of protecting people’s lives and property from the risks of climate-change-induced flooding.

However, Zinn continued, “I do not think it’s axiomatic that any time you have residential in a flood plain, it’s automatically less safe, or it automatically puts life at risk.”

So much depends on how the city and private developers plan for such risks.

How do we not put lives in danger on a residential waterfront? Zinn asked.

Through a couple methods. “The type of construction, the elevation of the construction, coupled with the plans” for coastal resiliency laid out in the city-adopted Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan. Those include building “living shorelines” of intertidal marshes, dunes, native plants, and other manmade structures to protect Long Wharf from erosion; building out a central “Long Wharf Greenway” that would connect neighborhoods and help with stormwater drainage; and even potentially raise roads to push them above the risk of future floods.

“I think together, all of those things provide a pathway to have a successful zone change to residential.”

A project like Fusco’s planned mixed-use development provides an opportunity to improve “the economics of that sort of investment for us,” Zinn said. That is: by pouring money into building out two new large taxable structures filled with people living and shopping in that part of New Haven, the city would be able to grow its own fiscal coffers—and therefore would be better positioned to pay for some of the engineering projects, like improved stormwater drainage and raised roads, designed to protect the neighborhood.

“The devils are in the details,” Zinn said. He said he has plenty of questions and requests that he’ll put forward if and when Fusco advances to the detailed site plan review stage of this project before the City Plan Commission.

Zinn also noted how this proposal is a transit-oriented development, given its proximity to the I-91 and I-95 highways, Union Station, and the rail yard.

“I think we shouldn’t shy away from being creative to take advantage of [these large transportation corridors] to find opportunities for economic growth in New Haven.”

Woods agreed. She also said that there are risks to denying such a zoning change and doing nothing with New Haven’s existing waterfront.

“If we don’t allow an intensification of use, we’ll end up having to abandon areas like Long Wharf [and] Mill River,” she said.

“We really just want to be front and center in reimagining, in making the future use of our waterfront in the very best interest of our residents who live in New Haven, and not abandon our waterfront as a viable area of enjoyment, of residential use, and of economic development,” she continued. “This project is a benchmark for that.”

Woods said that the city wants to take a “cities-first approach” to redeveloping the waterfront. “We don’t have the option of all migrating up to Woodbridge,” she said. “We’re going to stay in New Haven where we are, and really make the best use of our waterfront.”

Ultimately, all of the alders on the call agreed—at least enough to vote unanimously in support of the proposed zoning change.

Westville Alder Adam Marchand said his proposal clearly raises a question: “Is this the right thing to do at a time of climate change and global sea level rise?” He said he appreciated Zinn’s and Woods’s responses to that question.

He also praised Fusco for putting together a preliminary evacuation plan for residents in the event of a flood. He said “it’s probably a good precedent for this board to be asking property developers and property management companies to develop robust plans around evacuations and different protocols when we know bad weather is coming and we’re looking at water overflowing the shore.”

“From my perspective, having people living down there [on Long Wharf] will activate that area tremendously,” Marchand continued. He supports that goal.

Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola agreed: “I think this project could be a catalyst for the whole Long Wharf area.”

Hill Alder Carmen Rodriguez also threw her support behind the project before all of her colleagues voted unanimously in support. “This area absolutely needs positive growth,” she said.

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