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Major Housing, Commercial Uses Get OK At Long-closed 500 Blake Street Cafe Property In New Haven

500 Blake Street Cafe, a popular upscale restaurant and wedding reception venue, closed in 2006 in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. The property remains vacant.

500 Blake Street Cafe, a popular upscale restaurant and wedding reception venue, closed in 2006 in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. The property remains vacant.Photo: Hearst Connecticut Media File

Photo: Hearst Connecticut Media File

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500 Blake Street Cafe, a popular upscale restaurant and wedding reception venue, closed in 2006 in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. The property remains vacant.

500 Blake Street Cafe, a popular upscale restaurant and wedding reception venue, closed in 2006 in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. The property remains vacant.Photo: Hearst Connecticut Media File

Major housing, commercial uses get OK at long-closed 500 Blake Street Cafe property in New Haven

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NEW HAVEN — It looked like all of Westville had shown up — virtually, of course.

A dense housing and commercial development project with views of West Rock won over traffic concerns when some 75 people came to a Zoom meeting of the City Plan Commission, with approval of the transformation of the long-closed 500 Blake Street Cafe and large parking lot that has been dormant for almost two decades.

The site plan was approved unanimously by the commission that heard testimony for four hours on Ocean Management’s proposal for 129 units of housing and an improved public walkway along the West River, which was negotiated by City Plan staff.

Approval was contingent on submission of detailed traffic and sidewalk approvals by the city’s engineering office and Transportation, Traffic and Parking before building permits are issued, with special attention to the intersections of Blake and Valley streets and the site plan along Tour Avenue.

A special permit that also gave the commission more control over design elements in the village was approved 3 to 1, with commissioner Elias Estabrook voting against the look of the building along Tour Avenue with its metal clad facade he said did not fit in with the surrounding buildings.

Melissa Saint, who represented the owners, said they were trying to bring in a small, modern touch, such as Yale University does with some of its buildings, by using a mix of materials “in a sophisticated way.”

“In the big picture here, while we all may have … Different views of what kind of material should appear on this building, I think it is enough for the developer to consider, but I think if we start getting into whether or not this is going to ride on the materials on one portion of one building … We are going down a road I don’t think we want to go to,” said attorney Jim Segaloff, who represented the developer.

Commissioner Adam Marchand joined the 3 to 1 vote on the special permit even though he felt the proposed apartment buildings were somewhat out of scale with the surrounding village district structures. “I’m not 100 percent convinced that it fits in super neatly as some of the diagrams make it seem it does,” he said.

Marchand asked the developers “in refining the design to explore materials and techniques to reduce the visual impact of a building that is bigger than what is around it.”

He explained his vote to approve, rather than table, given the current situation with the country in partial lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic that has stalled the economy.

“I think that supporting development, and development happening soon, is absolutely essential policy for our city to pursue when we have an economy in a coma and we are trying to figure how to get our economy relaunched. I feel there are some tradeoffs here and for me the most important thing is the safety of pedestrians, but I just want to acknowledge that the design is still rather big,” Marchand said.

Saint said she hopes construction starts this summer with completion by early 2022.

The general opposition to the development came from residents of Tour Avenue who asked that the vote be put off for more discussion and review of the traffic plan and some tweaking of a design element, but even they were happy with the general intent of the project, the density and walkability.

The housing will be a mix of studio, one-bedroom, one-plus apartments that add some space, and two-bedroom apartments. The project also features more than 7,000 square feet of new commercial space.

Along Blake Street, according to the narrative accompanying the development, there will be a 3,900-square-foot restaurant, while closer to the West River, some 3,400 square feet of retail space will feature a small market in a public plaza with outdoor seating next to the existing boardwalk. In addition to the pedestrian walkway, there will be a bike path. Parking is available for around 120 cars.

Saint said they are looking to bring in more foot traffic that would support not only commercial space at the development, but existing businesses in Westville, as well. She said they will seek to add essential retail so residents will not have to drive someplace else for such things.

Patty O’Hanlon, who runs the Westville Community Nursery School on Tour Avenue, asked for a good faith discussion with the developers about residents’ traffic concerns. She said there are preschool-age children on that street and she is worried about their safety and particularly the egress onto Tour Avenue which she fears many will use, rather than Blake Street. She also asked for traffic calming efforts for the street.

Her concerns were echoed by Adam Lopiano, Muffy Prendergast and Thea Buxbaum, who favored tabling approval for more discussion.

On the other side, architect Keith Krolak said previous developments done in this area have left much to be desired. He said this one respects the scale and urban fabric of the neighborhood and provides connectivity with the current retail establishments.

Krolak said he feels the traffic issues can be solved with the right amount of engineering. He said the solution could be outside the site due to the traffic moving through here, rather than being part of the neighborhood, and it shouldn’t penalize a good development. “All indications are that this is going to be an excellent catalyst for the neighborhood,” Krolak said.

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