An artist envisaged turning a Fair Haven garage into an eco-friendly center for sculpture, yoga, and “WOW” crystals and smudge sticks.
Two hundred neighbors applauded. But New Haven’s zoning board was un-wowed.
For the second time, the Board of Zoning Appeals turned down the artist’s request for needed zoning relief at a monthly meeting Tuesday night.
Since City Hall remains indefinitely closed to the public because of the state of emergency around the Covid-19 pandemic, the meeting took place online via the Zoom teleconferencing app.
The application in question came from Madelaine Fargeorge, a Hamden-based mural artist with Fair Haven family roots who plans to convert the single-story service garage she owns at 545 Lombard St. into Studio 545, a “co-workshop focused on environmental and community wellness.” (More on that below.)
Fargeorge had applied to the BZA for two variances — one for permission to open a shared workshop space in a residential district, the second to allow for the placement of an electric meter on the building’s front facade.
She had submitted a similar application last fall, and was narrowly denied by the BZA in November after Fair Haven Alder Ernie Santiago and several neighbors raised concerns about parking availability and past alleged residential squatting at the site.
This time around, Fargeorge said, she updated her application to make sure that the four existing on-site parking spaces would be enough.
And she canvassed the neighborhood, racking up 200 unique signatures of support, including 50 from Fair Haven residents.
She said she reached out to community leaders and won the enthusiastic support from the Fair Haven Community Management Team, which she presented to earlier this year.
With a revamped zoning relief application, months of community outreach behind her, and a half dozen supporters dialed in to speak up on the project’s behalf Tuesday night, she was hoping for a different outcome.
Sights Set On Studio 545
Fargeorge (pictured) explained that her big-picture plans for the storage garage at 545 Lombard St. were largely the same as those she had presented to the BZA back in November.
According to Fargeorge’s zoning relief application, attached business plan, and presentation Tuesday night, the converted garage would provide dedicated studio spaces for four resident artists/entrepreneurs. Those creatives would be able to use the space to make, showcase, and sell their goods from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.
The Lombard Street building would double as a venue for classes, workshops, and community events, with a small garden, chicken coop, and farm stand also planned for the currently vacant site.
“All of our residents have a focus on all-natural and eco-friendly products,” Fargeorge said about the artists slated to occupy the future Studio 545.
Her business plan states that one of the artist tenants would be The WOW Office, which “provides metaphysical goods and services including tarot, yoga, crystals, smudge sticks, and CBD Products.”
Another prospective tenant, Gee Natural, is described in the business plan as a “nature-inspired product line that offers all-natural and eco-friendly deodorants, balms, creams, tea blends, jewelry, and photography.”
And a third, Aeneolithics, is described as an art gallery offering made-to-order art and sculpture fashioned from scrap metal and recycled objects.
Fargeorge added that the space would offer memberships and subscriptions for people interested in getting 10 percent discounts on products and free access to community events.
In a follow-up email Wednesday morning, Fargeorge said that the site is currently being used “mainly just as a storage facility. I have one artist who uses the space for a studio despite the conditions ie no electricity/heat and a lot of other makers all from Fair Haven who want a local affordable studio space for their businesses but understandably not unless there’s electricity and the ability to make a sale without repercussions.”
When asked which kinds of artists she has lined up for the prospective space, she replied, “My makers are herbalists, homeopaths, recycle-artists; they’re making all natural health and beauty products, tea blends, all natural/recycled jewelry, doing nature photo shoots, organizing block clean-ups; they’re ridiculously talented and passionate and the definition of entrepreneurship; and we’re not even in it for the money!”
She said she and her fellow artists want to build out this project “because we are aware of the systems that keep people economically stagnant or keep people chronically ill and we care about changing that dynamic even in our small way, about putting the power back into the hands of the people, about respecting the environment, about taking care of the community and its people.”
“Good For The Community”
As for the requested zoning relief itself, Fargeorge wrote in her application that the automotive garage has been used as a storage warehouse from 2014 to the present, and was used for truck storage and maintenance by Yale Concrete from 1980 to 2004. She acquired the building in 2019.
She wrote that the building has been without electricity since 2004. She said that United Illuminating requires a three foot clearance in front of a meter for safety purposes, and that the alleyways on either side of the building are only two feet wide.
“UI will not run wires through someone else’s property or alongside the building to install the meter in the rear,” she wrote. “UI says the only option is to place the meter on the facade.”
She said that the meter would be hidden behind hedges and would not be unsightly, or even visible, in the primarily residential surrounding neighborhood.
David Weinreb, the corresponding secretary for the Fair Haven Community Management Team, vouched that Fargeorge had indeed presented to the team and won its support. He applauded Fargeorge for her vision for bringing an artist and community space to that stretch of Lombard Street, and noted that a Change.org petition for Studio 545 has garnered over 3,800 signatures of support.
Shakira Nieves said she lives near 545 Lombard, and that she and four other friends with her on the video call were all in support of the project.
“As community members ourselves and as people who have seen Maddie work so hard, we think this is something that would be good for the community,” she said.
Therese Barbuto (pictured), Fargeorge’s aunt and a lifelong Fair Haven resident, supported her niece’s efforts to bring such a creative space to the neighborhood that so many members of her extended family still call home. She said the project could help spur a neighborhood-wide revitalization of empty storefronts.
“I don’t see how having an artist studio is a bad idea right there.”
One attendee at Tuesday night’s hearing did, however. A particularly influential attendee: the neighborhood’s alder, Ernie Santiago.
What About The Ward Committee?
“I’ve got nothing against artists,” said Santiago (pictured). But as a five-term alder representing Ward 15, he has to pay attention to the needs and concerns of the residents of his district.
And from what he has heard, particularly from neighbors immediately abutting the proposed project, “Nobody wants it, at least right now.”
Why not? “First, we don’t know what kind of artists are coming,” he said.
What if they don’t have a lot of money and have to leave soon after setting up shop? “How long are they gonna be here, and who else is gonna come in?”
What if they’re metalworkers who use blowtorches that produce noxious fumes?
What if they inadvertently bring Covid-19 to the area?
Getting the support of the management team is all well and good, he said, but that group does not include many Ward 15 constituents, particularly those who live on the streets immediately surrounding 545 Lombard.
He said Fargeorge should have presented instead to the Ward 15 Democratic Ward Committee, and not the management team.
“The bottom line is, as a five-term alder for this area, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not now. Until they come to the ward committee, and not the management team, and they present to us, the people who live in the area, I’m going to be against it.”
Given time by the commissioners to rebut Santiago’s testimony, Fargeorge said she did reach out via email multiple times to Santiago and the two other Fair Haven alders.
She said she exchanged a few emails with Alder Jose Crespo, but that thread ultimately didn’t lead anywhere. She said Santiago never got back to her, even after three months of attempted outreach.
She said that the artists that will work out of Studio 545 will not be using blowtorches “or fires or crazy things like that.” She said most of the people there will be making “herbal soaps and scrubs.”
“A lot of these concerns—they’re just kind of made up,” Fargeorge said.
Community Outreach Not Legally Required
BZA Commissioner Sarah Locke (pictured) said she too found it a bit odd for anyone to expect Fargeorge to present her maker space project to a political ward committee in order to win zoning relief approval.
Locke herself is the vice-chair of the city’s Democratic Town Committee and a ward co-chair for Ward 9. She said her committee meets only four times a year. She pointed out that two other members of the BZA are also DTC ward committee co-chairs: Mildred Melendez for Ward 13, and Al Paolillo, Sr. for Ward 17.
“Our ward committee meetings are pretty intermittent,” Locke said, “and they’re not public, and they’re not in the newspaper, and it’s not a legal requirement [for BZA]. I would hope that we don’t take that as any consideration” for the zoning relief application.
City zoning staffer Nate Hougrand agreed. He reminded the commissioners that, legally speaking, Fargeorge only has to meet land-use hardship conditions spelled out in local zoning law in order to win a variance.
“There is no legal obligation for her to do any public outreach whatsoever,” he said.
The only other person to speak up about the project during the public hearing section of the meeting was Ray Lemley, the secretary of the Corporation for Urban Home Ownership (CUHO), a nonprofit that owns dozens of apartments in the surrounding area.
He noted that he and neighbor Frank Redente had raised concerns in November that the project would require more than the site’s four existing parking spaces.
He asked city Deputy Director of Zoning Jenna Montesano (pictured) if Fargeorge’s latest application meets the city’s parking requirements.
She said it did, and that Fargeorge did not need to apply for any kind of parking relief.
“She is adequately parked for the use of the building as proposed in her building plan,” Montesano said.
And with that, the commissioners moved to vote.
“This Is Nonsensical”
Locke and fellow commissioners Ann Stone and Shirl Wilkins voted in support of both variances.
Melendez (pictured above) and Paolillo voted to deny.
Since a variance requires four affirmative votes to pass, both of Fargeorge’s zoning relief applications failed.
Fargeorge was stunned.
“Isn’t it my legal right to get electricity?” she asked. “How am I being denied to get electricity in my building?”
Melendez asked city attorney Roderick Williams if he had any insight on what Fargeorge’s legal rights were regarding getting her garage set up with electricity.
Williams noted that the applications discussed Tuesday night were for zoning relief variances, not for electricity. He admitted he didn’t have an answer to the electricity question.
“How is this legal?” Fargeorge protested. “This makes no sense? What do you want to happen to this building? It’s just going to rot there. You’re just going to let this rot.”
“I understand your frustration,” Melendez said.
“This isn’t frustration,” replied Fargeorge. “This is nonsensical.”
“I will not get into a back and forth,” Melendez continued. How exactly does this building not have electricity? she then asked. “There has to be electricity there.”
Fargeorge said there’s no electrical hookup. She said UI needs to put in a box, but they won’t do it unless if she has the variance because of the three-foot clearance requirement. “Without your approval, I do not have electricity,” she said.
“Can I get an explanation for why I’m being denied?” Fargeorge asked Melendez.
Melendez said that Fargeorge has the right to appeal the decision, just like any other applicant denied by the BZA.
At the end of the meeting, Hougrand also asked Melendez and Paolillo for an explanation for why they decided to vote no.
“When I write and send the decision letter, I have to give a basis for denial,” he said. What should he write?
Williams jumped in and discouraged the commissioners from answering. “If there wasn’t an explanation stated” during the formal hearing, the city attorney cautioned, “we don’t want to conjure one after the fact.”
Melendez did not respond to a request for comment by the publication time of this article as to why she voted no on Fargeorge’s variance applications.
Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Paolillo said he decided to vote no back in November because of concerns raised by neighbors about illegal welding work taking place at the site. He said he decided to vote no again Tuesday night because of the neighborhood opposition, as expressed by the alder.
“The alderman has been a five-term alderman. He knows what’s going on around there,” Paolillo said. He said the people who testified in support of the project live in Fair Haven more broadly, but do not live in the immediate vicinity of 545 Lombard St.
“The neighborhood is consistent in being against it,” he said.
Fargeorge told the Independent Wednesday morning that she thought Tuesday’s hearing “was a total travesty and a testament to the shortcomings of our city and its elected officials who clearly aren’t representing their constituents but are making political moves for their own gains.
“Their silence when asked for a reason for their denial spoke volumes and I encourage everyone to watch the meeting which should be posted on the zoning website to see how their elected officials are representing them in action.”
When asked about what her plans are now for the prospective Studio 545, she replied, “Keep fighting.”