Plans OK’d For “Westville Music Bowl”
New Haven’s vacant tennis stadium is on track to become an outdoor music and comedy venue now that the team behind the College Street Music Hall has won approval — from both the City Plan Commission and, in a twist on history, Westville neighbors.
Those approvals, one formal, one not, came at two different public meetings Wednesday night, one in the community and one in City Hall.
Premier Facilities LLC President Keith Mahler and local attorney Steve Mednick presented plans at the meetings to convert the tennis stadium next to the Yale Bowl at 45 Yale Ave. into the Westville Music Bowl—a new outdoor concert and comedy venue that will host performances between May and September.
The new venture will be run by the nonprofit NHCPA Outdoors LLC, a subsidiary of the New Haven Center for Performing Arts (NHCPA) Inc. which in turn owns the College Street Music Hall downtown.
At the Westville/West Hills Community Management Team meeting at the Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School on Fountain Street, and then at the regular monthly City Plan Commission meeting on the second floor of City Hall, Mahler and Mednick described plans to install a temporary stage in the middle of the existing stadium.
Mahler, whose Premier Facilities company is the facilities manager for College Street Music Hall, said that the summer concerts hosted by the Westville Music Bowl should scale between 3,000 to 5,000-person audiences. College Street Music Hall, by comparison, can scale its audiences between 675 and 2,000.
“It’s the right place in the right location at the right time,” Mahler said about the planned new venue.
The stadium itself was built decades ago in time to host the August 1991 Volvo International Tennis Tournament. Earlier this year, the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut (TFC), which leased the land on which the stadium was built and nearby parking from Yale University, announced that it would no longer be host the Connecticut Open there.
At the City Plan Commission meeting, Mahler and Mednick, joined by longtime TFC board member Jay Brotman and TFC attorney Danielle Bercury, won unanimous support from commissioners in their bid to amend the ground lease and parking agreement with Yale to make NHCPA Outdoors LLC the new tenant of the property. They needed that approval in order to close on the pending deal to take over the lease at the tennis staidum.
“Rain Or Shine”
Before they made their pitch to City Plan, Mahler and Mednick made a stop at the Westville/West Hills Community Management Team meeting at Mauro-Sheridan.
A generation ago, when Mednick himself was an area alder, WestvilIians would not have been interested in such a project. Neighbors shot down plans in the 1990s for live music at the Yale Bowl, including a planned Paul McCartney concert, because of concerns about traffic and noise.
How times have changed.
Even before the the M & M team finished their polished pitch, one could tell it was going to be enthusiastically received.
In mid-description of the project, Susan Vonstade, a lon-time Westvillian, blurted out about the vacant tennis stadium, “It’s an eye sore.”
Kate Bradley asked if there will be a roof on the stadium. Mahler replied tersely, “Rain or shine.”
That is, no roof.
Bradley was particularly interested in one of the seemingly universal questions New Haveners bring up, no matter what the project: Parking.
Mahler assured her the Yale lots, which will be rented along with the stadium from Yale University, are sufficient to park all the cars, even if the stadium hits capacity. The aim, he said, is to have all cars in the lots and not on nearby streets.
“We want to have a strict policy. It’s called ticketing,” Mahler said. Then, he put a showman’s cherry on top, adding, “We’ve budgeted to have a tow truck nearby,” advertising that if you park in the residentially zoned neighbors’ spots, the car pound is your fate.
Bennett Lovett-Graff declared that he is “very excited that the tennis stadium will be repurposed.” Het expressed general concerns about noise, cleaning up the immediate area outside the stadium, and monitoring bad behaviors.
“We’re concerned with the same issues,” Mahler replied. “We want people drinking in the stadium. We’ll have the Yale police department and our own security, and a no-open-drinking policy will be enforced.”
Regarding noise, Mahler said the concerts will end at no later than midnight. The bowl shape of the tennis stadium will help ensure relative acoustic calm in the neighborhood during concerts. “Our audio guy says there’s no drift [of the noise] problem.”
He cited the four years his group has run the College Street Music Hall, with apartment units adjacent and above, and not one complaint has emerged, he said.
The area’s top cop, Lt. Rose Dell, citing burglaries in the area, asked if the renovations will also feature putting up security cameras. Mahler said intrusions have been minor, according to reports he has received. But yes, there will be security cameras.
Lizzy Donius, who heads the Westville Village Renaissance Association, said she is “really psyched” about the Westville Music Bowl and sees little downside.
“And,” she added, “they put ‘Westville’ in the name. That’s fantastic.”
Finally, from the past-is-future department, activist Dennis Serfillipi, reported that back in February, without any knowledge whatsoever of potential plans for the site, he created on the Nextdoor app (usually a forum for gripes) a poll that asked one question: “Would you support bringing concerts back to the Yale Bowl and the tennis stadium?”
There were 109 respondents, he reported at the end of Wednesday night’s meeting. “And 93 percent were: Yes.”
Kate Bradley, who had asked the initial question about parking, said she was happy enough with Mahler and Mednick’s answers and presentation. “It’s going to happen. You’ve got to deal with it,” she concluded.
“This Big Tennis Stadium In Westville That’s Vacant”
Mahler and Mednick then headed downtown to present to the City Plan Commission, which heard the tennis stadium-turned-concert venue item just before 10 p.m.
“There’s this big tennis stadium in Westville that’s vacant,” city Acting Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli told the commissioners as he introduced the application.
The College Street Music Hall-affiliated nonprofit has come to an “agreement in principle” with Yale University and the TFC to replace the tennis foundation as the stadium’s tenant and to turn the venue into a summer, outdoor performance space.
“The transaction is pretty simple,” Mednick said. Per the conditions of the original Planned Development District (PDD) that the City Plan Commission and the Board of Alders approved back in 1990 to allow for the construction of the stadium in the first place, the NHCPA Outdoors LLC needed City Plan Commission sign off on amending the ground lease and the parking agreement with Yale.
The amended ground lease would allow the new tenant to use the stadium for, according to the document itself, “musical concerts and comedy and other performing arts events. In addition, Tenant shall have the right to use the Premises for professional tennis tournaments, community tennis tournaments and other events specifically approved in writing by Landlord, in its sole discretion.”
The amended parking agreement, meanwhile, would grant the new tenant use of Yale-owned parking spaces for 15 years, through Aug. 31, 2035. The parking agreement would then automatically renew on a year-to-year basis.
Otherwise, Mednick said, the applicant was not seeking any other changes to the PDD.
No new permanent structures will be built. No new height to the existing building. No changes to lighting that would violate the PDD’s current regulations. The only major work the new tenant plans to do is install a temporary stage within the confines of the existing structure and rehab the current, dilapidated concession stands.
Therefore, he asked the commissioners, could they also strike the city staff report’s recommended condition of approval that they come back for a detailed site plan review for the project?
City Deputy Director of Zoning Jenna Montesano said she had left that site plan review condition in city staff’s recommendations because, based on her reading of the application, the new stage with lighting could be in place for upwards of two years. Usually, such a large new structure and new lighting would trigger detailed site plan review.
“Everything’s confined within the bowl,” Mahler said. The stage will be disassembled seasonally, and the lights will reach nowhere near the top of the current outdoor stadium.
“It will be extremely detrimental to this facility” and, he said, to the College Street Music Hall, if commissioners required the applicant to come back for site plan review. That would mean another month lost in locking in acts for next summer’s planned lineup of concerts and performances, he said.
The commissioners, city staff, and Mahler and Mednick ultimately agreed to a compromise: The commissioners unanimously approved the requested lease amendments with the condition that, if the city’s Building Department subsequently determines that the stage is a permanent and not a temporary fixture, then the applicant will have to come back to the commission for a detailed site plan review.