CT Construction Digest Wednesday September 9, 2020
Tom Ebersold MILFORD — The Planning and Zoning Board has approved a proposal for a mixed-use project with 77 apartments, retail space, and offices at 125-135 Broad St.
The plan, which generated significant public comment, was approved unanimously; the approval included the condition that Metro 135 LLC submits an updated landscaping plan.
The board had before it three proposals: the original plan with a shared parking arrangement[ a revised plan with an underground parking garage; and a last minute proposal for a restaurant, instead of offices on the first floor of the former Smith Funeral Home, which would include the underground parking garage, but with a shared parking requirement.
Prior to the vote, the board asked Robert Smith Jr., executive managing director of Metro Star Properties, which project he wanted the board to consider. Smith said he wanted the alternate plan with the underground parking garage that included some of the 178 parking spaces, and also the proposal to have the restaurant on the first floor of the building that he called “the mansion.” The restaurant proposal would have required the board to agree to a shared parking arrangement of 19 spaces.
The restaurant suggestion triggered a debate among board members as to whether they should vote at the Sept. 1 meeting. Board Vice Chairman Robert Satti said. “With all these alternate plans, it’s hard to make a motion tonight,” saying the board had not seen the plans for the restaurant, which had been submitted the day of the meeting. “It’s unfair to us to vote because we don’t know what we are voting on,” Satti sai.
In response, Attorney Thomas Lynch said the restaurant proposal was only a reconfiguration of the floor plan for the mansion with a request for the board to make a finding of parking adequacy for the 19 shared parking spaces. He said the restaurant idea did not affect the zoning requirements.
Smith said the proposal was only a photo submitted to give an idea of what a restaurant would look like in that space and that it was not a zoning document. He said a restaurant was a building code issue that would be addressed when he filed for a building permit.
This remark prompted board Chairman Jim Quish to say that the restaurant concept changed the parking for the project because the board would have to make a finding of parking adequacy.
When discussing whether they should vote that night, four board members, including Quish, said they were in favor of the restaurant concept. Board member James Kader said, “I really enjoy the idea of a restaurant there. I think it’s a great idea.”
Finally, Lynch ended the debate by saying, “Forget the restaurant. If the restaurant wants to come forward, we can come back with an amendment.”
The 2.28-acre property is the location of the 6,690-square-foot former Smith Funeral Home, a 416-square-foot office building, and a garage. The plans call for retaining and renovating the funeral home building and the office building, but demolishing the industrial building and garage, and replacing them with three new mixed use retail and office buildings totaling 77 apartments. The 5,700-square-foot industrial building that was at the rear of the property has already been demolished.
The three new buildings will be three stories with elevations of 38.76 feet, 39.98 feet and 39.94 feet, respectively, where 40 feet is the maximum height permitted. Building 3 will be 22,573 square feet, Building 4 will be 29,966 square feet, and Building 5 will be 33,693 square feet.
The funeral home building would have a first-floor office, with second-floor one-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments. The new buildings would have retail and office space on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors, totaling 13 two-bedroom apartments, 2 two-bedroom plus one units, 22 one-bedroom apartments, 10 one-bedroom plus units, and 27 studio apartments, and 2 studio plus units. The change to units with a “plus” component, which are office/study areas, boosts the parking requirement from the original 154 parking spaces to 161 parking spaces.
In his presentation at the beginning of the Sept. 1 public hearing, Smith said that while the funeral home building “has historical significance” and would be treated with that regard, he commented that the structure was not in a historic district, nor was it subject to any historic preservation laws.
In response to board comments from previous meetings, Smith said he had submitted a traffic report, and also revised the plans with a lower level garage that increased the site parking from 120 spaces to 178 spaces, and reduced the surface parking by 22 spaces, which allowed for increased landscaping. He said that any additional study area in the apartments was counted as a bedroom for the purpose of parking counts. Smith said the project would cost more than $20 million to build and that he would not undercut the project with insufficient parking.
Smith introduced the idea of having a restaurant on the first floor of what he referred to as “the mansion.” He said a restaurant would showcase the interior features of the building, but would boost the parking requirements to 197 spaces, meaning the board would have to approve having 19 shared parking spaces. He sai that this would be a downtown restaurant that would have onsite parking and that the board “frequently waives parking for downtown restaurants.”
Traffic Engineer David G. Sullivan presented a traffic study for the project, which is not normally required for a site plan review, but the board requested one at its July 20 meeting. A three-year review of crash data for the area from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2020, showed 13 motor vehicle accidents, nine of them on North Broad Street at High Street. Sullivan estimated there would be 30 trips to and from the site during the weekday morning peak hour and 45 trips during the weekday afternoon peak hour.
“Analysis of the estimated traffic added to the study intersections from this proposed mixed-use development finds that the additional traffic can be accommodated with no perceptible impact,” wrote Sullivan and Lead Transportation Planner Neil C. Olinski in the report summary.
In advance of the public hearing, the board received letters from 23 people in favor of the project and 30 against it. Some of those who wrote about the proposal also spoke at the Sept. 1 hearing. Those in favor who wrote or spoke that the project would improve downtown by providing increased foot traffic to local businesses and complimented Smith and Metro Star for the quality of their developments. Those against it said the project was too dense for the area, an had concerns about the shared parking proposal, and thought that Milford had more than enough apartments.
Dr. Christopher Snyder, who wrote in an Aug. 30 email that his office was originally located on Noble Avenue and the downtown Green area was a big draw for him to begin his practice.
“I am pleased to see plans for tasteful, non-intrusive residential development that will continue to support the surrounding local businesses and restaurants, that I hope to enjoy personally for years to come,” Snyder wrote.
Paige Miglio of Milford, executive director of the Milford Arts Council, wrote in an Aug. 26 letter that downtown is a draw for people who want to be able to walk to restaurants, shops and public transportation. Miglio said that Metro Star was showing Milford respect and planned to use an “appropriate design, aesthetic and placement within an historic district.”
But Erin Collins of Milford wrote that Metro Star has available units at its new Plains Road project and that Milford did not need more apartment complexes. Collins wrote that if Milford continues to build “massive cookie cutter apartment complexes,” it would not continue to be a desirable place to live.
“A large apartment complex hardly seems to be in keeping with the seaside charm of our city,” wrote Collins.
In an Aug. 10 letter, Kate Orecchio of Broad Street questioned the shared parking provisions of the original plan. Orecchio wrote that with more people working from home and with those walking to the train station, the shared residential and commercial spaces might be unrealistic. She also wrote that six parking spaces at the front did not meet zoning regulations, there was no guarantee the office study rooms in the apartments would not be used as bedrooms, and noted, “I’m not clear what consideration has been made for visitor parking.”
Luther Turmelle CHESHIRE — A local developer wants to build a seven-unit apartment building adjacent to one of the town’s busiest intersections.
Town Economic Development Coordinator Jerry Sitko said John Ricci of Ricci Construction wants to build two-bedroom apartments on the site of a former gas station at the intersection of Higgins Road and Route 10. The 0.69-acre property has attracted a lot of attention after crews began clearing trees and shrubs late last month.
The property is zoned for residential use, so a single-family home could be built on the site with the approval of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, according to Town Planner William Voelker. But for an apartment building to be built, a zone change would be required.
“It’s hard to develop a single-family home on a older, polluted piece of property,” Voelker said. Ricci has not yet submitted plans for what he wants to do with the property, he said. Ricci did not return phone calls seeking comment on his plans for the property.
Sitko said whatever Ricci is able to develop on the site, “he’s cleaning up a property that has been an eyesore for a while.”
The former gas station dates back to at least the mid-1970s, but went out of business more than two decades ago, with the building becoming more dilapidated with each passing day.
The town of late has seen a surge in apartment development projects and proposals.
Apartment units with garages currently are under construction across Route 10 from Cheshire Pizza. And the PZC is considering a 114-unit apartment complex on the site of a former nursing home on Hazel Drive, near the Waterbury line.
Mary E. O'Leary NEW HAVEN — Working through the pandemic, engineers and contractors are ahead of schedule as the city continues to make progress on the latest phase of the Downtown Crossing that will connect Orange Street over Route 34, while a separate art project will light the way for pedestrians going to nearby Union Station.
Donna Hall, senior project planner, gave a shout-out Tuesday to C.J. Fucci and AECOM, who are building Phase 2 of the conversion of a portion of Route 34 into boulevards and new city streets, as well as the state’s first protected bike and pedestrian intersection at the corner of Orange Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“They have been out there every day in the heat and the rain, getting it done,” Hall said, describing them “as the city’s outstanding team.”
Hall said the city has been working in zones to make progress, essentially on the outside of the project right now. She said Orange Street recently was repaved, as was the approach from the Knights of Columbus Press on the other side of the highway. The permanent service drives for the businesses have been installed up through Church Street. “That has been a very complicated project to get constructed,” Hall said. “They have done it with very little disruption. ... The feedback that we are getting is that the users are generally pleased with this.”
Hall said the pandemic, in this instance, was an advantage as traffic coming into the city was reduced.
Mayor Justin Elicker thanked the two previous mayors, John DeStefano Jr. and Toni Harp, for pushing the complex Downtown Crossing project along to this phase, which began in spring 2019 and is expected to be finished by July 2021.
He said it is hard to imagine what the site will look like in a few years, but by then there will be residences and retail on the former Coliseum site, as well as more cyclists and walkers and less traffic, as well as streets knit together into the Hill where housing is being built.
“If we as leaders in the community, in the city, don’t imagine what this future can be, then we aren’t going to be able to move these things forward,” Elicker said. He thanked the city staff for the day-to-day work they have put in to move projects forward.
As for the art project, Laura Clark, who heads Site Projects, explained the installation of lights, a widened walkway and other upgrades under the 1959 bridge that is located at the edge of the former Coliseum site on Union Avenue on the way to the train station.
The art installation designed by Sheila de Bretteville of Yale University should be in place within three months, according to an engineer for AECOM. Clark said De Bretteville, who lives in New Haven, is an internationally recognized artist in public art works.
Down-lights and interactive lights will be activated at foot level as people walk through. There will also be other fixtures that will throw light onto the walkway, which currently is fairly dark even on a sunny day. Under the Downtown Crossing project, some 10 acres of land is being reclaimed with one major biotech building already built at 100 College St. by Carter Winstanley and a second one approved for 101 College St., that was expected to start construction this summer.
U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, said she will continue to work for funding for the major traffic and economic development undertaking. A total of $36 million in federal transportation funding has come to the city for the project and a decision on $15.3 million for Phase 3, which would connect Temple Street over Route 34, will be announced in October..
“When completed, the Downtown Crossing project will relieve congestion, improve traffic flow (and) address flooding,” in addition to the creation of protections for walkers and cyclists, DeLauro said. “It is also creating good jobs that cannot be outsourced, sparking economic growth,” DeLauro said.
“These projects don’t occur by alchemy. They are the result of a cooperative effort by all the levels of government. It is in times of crisis when challenges are overwhelming federal investments in our communities are investments that we need to be making. ... When the entire project is completed it will correct the mistake that was made cutting off downtown” from the nearby neighborhoods, DeLauro said.
She again pushed for a national infrastructure development bank, such as has been done in Europe.
Rob Ryser NEWTOWN — The longstanding debate about whether housing belongs on the town’s Fairfield Hills campus will be on the Nov. 3 ballot along with Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
“Having it on the ballot in November, 85-to-90 percent of Newtown people are going to vote,” First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said. “Everybody is going to see the question, and people will have a visceral reaction one way or the other.”
The referendum about whether to allow housing as part of a commercial redevelopment in no more than two of the empty former psychiatric hospital buildings on the Fairfield Hills campus was originally planned for April before the coronavirus arrived. The shutdown restrictions on large crowds in the spring also canceled what would have been the fourth and final public discussion with developers interested in converting the largest of the charming red brick hulks into affordable housing.
“We are still putting the finishing touches on how that meeting is going to look,” Rosenthal said on Friday, adding the meeting would likely be virtual.
The public vote, which could set in motion a formal public process to approve a zone change on the 185-acre campus or rule out housing at Fairfield Hills for the foreseeable future, comes as the town pursues its long-term plan to transform the former psychiatric hospital into the civic and cultural center of Newtown.
“The town bought it so that we could control our own destiny, and we’re doing that,” Rosenthal said of Newtown’s 2004 purchase of the pastoral property for $3.5 million. “At the time, the other offers for the property were for leveling the campus and building single-family homes, but our original plan did conceive of some mixed housing as well.” Housing was written out of the Fairfield Hills zoning code six years ago after a modest proposal for affordable housing on campus was defeated at the polls.
A 2019 survey of 1,800 Newtowners confirmed that housing remains an unpopular option, with many believing that apartments would ruin Fairfield Hills’ park-like character.
“I acknowledge that, and I take what people said seriously,” Rosenthal said. “But people in that survey also said the town shouldn’t spend a lot of money (on handsome but decrepit buildings) and those two statements are at odds.”
To date, Newtown has spent $38 million on Fairfield Hills, a figure that includes the demolition of abandoned buildings and the construction of new buildings, including the Newtown Municipal Center, and the newly opened Newtown Community Center.
The town stands to spend another $25 million in future demolition costs if nothing is done with the 500,000-square-feet of abandoned buildings, Rosenthal said.
Newtown could avoid teardown costs for the largest of the old structures and pick up tax revenue to help pay campus maintenance costs by allowing developers to convert two of the buildings into affordable housing, according to Rosenthal.Affordable housing is the last option for the former hospital buildings, Rosenthal said, because the structures are too old and too expensive to retrofit for other kinds of commercial redevelopment.
Affordable housing developers absorb the cost of rehabbing old buildings with subsidies from state and federal governments, Rosenthal said.
“I think this can work and the campus can still be park-like with trails that attract people, but I am only one vote out of 17,000 voters in town,” Rosenthal said. “In November, we will answer this question and we move in whatever direction the public is telling us to move.”