Desegregate CT to Greenwich: 4- to 5-Story Buildings, “Build It and They Will Come”

Wednesday’s P&Z meeting began with a presentation from Desegregate CT’s director Pete Harrison the director of Desegregate CT.

He presented legislation his organization is drafting called “Work Live Ride.” It involved the concept of “Transit Oriented Communities.”

“I know anything with housing and zoning can be a very emotional issue,” he said. “Very passionate voices and the hardest edges can come to the forefront.”

Last year there was an outpouring of opposition in Greenwich to his group’s proposed “Transit Oriented Development” legislation.

“TOC is another way of saying TOD. Those are interchangeable,” he said. “It centers riders and pedestrians over cars.”

View at dusk of Horseneck Lane of Horseneck Lot, one of two parking lots that are potential development sites for a Transit Oriented Community. Photo: Leslie Yager

Harrison said the idea was to incentivize TOD’s with the State of Connecticut helping with resources.

They propose to ask for 4 full-time planners in Connecticut’s Office of Responsible Growth who would “coordinate disparate parts of the State.”

The legislation will soon have bill number assigned and a hearing date scheduled.

“Last year we called for as-of-right around bus or rail stations. We went back to the drawing board.”

Peter Harrison – Desegregate CT Director

Harrison said Greenwich falls under their definition of a Rapid Transit Community by exceeding the 60,000 population threshold.

That would mean that, as-of-right, 30 homes per acre would be allowed in the designated TOC.

He said 40 towns or cities in Connecticut have populations of over 60,000.

P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban said putting Greenwich in the same category of several large cities gave the commission a lot of pause.

“We did the math ourselves,” Alban said, adding the formula would result in buildings with a minimum of four to five stories.

“That’s sort of the level we’re talking about,” Harrison agreed.

“You say 40 towns have populations more than 60,000. It’s actually 25,000,” Alban said. “Your numbers are all off. There’s only 45 towns in Connecticut with greater than 25,000, and 14 with greater than 60,000.”

As for train ridership falling and people adopting hybrid work patterns, Harrison said that actually created an opportunity to reorient rail use to intra-city and integrate it with bus service and walking.

“If you build it they will come,” Harrison said.

Harrison said the state had already made large investments in transit and the idea was to create more access points to it.

Last year’s TOD bill would have made it as-of-right to create a district around a single railroad station, but under the new TOC concept, the district might be split up across two stations, for example. Or, he said, a TOC could be a commercial corridor 3/4-miles from the rail station. Or it might mean developing along the 311 bus line that runs through Greenwich from Stamford to Port Chester.

He said another goal was to “beef up funding” from the state for infrastructure improvements.

Commissioner Bob Barolak, who brings 40 years of experience in affordable housing to the P&Z commission and chairs Greenwich’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, said, “Greenwich and Desegregate CT won’t see eye to eye 100%.”

Getting right to the point, Barolak said, “The most important thing is money.”

When Barolak asked for specifics on funding, Mr. Harrison said money would be sought from the Appropriations Committee.

Barolak pressed further, asking exactly how much they would seek.

Harrison said “a reasonable $50 million a year” would “grease the wheel.”

“Fifty million a year is a spit in the ocean,” Barolak replied.

Barolak said Desegregate CT’s language about “carrots and sticks” made it unclear who would pay for infrastructure projects.

Ms Alban suggested Desegregate CT conduct a pilot program.

“Just doing a few towns to see how it works,” she said. “Trouble shoot it and then bring it statewide.”

Harrison demurred. “There is some urgency.”

Ms Alban said a pilot would only take an extra year.

“The TOD districts are the pilot,” he said, noting that some towns in Connecticut did adopt TOD’s last year. West Hartford is an example.

“For a town like Greenwich…we ask how much better off we’d be by opting in,” Barolak said. “We can’t know unless we know how much additional funding it attached to this. You gotta get the money on the table.”

“That’s part of the sausage making process for sure,” Harrison said.

Commissioner Mary Jenkins noted that the proposal talked about a town qualifying by having a “reasonable district.”

“Who is going to define reasonable?” she asked.

“The mechanical answer is the Office of Responsible Growth will have guidelines in place. We picked ‘reasonable’ because we took criticism from last year, and the ½-mile radius kind of doesn’t make sense…it makes more sens to have local discretion.”

Ms Alban said Greenwich already had a lot of housing density and variety around the main train station, including multi-family, two-family and some single-family homes.

She said she believed the more important challenge was to increase affordable housing.

The draft Work Live Ride Act calls for 20% of the units to be affordable for 40 years.

“We’re confident that this kind of density can work. We don’t know what the future will look like, but we know we have not been building enough for the last 60 years, particularly in Greenwich and congestion on I95 is the worst in the country. The only way to improve that is to get folks out of their cars.”

Alban said adding 30-units-per-acre was difficult for Greenwich. “We’re built out,” she said.

“And infrastructure – we have a sewer capacity problem,” she added.

Further, Alban said the Level of Service rating for intersections around the train station was F at peak hours, the lowest rating.

As-of-Right vs Special Permit Process

Alban said it was essential for Greenwich to review proposals under the special permit process. “We’re obsessed with things like where driveways are. Especially on Rte 1, you can’t get out at certain times of the day.”

Commissioner Peter Levy said the top-down government approach had been unsuccessful in the past.

“Partially because sometimes the effort is more of a social experiment than a rigorous understanding of the details,” he said.

“Your information is lacking, but also, it seems like there is some rashness in it, in that it doesn’t seem to be all that accurate. That gives me pause in that you’re just trying to push something through.”

During public comment James Sarnell described the proposal as a social experiment that would hurt citizens.

“Just look at Stamford. Just because you live near a train station doesn’t mean you’ll take the train to work. What if you’re a carpenter or plumber?”

Tara Spiess Restieri said Work Live Ride had a “big, vague, top-down approach and was lacking in data.

Further, she said it did not make sense to put Greenwich in the same category as Hartford or New Haven.

Former State Rep Kimberly Fiorello said an unintended consequence of development, even with affordable components, was the loss of naturally occurring affordable housing.

And, she said, “If you’re pushing density with minimum affordability, it will mean a huge increase of the denominator for 8-30g.”

Dan Quigley questioned Harrison’s reference to ‘Build it they will come.’

“I don’t think that’s a goal of Greenwich or towns with 60,000+ people,” Quigley said. “Also left out is the conversation is municipal infrastructure. It’s antiquated, and if we were to see an influx of approximately 5,000-6,000 people in downtown areas, this would likely require massive increases to local infrastructure and government spending.”

Quigley also questioned Desegregate’s connection to the Regional Planning Association.

“The head of RPA is also the CEO of RXR Realty, which owns more than 30 million sq ft of residential and commercial real estate in NYC valued at over $30 billion,” he said.

Quigley acknowledged that Greenwich needed to come up with a plan to add affordable housing, but said it was hard to reconcile the goals of Desegregate CT with their connection to RPA.

Gail Lauridsen said the name Desegregate CT implied that Connecticut was deliberately segregated. She said that was an insult to Greenwich.

“We live in an inclusive, loving community,” she said.

“This bill is overreach. You talk about getting people out of cars. There is no getting people out of their cars in Greenwich.”

Mareta Hamre said commissioners’ assertion that the presenter lacked data was incorrect.

“I’d like to point out the extensive data on their website. Refer to that and study it.”

Thomas Cardello was skeptical of the Office of Responsible Growth coordinating state resources.

“Why should we be be comfortable ceding local control to Hartford?” he asked, adding that the bill would be a boon for developers.

Ammar Murad asked whether the proposed legislation took into account the impact on the school system?

“Driving now and taking your child to school has been a challenge. Does it take into any consideration the services such as fire and law enforcement?” Murad asked.

P&Z chair Ms Alban said Mr. Murad’s points were precisely why she wanted these projects to be special permit applications, not as-of-right.

Mr. Harrison responded to public comments, including the question about affiliation with RPA.

He said RPA was a 100-year-old organization and when Desegregate CT transitioned away from being all-volunteer, it made sense to approach RPA for fiscal sponsorship.

As for the criticism that high density would not result in decreased reliance on cars, he said, “Nobody has any illusions that we will live in a magical world where we don’t need a car in Connecticut. What we’re suggesting is having a couple trips that are walkable, and a couple done by pubic transportation is a meaningful way to reduce that, and that is a safety issue that comes down to less cars on the road.”

“It’s not saying build it and they’ll come and that you won’t need a car,” Harrison said.

“Some communities are excited about this,” Harrison said. “Greenwich might not want to jump into it right away.”

See also:

Greenwich P&Z Develops Feedback on Desegregate CT on “Work Live Ride” Proposal Feb 21, 2023

Dire Warnings Issued on Impact of “Transit Oriented Development” Bill 5429 in Fairfield County March 2022