Greenwich Housing Authority Frustrated over High Cost of P&Z Process for Vinci Gardens

On Tuesday Greenwich’s housing authority, recently rebranded “Greenwich Communities,” returned before the Greenwich Planning & Zoning commission with their application for Vinci Gardens, a 52-unit, all one-bedroom, senior and handicapped apartment building in Byram.

The jumbo apartment building would be located at the end of Vinci Drive where the housing authority already operates McKinney Terrace I (21 family apartments) and II, a 52-unit elderly building in the former Byram School, which is on the National Historic Register.

“We spent a lot of money to redo this. For the record, the last time we attempted to do this, we spent $500,000 on a project at the same site. Here we are again. We’re probably up to $150,000 or $200,000 so far…You either vote it up or down.”

– Anthony Johnson, Greenwich Communities director

Vinci Gardens would be modular construction, with each side of the corridors being one room wide.

Assembly would be done on site with the facade installed afterward.

Siding would be vinyl, while the adjacent buildings, including the former Byram School, are predominantly brick.

Chris Bristol, attorney for the applicant, said the entire 6-acre parcel was leased by the housing authority from the town for 99 years, and described the proposed building as the epitome of what has been endorsed by both the town’s POCD and its affordability plan.

“We’re not going to make any more changes.”

– Greenwich Communities board chair, Sam Romeo

He said the building would be very well screened, with woods to the east and park and playground to the south.

Mr. Bristol also noted that all the units would count toward the State of Connecticut’s 8-30g requirements. (Greenwich is required to have at least 10% of its housing stock designated affordable per a state formula. For years it has hovered around 5%. Until it achieves 10% or a moratorium, the 8-30g statute will apply and developers can propose buildings that don’t comply with local zoning.)

“In terms of bang for your buck, for this type of project, this is the best location possible,” Mr. Bristol added.

There was a question about the 99 year lease.

“Technically, legally we own it,” said Anthony Johnson the director of Greenwich Communities.

“How is a lease with the town ownership of the land?” asked commissioner Nick Macri.

“For all intents and purposes, the Greenwich Communities has development rights to develop and use the property in accordance with that lease,” Mr. Bristol said.

Greenwich Communities board chair Sam Romeo and director Mr. Johnson both expressed frustration by the high costs of the application process.

The application had previously come before P&Z three times, and ARC three times.

Still, on Tuesday the commission said they continued to have concerns about the look of the building and the traffic report.

Aeriel view of site. Yellow shape is the proposed 52-unit building. (Baseball diamond is Strazza field in adjacent Eugene Morlot Park)

Impacts on Neighbors in 500 Foot Radius

The applicant shared an aerial view of the building to demonstrate that it would be isolated.

“There are no neighbors who live within a 500 ft radius of the building,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s an isolated building. It’s a great spot for affordable housing.”

“I take exception to this,” commissioner Macri said. “I see your tenants live in that radius….Everybody who uses that park is in that radius. There are a lot of people affected by this development on a day to day basis.”

“You can infer anything you like,” Mr. Johnson said. “The picture speaks for itself.”

“I don’t see respect for the existing school building itself, which to me is the primary building on the site. It’s the one that everything should be working off of,” Macri said. “Building around them should demonstrate respect to that historic architecture.”

Architect for the applicant, John Brice, said some, but not all recommendations from the Architectural Review Committee had been adopted.

He said they had changed some of the trim and varied window sizes so they would be less repetitive. Also, he said they detail was added to the roof terrace and the entrance canopy had been changed so it is cantilevered.

They also expanded the island in the parking lot to make it more park-like, with a path connecting the new building to the historic Byram School building.

Mr. Brice explained the mansard was a device to reduce the apparent height of the building.

“There’s only so much you can do to make a building that size look smaller,” he said.

Mr. Macri asked why the tree dedicated to Anne Kristoff didn’t appear on the plans, and whether it would be retained or relocated.

Mr. Brice said he would have to ask the landscape architect.

Mike Kristoff beside the tree planted in memory of his late wife, Anne M. Kristoff, who advocated on behalf of the former Byram School. Sept 29, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

P&Z commissioner Peter Levy applauded the housing authority’s effort and noted the need in Greenwich for affordable housing.

However, he said there was opportunity do more with the architecture, so that it would fit in better.

“Scale is very important here, and there is an opportunity to create a better feeling for how this building sits on this property and relates to the other buildings,” Levy said.

He added that more could be done to create and enhance the courtyard.

“The feeling of this tall and very flat surface that sits so close to the curb line, is (it has) a sense of towering over the over structures.”

“I think the mansard roof does not scale down a four-story building,” he added. “It’s a four story building and nobody would perceive it as anything other.”

“We’ve come so far and everybody is so excited about this,” he continued. “It is very important to reconsider how this building fits into the context of these other buildings.”

Mr. Levy said the proposal needed more work than “changing a window here and there.”

Patience Wearing Thin

“This is a moving target,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’ve done this three times. We cannot afford to keep going back to the drawing board to guess at what appeases everyone. We are going to ask you to vote on the building.”

“It is a large building. It’s going to be a four-story building,” Johnson added. “I think it’s a beautiful building. I think it works. We can’t afford to go back and do this again without someone telling us exactly what you like, in writing, to say that we can do it.”

Mr. Bristol said the applicant was caught in an “endless loop of opinions.”

“In all fairness, it’s not like P&Z is saying something different from ARC,” P&Z chair Margarita Alban said.

Mr. Romeo said, “It is what it is.”

“You can’t see this building unless you drive onto the site. You drive onto Western Jr Highway or the Post Road and you can’t see it. Down by Dorothy Hamill, maybe you can see the top of it.”

“I’m a little disturbed with what went on at ARC. First of all, we were demanding an answer from them for months. After they had an agreement, someone evidently told them not to give us a decision.”

“I don’t think anybody does that,” Alban said. “They make their own decisions.”

“I’ll find out,” Romeo said. “Nobody can find out why, after telling us they would give us a decision. We kept calling them asking for the decision for a month, and we got nothing.”

“Mr. Romeo, let me put it more clearly,” Ms Alban said. “That is their internal workings. It has nothing to do with P&Z.”

“We’ll find that out,” Romeo said.

“You go right ahead,” Alban said. “Nobody here has anything to do with when ARC makes a decision. We don’t meddle in that because they are advisory to us. They can say the sky is pink and we can ignore them. We would have no reason to intervene. I’m surprised you would believe we’d do that.”

The former Byram School, which dates back to 1926, faces Putnam Ave. Photo: Leslie Yager

Public Comment

During public comment, Anne Kristoff, brought up the tree dedicated to her late mother Anne M. Kristoff that the housing authority previously stated was dead, and more recently claimed had been planted without permission.

At the June 9 P&Z meeting, Mr. Johnson said, “The tree can’t be saved. It’s dead.”

“Think about the message you’re sending the community that (the tree) was planted without permission. That conveys a bunch of people coming in the middle of the night with shovels and flashlights illegally planting something, as opposed to a town ceremony that was in the newspapers.”

– Al Shehadi, chair of land use committee for the Byram Neighborhood Association

Anne Kristoff said her mother died in November 1989 and the tree was planted roughly a year later.

“The hulking behemoth nature of this building is disrespectful to the neighborhood and to the existing buildings, and to the feeling of the history,” she said. “My mother fought to save Byram School, which is why Frank Keegan (former director of Greenwich Parks & Rec) wanted to honor her with that tree on that site.”

Further, Ms Kristoff said, “It is not in an isolated neighborhood. It is in a very densely populated, vibrant neighborhood with a lot of history and a lot of people who really care about it.”

“Just because Mr. Johnson doesn’t know who approved (planting the tree), doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong there,” Kristoff added.

Byram Neighborhood Association

Al Shehadi, head of land use for the Byram Neighborhood Association, said the proposed height, scale and massing of the building were all out of place for the neighborhood.

“Nobody is saying don’t build it here,” Shehadi said. “We’re saying build it in the context of the neighborhood.”

Shehadi also disagreed with Mr. Johnson’s comment that there were no neighbors.

“There are neighbors that live on that site. It just communicates a sense that those of us who care about this neighborhood are invisible to you,” Shehadi said.

Third, Shehadi said the BNA was uncomfortable with “a pattern of factually questionable, if not outright false statements that have been made in these hearings.”

“To run through them quickly: That Byram School only has one historic wall. Meals on Wheels is ‘congregate housing.’ The dead tree issue. The building is not visible. A letter to the ZBA saying P&Z had endorsed it,” he said.

“Credibility matters,” Shehadi said. “The cumulative effect of all of these statements does not help with your credibility with the community.”

“Mr. Johnson, think about the message you’re sending the community that (the tree) was planted without permission,” Shehadi said. “That conveys a bunch of people coming in the middle of the night with shovels and flashlights illegally planting something, as opposed to a town ceremony that was in the newspapers.”

As for the request for re-zoning of much more property beyond the building footprint, Shehadi said neighbors were concerned that would open the door to another “inappropriate development” without any level of public accountability.

Zones. Pink is R6, Yellow is existing Elderly Zone. Hatched is proposed expansion of elderly zone. The project requires approval for a “Municipal Improvement” since it is on town land. Greenwich Communities also seeks to change the zone from R6 residential to R-PHD-E, where E is for Elderly. Tenants will be elderly and disabled.

Shehadi asked the commission to deny the application. He said he hoped applicant would return with a smaller project, more in keeping with the neighborhood and only the building footprint be rezoned from R6 to Elderly.

JoAnn Messina, director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said the issue was one of balance of green space, size of building and impact on the neighborhood.

She noted that the tree conservancy was in receipt of a $37,000 grant from the State to plant trees in Byram.

“This is an area that needs green. We have heat island effect. We have flooding issues. We have issues that are getting worse in this area,” Messina said.

Liz Eckert, who is vice chair of the BNA, said that at a previous meeting the applicant noted there was only one local resident with concerns about the proposal.

She pointed out that the BNA represented 350 members.

“They are all opposed to the size of this structure,” she said.

“We’re not going to make any more changes,” Mr. Romeo said. “I know Mr. Macri is a no vote right off the bat. You can either approve this plan or deny it.”

“We put forward our best effort, regardless of people who want to impugn our integrity. Our integrity is solid, that we’ve been honest and straightforward,” Mr. Johnson said.

“We spent a lot of money to redo this. For the record, the last time we attempted to do this, we spent $500,000 on a project at the same site. Here we are again. We’re probably up to $150,000 or $200,000 so far…You either vote it up or down,” Mr. Johnson added.

At the end of the discussion, the applications for the Site Plan and to Rezone to Elderly were closed, but the commission declined to vote.

The commission voted to defer a vote on the third application, which is for Municipal Improvement, until action was taken on the other two items.

See also:

Proposed “Vinci Gardens” Criticized for Height, Mass, Tree Loss, Lack of Respect for Historic Byram School June 10, 2022

P&Z WATCH: Tough Questions Posed for Greenwich Housing Authority’s 52-Unit “Vinci Gardens” Sept 29, 2021

P&Z Watch: Pre-Application Submitted for “Vinci Gardens,” 52 Elderly Apartments in 4 Story, 50,000 sq ft Building in Byram August 6, 2021