Greenwich Hospital’s proposed 54,865 sq ft Smilow Cancer Center, which endured almost a dozen public hearings in front of the Planning Zoning Commission and Architectural Review Committee over a year and a half, was rejected Tuesday afternoon in a special meeting.
The hospital proposed a 54,865 sq ft Smilow Cancer Center. (For reference the Bendheim Cancer center is 21,000 sq ft.)
During public comment from about a dozen neighbors, there were mostly negative comments.
“The hospital acquired these private homes. It’s affected the residential character of the neighborhood in a negative way. With the hospital’s decision to replace homes with a large building, the safety has been compromised,” said neighbor Dale Lewis.
Patrice McCann said traffic was already congested. She said sometimes it takes two traffic lights to get from Lafayette onto Putnam Ave. “I feel the (applicant’s) traffic study is false. I want the commission to know it’s a mess and will get worse.”
McCann said over the years the hospital had encroached on the residential neighborhood. “We’re not going to have a residential neighborhood if this passes,” she added.
Another neighbor, Karen Fassuliotis, said, “I can’t say the hospital has been a good neighbor recently. There are constantly cars making u-turns on Perryridge because they’ve missed the hospital, most have New York plates.”
“The hospital states they own the property and they can re-purpose it or sell it to build a satellite elsewhere,” Fassuliotis continued. “Satellite facilities seem to be the model with most hospitals….really the location is more for the convenience of doctors to walk across the street and the convenience of patients. The doctors seemed to indicate they shouldn’t have to drive 10 to 15 minutes to get to a satellite facility.”
“Reject this application today,” she said.
After nearly three hours, the commissioners took a series of three votes in response to the three parts of the application.
First was a rezoning from RMF (multi family) of 7 properties the hospital had purchased along Lake Avenue to the H2 (Hospital zone).
The vote on the rezoning was a split vote with 3 of 5 members voting against the rezoning.
This was a de facto denial. To pass would require 4 votes.
Voting against the rezoning were Commission Chair Margarita Alban and Commissioners Dennis Yeskey and Victoria Goss.
Voting to approve the rezoning were Commissioner Peter Levy and Secretary Nick Macri.
Commissioner Yeskey argued passionately that changing the zone to H2 was in direct contradiction to the 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
Mr. Yeskey pointed out how the hospital had already made 500 West Putnam Avenue a satellite for services and said that if the application were declined, that the hospital would not go away, but rather find other locations in town.
Attorney Tom Heagney for the applicant questioned whether there would also be residential neighborhood opposition to a Smilow Cancer Center on Route 1.
He noted adjacent residential opposition to a mixed use development at 581 and 585 West Putnam Ave an empty office building and former night club respectively.
“Their proposal was for a four story 44 unit apartment building. Comments were that traffic was already too heavy, the building was too large, that it goes against what our community represents and have tried to preserve. And that’s a property on a state highway,” he said. “If it can’t go here, where would it go? Port Chester or Stamford? This is the place it needs to go. It needs to go there for clinical trials and for patient safety and treatment. To think it needs to go somewhere else I think is not realistic.”
Heagney pointed out that the applicant had made many changes and scaled back the building considerably. Originally the proposal was for an 80,000 sq ft building. It was scaled back to 54,000 sq ft, with changes to landscaping and architecture in response to P&Z an ARC.
Heagney also said the proposed building worked with the topography of the site and had a larger first floor, to a great extent underground, creating a lower profile on Lafayette place.
He said they were asking for a bigger footprint in order not to have a taller building.
Heagney also noted the healing garden, which is considered part of building footprint was largely landscaped.
The commission chair responded by saying that the Smilow Cancer Center application was different because it wasn’t adjacent to but rather in a residential neighborhood.
Commissioner Macri, who voted yes on the rezoning, said he viewed H2 and RMF (multi family) as equivalent given that both allow 4 story buildings and maximum FAR.
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s the same nuts and bolts of zoning. On a 94,000 sq ft piece of property you can get 39 housing units. Who knows what type of generation of traffic that would be or what it would look like on the site.”
Commissioner Victoria Goss talked about the balance of two POCD goals: having the best quality health services and retaining community character and sense of place.
She talked about preventing commercial impacts and activities on residential zones. “If the zone change would convert a residential to H2 zone, this is an encroachment on a residential zone,” she said, going on to mention both issues for the neighbors of noise and safety.
“Even with the admirable neighborhood advisory council, there would be adverse effects on residential life in the area,” she added.
Lastly, Goss said, “The hospital does have alternatives. This use is allowed in at least 4 other zones in Greenwich. The hospital claims the center must be in walking distance of current hospital. I’m not convinced by that argument.”
Ms Alban noted that everyone agreed that Greenwich Hospital was a benefit to the community and that no one opposed the hospital’s services, but rather disagreed with putting the building on this particular site.
She agreed the zoning issue was driven by the 2019 POCD, which put a priority emphasis on “preserving Greenwich as a premiere residential community.” She pointed out that the POCD had passed overwhelmingly by a vote before the RTM.
Mr. Yeskey said that the commission had gone out of its way in the past to encourage applications to convert office space to residential.
“And, we’re big time now into affordable (housing), which is residential. Multi family, by the way, is residential,” he added in reference to the existing properties being zoned RMF.
Director of P&Z Katie Deluca asked whether the hospital had considered mixing residential units for staff into the proposed cancer center. Mr. Heagney said they had not.
Mr. Yeskey noted how the applicant had referred to the properties as “mixed use.”
“The definition of this area being ‘mixed use’ is at best confusing,” he said, noting that ‘mixed use’ referred to a definition in the regulations. “Look at the POCD. There is a bright line somewhere. We keep saying we don’t want commercial to encroach on residential. This is several blocks off the Post Road. It has been encroaching.”
“It’s a tough decision,” Yeskey said, adding that if the properties were not zoned H2 (hospital zone) and Greenwich Hospital instead proposed a mixed use development with residential and medical offices, and possibly treatment or research areas, it would not “overpower” the neighborhood and not “potentially take it over.”
After the split 3-2 vote against rezoning to the hospital zone, the Ms Alban said she’d like the commission to have a little more unity.
Attorney Heagney, in his closing remarks said, “It’s important to have these services in one place to have synergy of hospital resources, doctors, and being able to serve patients all in one place.”
Diane Kelly, hospital CEO, said that it was important that clinical trials in the Smilow Cancer Center be near the hospital.
“I recognize on everyone’s part that this has been a very thorough process and an important process,” Kelly said. “I’m very proud of Smilow. It was named by US News & World Report’s best hospital rankings as the number one comprehensive cancer in Connecticut.”
“I do understand, nobody objects to providing the best possible cancer care,” she continued. “What I’m hearing is the objection to the location. I understand that. We worked really hard to make the location more palatable so we can coexist.”
Ms Kelly added that the hospital had made many concessions throughout the process, which she noted were very costly.
She said the hospital had listened to residential neighbors’ complaints and responded.
“We’ve heard multiple complaints about noise. We’ve changed when we do (generator) testing. We are responding. We’re not perfect. We’ll continue to strive to be better,” she said.
“This building is more aesthetically pleasing than the ones we’d be replacing,” she added.
Ms Kelly emphasized that the proposed location was important.
“Having access to clinical trials requires physicians to be close by in the event of a reaction,” she added, noting that clinical trials can be the last hope for patients and that the rates of cancer were increasing.
After the split vote on the rezoning, the other votes did have unity.
The second was the application for a text amendment to increase maximum building coverage.
The vote was 5-0 to deny the text amendment.
The third vote was on the application for a site plan and special permit.
Ms Alban said she was aware the applicant had done a great deal to modify the building in response to feedback and the landscaping received rave reviews form ARC.
“But the proposed site coverage is in excess of what is now allowed in the zone,” she said adding that she had concerns about the surrounding neighborhood, and that the cancer center would encroach on them.
She also mentioned parking. “We’ve also addressed a very tight parking situation that’ll be handled by a valet and an app. We’re aware that it will be tight.”
As for traffic, she said he also had concerns about whether the applicant’s estimates of trip generation would be greater than anticipated.
The vote was 5-0 to deny the site plan and special permit.
After all three votes, Ms Alban said, “I know you all wandered around with your POCDs under your arms all week. This is probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made on the commission and I expect many of you feel the same way.”