At Tuesday’s P&Z commission briefing in advance of Wednesday’s full meeting, there was discussion of the DeSegregate CT “Transit Oriented Communities” legislative proposal – the Work Live Ride Act (It has yet to be assigned a bill number.)
The legislative proposal will be presented to the commission on Wednesday at 4:00pm.
Dubbed “Work Live Ride,” DeSegregate CT wants to get involved with local P&Z commissions earlier than they did for previous legislative proposals.
The commissioners on Tuesday found it curious that the proposal calls for 30 homes per acre in “Rapid Transit Communities” with populations over 60,000.
Greenwich’s population is roughly 62,000 and has been at that level for many years.
They also noted that terms in the proposal “reasonable” and “eligible” were soft terms for which they’d want to know the explicit meaning.
P&Z chair Margarita Alban said she had promised to pass along the commission’s questions to Desegregate CT in advance of Wednesday.
Bob Barolak questioned philosophy behind the proposal. Noting the 60,000 population threshold put Greenwich in the same category as Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Stamford – cities that Greenwich does not consider to be peers.
Mary Jenkins noted that in his presentation to North Stonington, Pete Harrison, director of Desegregate CT, had said there were 40 municipalities that fell within that 60,000+ category.
“I would love to know what the geographic distribution is,” Jenkins said.
“It’s inconceivable that it’s 40,” Barolak said.
“We’re the 7th largest in the state,” Alban said. “It is an urban concept – the 30 per acre.”
She said the two lots near Greenwich train station with potential for development – the Island Beach Lot and the Horseneck lot – were built on landfill and both are in flood zones.
Beyond those two lots, most land around the train station is already built out.
“We’re looking at what would be a redevelopment opportunity otherwise. The model, in my mind, is based either for urban areas or for people like Wilton that don’t have a downtown.”
“It is still too ‘one-size-fits-all,'” Alban added.
Peter Lowe questioned whether the importance of locating high density housing by rail stations had been reconsidered, given train ridership had dropped. “Are the people they’re trying to serve going to use the train line?”
Alban said her understanding was that the idea was not to assume everyone would jump on the train to New York City. “Their model is to build a district that’s around transit as a concept,” Alban said.
Mr. Larow said a goal was likely to create a district where cars weren’t necessary.
Infrastructure funding should be the carrot, not the stick.
Per the proposal, if a town does not opt-in and create a TOC, they would be ineligible for discretionary state funding tied to infrastructure – a “stick.”
The commissioners agreed that instead of withholding infrastructure funding as punishment for a town not opting in, it might make more sense to offer it as an incentive, or a “carrot,” to use the language of Desegregate CT.
Desegregate CT’s plan is to ask the state for funding for 4 full time land use planners for the Office of Responsible Growth, plus additional discretionary funding to oversee development plans.
Mr. Barolak said he’s like to see a list of the discretionary infrastructure funding programs alluded to in the proposal.
“My guess is Greenwich gets $1 to $2 million a year in these programs. But the way they structured this, it’s kind of like I used to say to my kids, instead of saying, ‘I will give you an extra scoop of ice cream if you’re really good,’ what they’re saying is, ‘You don’t get any ice cream at all unless you’re good.'”
Alban pointed to the sentence in the draft that says towns that opt-in “shall be eligible” for state resources.
She noted that Greenwich was a very old town, fully built out, and without enough infrastructure money. “And people assume Greenwich has money,” she said.
“Can you assure us that if we were to opt in and we needed sewer infrastructure that we could somehow get it?” she wondered.
“Show me the money,” Barolak said. “Is this legislature going to put more money into programs that towns who opt in can get at? Or is it just going to be depriving us of dessert that we’ve been getting all along?”
Mr. Lowe said he was concerned the only option would be to redevelop existing an established neighborhood.
“From what I understand, you would say, this is the district, and then a developer can come down and tear down everything in the district and propose the 30-units per acre density,” Alban said. “This should not be as-of-right. It should be by special permit.”
Alban said if special permit standards were required P&Z could bring in the Dept of Public Works and Wetlands for example, and involve them in the process.
“As-of-right is a very big thing given infrastructure and environmental concerns we have.”
A Social Experiment that Might Fail?
Peter Levy said the proposal was a “fascinating shell game.” He wondered if a TOC development might fail to attract residents and become a dinosaur in 15-20 years.
“Desegregate CT is a social experiment, to put it nicely,” Levy said. “It’s a conundrum. There’s no real good reason for this legislation.”
Alban said Greenwich was a “net importer of jobs,” with more jobs than workers living in town.
“There is an argument for us offering housing options, but the question is if this is the right one?” she asked.
Mary Jenkins said she was concerned about the proposed legislation’s use of the word “reasonable.”
“Reasonable people could disagree,” Jenkins said, adding that she wondered of the Office of Responsible Growth would provide guidelines or if “reasonable” varied depending on the town or city.
“Reasonable is such a soft term,” she said.
“The big thing to me is, if you really think this is a carrot instead of a stick, how much money are you going to lobby the legislature to put into this program that is not already there?” Barolak asked.
“We need infrastructure money,” Alban said, noting that the area around exit 3 would be a great place for housing, but had traffic, flooding and sewer problem.
Housing for The Missing Middle
Alban and Barolak agree there was a need for more housing options in Greenwich, and emphasized the need to house “the missing middle.”
Both Peter Levy and Peter Lowe said, given the scale of what Desegregate CT was proposing they were concerned there would be a point at which the market was saturated.
“We want natural based market growth that meets regulations,” Mr. Levy said, praising market oriented development. “If we allow the kind of growth that Desegregate wants, it’s just opening up the spigot and allowing everything and anything to happen… It puts tremendous pressure on the town… It would be a disaster.”
Barolak said he believed since the housing would be restricted to people at 80% of AMI – Area Median Income – it would “fill up ten times til Sunday.”
Alban agreed. “That’s $150,000 a year, that’s what we call ‘the missing middle.'”
Mr. Levy worried about “opening up the spigot.”
“We’re not trying to urbanize our community. We want natural market-based growth that meets regulations,” he said. “It would be a disaster and was during urban renewal (in NYC). There were so many projects that just failed.”
Alban said there were definitely gaps in housing in different income brackets.
“If we were to try to achieve 30 units per acre in a half-mile radius around the train station, after you subtracted all the places you can’t build, we would have to build 6,000 units.”
“We can’t do 6,000 units. But the person from Desegregate CT said you don’t have to do the entire half mile,” she noted.
“We know that people are commuting in to teach in our schools, to work on our police force and to work in town hall, even if it’s only from Stamford,” she continued, but she added that many of them are not looking for an apartment, but rather a house with a yard.
“Desegregate CT, at 30 units, we would have to create 6,000 units. My take is that’s too much,” Alban said.
Mr. Levy said his reservation with affordable and low income high rises like the ones in NYC, is there is no “next place to move up to” as families’ needs change.
“In these high rises people are trapped for generations without being able to move up and out, and it creates a slum,” he said.
“Why 60,000?” Barolak asked, noting the only way to achieve the target is to build vertically. “I’m not sure that because we have a train station that we should be compelled to build high rises.”
Mr. Lowe wondered if Desegregate CT had come to the 60,000 number by working backwards to create legislation aimed at Greenwich.
“One of the issues is we don’t see ourselves as a city, and we don’t want to be one,” Alban said.
P&Z director Patrick Larow said the infrastructure funding incentives should be the carrot, not the stick. He said that otherwise the legislation would amount to an unfunded mandate.
Alban said at least this time around Desegregate was seeking input.
“It’s a distinction without a difference,” Levy said.
The format for Wednesday’s commission meeting is Desegregate CT will present their proposal, P&Z will ask questions, and lastly members of the public will have 2 or 3 minutes each to comment. A large number of public comments is anticipated.
Click here for the Feb 22 P&Z agenda and Zoom link.