At Tuesday’s P&Z meeting Greenwich Academy returned with an updated proposal to combine 96 Maple and 100 Maple into one property where they seek to relocate their Cowan Center, a program for children from 8 weeks old to 4 years old, that services teachers at Greenwich Academy, Brunswick School, and “affiliate families.”
The house is located in the single family R-20 zone. It was granted a Historic Overlay (HO) for a second unit in 1979 in return for preserving the historic structure in perpetuity.
In later years, the house was illegally divided into four units and has four kitchens.
The house at 100 Maple, a flag lot behind 96 Maple was built in 1962, and does not qualify for a Historic Overlay.
In November the Historic District Commission voted unanimously against Greenwich Academy’s proposal. They tossed around questions like whether Greenwich Academy’s plans for ripping out 10-ft rhododendrons and replacing with them Arbor Vitae, adding a playground and multiple parking spaces would be compatible with a two-unit house.
The Cowan Center is currently located at Greenwich Academy’s main campus, and counts toward their maximum Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR).
If they obtain permission to relocate Cowan Center to Maple, which is not contiguous to their campus, that frees up FAR, which will be important for their campus master plan.
Residential or “Industrial/Commercial”?
Maple Ave neighbors turned out in number on Tuesday night. Their main objection was that the area of Maple Ave north of East Putnam Avenue includes 35 residential properties, and that the addition of a daycare for 60 children and 18 staff would neither blend in nor be in keeping with the residential character of the neighborhood.
They also said the traffic is already backed up in all directions in the morning and evening.
Greenwich Academy’s attorney, Bruce Cohen, pushed back, saying the area is actually not purely residential, and has an institutional feel.
Certainly the Second Congregational Church is very busy with its own preschool, AA meetings, suicide bereavement group and more. But the church has been there for a century.
Next door to the church, 48 Maple, another historic building, is home to the Church’s Act II Consignment Boutique, Greenwich Alliance for Education and the Breast Cancer Alliance – all non-profits.
At 76 Maple Ave, the historic Stanton House Inn, which has been in operation for decades, operates as a B&B.
The inn has been legally, historically non conforming since the 1940s.
Mr. Cohen said repeatedly that the inn is commercial operation and the owners advertise their 20 rooms online. He also pointed out that Stanton House Inn recently added a swimming pool.
In fact, according to owner Doreen Pearson, Stanton House Inn merged a lot and received Town approval for the pool more than 26 years ago. It is licensed and inspected by the Town use of overnight guests.
The Blooms sued the Town for giving Stanton House Inn the permit and the Pearson’s for intensifying the legally non-conforming historic use of the property. They lost.
Brunswick School also has property on Maple Ave and would be an immediate neighbor to the Cowan Center if it relocates.
In fact since the last meeting, Brunswick has offered 19 parking spaces for a relocated Cowan Center at 96 Maple. Those spaces reflect that 19 Brunswick staff have 23 kids at Cowan.
Brunswick’s property on Maple was formerly home to their Lower School, but that has moved to King Street. The building now houses the English and Humanities Departments, as well as Admissions for the Upper School.
The Brunswick parking lot has about 50 spaces and is used by the school’s fleet of vans and buses that transport their students up to King Street.
Further down, there is a medical professional building at 11 Maple, which neighbors said is likely the most recent property to receive permission to operate as a commercial concern, and as such is an anomaly.
P&Z acting chair Margarita Alban said the intent of the Historic Overlay for 96 Maple was residential, and granted a second residential unit in the original single family dwelling.
“You are proposing to change the character and intent of the HO approved 40 years ago,” Alban said.
Alban noted that the previous owner had applied for permission for an elderly apartment in the house and after he was denied, proceeded anyway to create a total of 4 residential units.
“By adding this daycare it becomes an institutional use,” Alban said. “To me you are changing the residential intent.”
“When you add that playground to the rear, you are to me converting that property to an institutional use,” she continued. “It would be so simple if you kept it residential and made it four units. You could do that by merging the properties. Once you’ve merged the two properties, you can keep the house in the back (100 Maple) and you can do three units in 96.”
“I suggest you overlook clear evidence that this is at least a semi institutional area,” Cohen said to the commission.
Mr. Cohen said that Greenwich Academy had been meeting with neighbors and had significantly modified their plans since the last P&Z meeting.
Originally Greenwich Academy proposed two playgrounds at 96 maple. They are now proposing just one playground in response to feedback from Ed Bloom, whose property is on a flag lot at 94 Maple, immediately to the rear of 96.
Also, the turnaround area has been moved 25 feet to the east and 10 feet to the north so that it is not in the front yard of 100 Maple.
Third, the number of residential units upstairs at 96 has been reduced from 3 to 2, which also reduces the overall requirement for parking.
Cohen also pointed out that the apartments will be for Greenwich Academy staff who will be in walking distance to the main campus.
Head of School, Molly King was asked for an overview of the school’s master campus plan.
She said the lower school was built in the early 1970s. “It is an aging building and doesn’t smell very good,” she said, adding teaching and learning have evolved, and focus more on open flexible spaces that support collaborative and small group learning options.
She said as part of the master plan GA looked at functions not directly connected to grades 1-12, including the Cowan Center, which she said was was established in the 90s as a faculty benefit offering subsidized pre-K and daycare to GA employees. She said the Cowan Center serves 60 children including affiliate families who are families one with a child at GA or Brunswick, and that those families assists financially.
Ms. King said the current Cowan Center is outdated. Located in what is known as the carriage house, the building is old and has inconsistent temperatures between rooms, and has a steep set of stairs to be navigated by toddlers.
She said its current location in the midst of the lower school parking lot is a safety concern.
King said relocating Cowan Center to 96 Maple it also “allows us to leverage current FAR on our main campus. That came out of this master plan for campus.”
She said the master plan does not include an increase in enrollment for the school overall or the Cowan Center.
She said the school has been reducing the number of cars that come on campus, and as for students, only the 80 seniors are allowed to drive.
“We also encourage ride share and walking, and they implemented ride shuttles to the Greenwich and Stamford train stations to pick up students and faculty in the school’s vans,” King said, adding that they are also in their second year of providing bus service at the school’s expense to transport students to and from other parts of town.
Later, Mr. Macri asked GA’s attorney Mr. Cohen about the status of the school’s FAR.
“Currently with the structures that exist on the main campus, is there an FAR issue right now?
“No,” Cohen replied.
“You have excess FAR on the site?” Macri asked.
“Yes,” Cohen said, adding that the move of Cowan Center yields extra FAR. Cohen said schools “live and die by FAR.”
Molly King spoke about teacher housing. She said 40% of GA teachers – 40 to 50 out of 180 teachers – live on GA properties, with the largest concentration living on Northfield and Division Street.
She said the house at 96 Maple also provides much-needed housing for GA teachers who work well beyond the scope of the day, necessitating they live nearby to fully support the GA experience. She said finding affordable housing for teachers is a challenge.
“Recruiting and retaining top teachers is extremely competitive for schools, and for many, the cost of living in Greenwich is an immediate eliminator from consideration. Providing housing and subsidize daycare is a game changer for Greenwich Academy’s’s ability to recruit and retain top teachers.”
Maureen Corbo, a 6th grade English teacher at Greenwich Academy with children in the Cowan Center, testified at length on the wonders of the Cowan Center, including their “baby whisperers.”
Afterward, neighbor Louie Perkins a neighbor on Boxwood Lane, a dead end between Stanton House and 96 Maple said he thought Mrs. Corbo’s comments were “fantastic arguments for keeping everything on the campus.”
“This is a .6 acre property. Their campus is 39 acres,” he said. “I heard nothing except we need teacher housing. …This makes no sense.”
Traffic and Parking
Greenwich Academy’s traffic consultant, John Canning said moving the Cowan Center from the main Campus to 96 Maple would not worsen traffic. He said most staff will park at GA and not at 96 Maple.
“It won’t add trips to Greenwich. The move involves less than a half mile,” Canning said, adding that Greenwich Academy would offer a shuttle. “It will be either a mini school bus or van. I’ll make sure it can turn around.”
Canning also said, “All children will be picked up and dropped off at this site in their parents’ cars. When they arrive, they can park and walk their children in. Or they can pull in, turn around, drive out through the porte cochère, where there will be a staff member to take the child in.”
Canning said that at 96 Maple, currently there are 8 parking spaces, and 17 are proposed, including 4 for the apartments and 13 to accommodate parents who park and walk their children in, as well as parking for an administrator and assistant administrator.
Canning argued all these changes, including Brunswick’s offer of 19 parking spaces to Cowan, means traffic won’t increase and there will be plenty of parking.
The commission said they’d like to know how many of the trips on behalf of the 60 children at Cowan Center were for children of Greenwich Academy teachers.
Ms. Alban said Greenwich Academy had argued that in order to recruit teachers, it is important to offer the childcare facility.
P&Z director Katie DeLuca had asked whether the Cowan Center is part of Greenwich Academy, considering so many children there are not children of GA teachers. She noted that not all non-GA children are invited to attend GA when they age out of Cowan Center.
“Is it GA or is it Cowan Center?” DeLuca asked at the Monday briefing. “It can’t be both.”
Ms. Alban pointed out that future enrollment might include fewer children of Greenwich Academy teachers, and more from the broader community.
“Our issue is, today it is Greenwich Academy. What happens if in future you’re taking more children from the broader community and changing the traffic pattern?” she asked.
Canning offered that Greenwich Academy planned move the Cowan Center’s start time back from 7:15am to 7:00am because there is a rush at 8:00am.
He said that at 7:00am there is 50% less traffic. “By moving the start time, you are taking those folks out of the peak hour,” he said.
Also, Canning said, “Based on our current numbers the most parents at any time is 10. The kids get dropped of sequentially, not all at the same time. In doorway surveys we found the most parents at Cowan Center at one time was 10 even though there are 60 children.”
The commission said that the current Cowan Center can accommodate a queue, whereas on Maple Ave, any overflow in would spill out onto Maple.
“We will look at it and come back,” Canning said. “But we live in a sustainable world where people have to share resources.”
Other neighbors spoke out against the proposal, including Doreen Pearson, owner of Stanton House Inn, who said there is not enough parking. She said the school already rents parking spaces by Second Congregational Church, behind the Woman’s Club, and at her Stanton House Inn.
Also testifying were attorneys hired separately by two neighbors.
James Fulton, representing neighbors he would only identify as “Maple Avenue Associates, LLC,” asserted that the regulations do not allow a daycare and pre school at 96 Maple based on the Historic Overlay designation.
He said requirements for HO zones are spelled out in regulation 6-109(c) under “Standards” and that in the R-20 zone, the regulations do not allow changes to a non-residential use, though additional dwelling units may be authorized.
Section 6-109(d) says a special permit is allowed for a new non-residential use only when the property is within 1,000 feet of a non-residential zone. He said 96 Maple is not within 1,000 ft.
In any event Fulton said the HO designation precludes a non-residential use.
Ms. Alban asked Mr. Cohen about the HO.
“It seems pretty clear that the intent of the commission was for 96 Maple to be residential and to eliminate broadening the uses of 96 Maple. In fact, there was one accessory use and a second was requested and denied,” she said.
Alban said the proposal was not consistent in her view with the original HO approval, and of course, the Historic District Commission’s vote last month was unanimously opposed to the proposal.
Mr. Cohen said the whole issue of whether 96 Maple is in a residential or an institutional neighborhood “depends on who says it and what time they say it.”
“I’m sure the folks who live there think it’s residential but it’s clearly an institutional neighborhood,” he said.
“Ms. Pearson talks about her little hotel, which she markets actively online,” Cohen said. “Their website shows how eager they are to rent these 20 rooms.”
Also, attorney Chip Haslun representing Andrew and Kim Gesell, said years ago his clients fought against Mr. Costas’ Historic Overlay and at the time argued that Brunswick was “encroaching and ruining the residential character.”
“They opposed it vociferously for a number of years. There were a lot of conditions placed on the use of the property, including, staggering drop off and pick up, an enrollment cap, and the number of cars that come in at any time. There were also promises of busing. Is that forgotten now that there is going to be 19 spots offered to Cowan?” he asked.
Further, Haslun said no other institutional uses have been introduced to he Maple Ave community except for a dentist office, which was illegally built. “And the guy had to rent it out to a non-profit for 10 years as punishment,” he said.
Mr. Haslun said the Maple Ave community has maintained its residential quality with some grandfathered special exception uses.
“This will serve Greenwich Academy and Brunswick teachers and possibly some others, but you’re threatening what is a pretty good balance,” he added. “To characterize it as an institutional area is just wrong. I think this is an encroachment to allow GA to push down into this residential zone.”
Haslun said Attorney Costas struck his deal for two units and allowed his property to be restricted in perpetuity for two dwelling units. “He knew what he was bargaining for,” Haslun said, agreeing with attorney Fulton that the HO is for residential.
“Greenwich Academy is wanting to double dip,” he continued.
Former director of P&Z, Diane Fox, who is working with attorney Fulton to represent Maple Ave Associates, echoed the concern about double-dipping. “Where are these 19 spaces coming from?” she asked about the Brunswick offering spaces next door. “Are we double dipping into the same parking spaces?”
“Also there is no plan to show where those 19 parking spaces are. There are buses parked there during the day and at night, so it’s not clear where all this parking will come from,” she said.
Ms. Fox said that if cars heading north on Maple and trying to make a left turn into 96 Maple, “That is something you might want more information on.”
As for the HO at 96, and the lot merge with 100 Maple, she said, “The house at 100 Maple Ave was build in 1960s, so we can’t allow the HO to superimpose on that.”
Bill Galvin, whose three sons went to Brunswick and daughter attended Greenwich Academy, said he has lived at 136 Maple Ave for 20 years. He said it is located at the tricky intersection of Maple, North Street, North Maple and Patterson, and that the traffic in the morning and afternoon is thick.
He suggested Greenwich Academy’s overall goal is in moving the Cowan Center in order to add FAR to their main campus.
“This plan to relocate the Cowan Center is being driven by GA’s desire to leverage the FAR on the main campus,” he said.
Galvin said the school has grown and grown, calling attorney Cohen’s comment that the school’s reach has changed little since 1950 disingenuous.
“That is materially incorrect and misleading,” he said. “In that period, GA has acquired at least 12 residential and other properties, added significantly to its student population, and expanded the size/scope of the physical plant at 200 North Maple Ave.”
Ellen Brennan Galvin of 136 Maple Ave said that years ago when she received HO for a single accessory apartment, the understanding was that the streetscape could not change.
She said if Greenwich Academy gets their way, many mature trees will be taken down and a new driveway installed between 96 Maple and Brunswick next door, certainly altering the streetscape.
As for GA’s description of the neighborhood as institutional, she balked, noting there are 35 residential properties in the neighborhood, many located on flag lots.
“Where successive POCD’s have emphasized the key mission of preserving residential neighborhoods, what GA is now proposing is exactly the opposite,” she said. “GA has an endowment of well in excess of $200 million and is in the process of a $75 million capital campaign. This is truly a David vs Goliath case. Long term residents and newer residents should not be forced to hire costly lawyers to preserve their quality of life.”
Mrs. Galvin described the traffic study conducted by Kinsley Horn & Associates as “so deeply flawed as to be laughable.”
As for the offer from Brunswick of 19 spaces, she said, “This number is a moving target since it relates to the Brunswick faculty families currently using the Cowan Center. That could change significantly in the future.”
Also she said the spots are within Brunswick’s transit hub to its King Street campus, with numerous parents and school buses coming and going in the early morning.
She said delays in dropping off small children could easily cause queuing traffic to back up onto Maple Ave, a major artery into downtown Greenwich that accommodates not only vehicular traffic from the Merritt and beyond, but also a steady stream of commercial and heavy construction vehicles.
Bill Galvin also challenged Cohen’s assertion that Maple has a commercial nature.
“The reality is that there have been no non-residential changes on Maple Avenue in 40 years,” he said.
He also challenged the applicant’s traffic study, which said traffic would not be worsened. He said that when he went out to pick up his newspaper around 7:00am that morning, traffic was backed up by 15 cars in all directions.
“The daycare is an employee benefit for GA – there is no benefit to the neighborhood from the addition of up to 60 young children, 18 caregivers and the daily traffic disruption on an already busy Maple Avenue from multiple drop-offs/pick ups,” Galvin said adding that babies and toddlers are not UPS packages.
Finally, Galvin said, “I would like to present the Pinocchio Award to Mr. Cohen who, in a letter to P&Z dated Oct 26, 2018, suggested that the 96 Maple project ‘will breathe new life into a building that has been vacant for over a year and allowed to deteriorate.'”
He noted GA owns a historic house at 2 Patterson, which it has neglected for many years. In fact he said the neighbors call it “the ghost house.”
“GA’s residential property at 2 Patterson was the subject of a P&Z hearing in July 2009 at which time Mr. Cohen said, ‘The school maintains its properties, all of its properties, beautifully.’ The reality is the 2 Patterson Ave property – aka ‘the ghost house’ – has been vacant and abandoned by GA for 9 years and is now headed for demolition,” Galvin said.
At the end of the lengthy discussion, attorney Cohen said the applicant would like an extension and a chance to provide additional information to the commission. The application was left open. Watch this space.
More P&Z coverage from Jan 8: