On Wednesday the P&Z commission discussed a pre-application for a seven-story, 192-unit 8-30g affordable housing development that would replace the building with Townhouse Restaurant, two commercial buildings and several historic houses that date back to the late 1800s. There were 127 people in attendance via Zoom.
Per 8-30g, the developer is exempt from local zoning regulations if 30% of the units are set aside for Affordable housing, unless the commission feels there are health, safety, environmental or other major concerns that would outweigh the town’s need for affordable housing.
Concerns raised included capacity of infrastructure, including sewers, environmental issues and traffic.
One neighbor’s letter to P&Z cited a deed that gives just 5 properties access to Putnam Court, and that does not include most of the properties that will be combined for “34 Church Street.”
Many members of the public spoke about how difficult it is to navigate Church Street and Sherwood under existing conditions, and the implications of 192 units, particularly with Greenwich Hospital around the corner and the need to get there quickly.
Also, there was discussion about the project being right in the middle of the Historic Fourth Ward district.
The applicants were represented by attorney Chip Haslun who started by listing the 11 properties owned by Church/Sherwood LLC that would be torn down.
He said there would be an underground level of parking (117 spaces) and one at grade (118 spaces) accessed via Putnam Court or Church Street.
The first floor would have amenities including a pool, courtyard, lounge, fitness center and kitchen for use of tenants. The rooftop would have a recreational area.
Haslun said the intent was to create a “contextual architectural design” that would blend in with the “adjacent” 4th Ward Neighborhood.
“You’re building in the very middle of the 4th Ward,” said P&Z commission Chair Margarita Alban. “The 4th Ward became a National Register Historic District in the year 2000.”
Ms Alban said 9 of the 11 structures are on the list of contributing structures. She asked the applicant to include an environmental assessment of the impact to the National Register Historic District.
She cited in CT’s general statutes, the CT Environmental Policy Act, chapter 439, Sec 22a: 19 and 19a, refers to “unreasonable destruction of landmarks of the state.”
“What I read is, ‘The court is not holding that historic factors – height, density or scenic vistas individually outweigh the need for affordable housing. Rather, it is the combination of all these factors,'” she said.
She said the applicant’s environmental assessment should include the possibility of demolishing National Register structures in a National Register neighborhood.
“The point the judge made in the Stonington decision is that historic preservation, when it is a National Register District, does rise to a protection of a resource in the state of great importance,” Alban continued. “Obviously you have to balance it with the other factors and the need for affordable housing which is also significant. It is important to consider protecting heritage.”
The applicant shared a slide with a list of several tall buildings in the neighborhood.
Commissioner Nick Macri noted the first tall building was built in 1925 and continued to 1939. From there the next tall building was built in 1949. “That seems to be the gap for World War Two.”
While attorney Haslun said some time in the 1950s Greenwich changed its zoning regulations following discussion about whether to have a zoning limit of four or six stories.
Mr. Macri asked the applicant to do further research into what happened after 1949, and why the trend to build tall buildings ended.
“Was it a wholesale change in zoning, or the thoughts about the citizens of Greenwich of tall buildings? We want to understand why we didn’t continue this,” Macri said.
Macri also asked the applicant to return with street elevations to get a sense of the height of buildings along Church and Sherwood. He said a “shadow map” would also be appreciated.
“Is this going to create a situation where we have now nice bright sunny areas, but now we’ll have shadow all day?” he asked.
Commissioner Dennis Yeskey asked if the applicant had had conversations with the town Engineering and Sewers Departments about town sewers.
“Not just the project hookup, but the downstream flows. That has turned out to be a major issue related to public health,” he said.
Mr. Yeskey asked about the property owned by the Exchange for Women’s Work at 28 Sherwood at the corner of Putnam Court, which is not part of the application.
“We’ve been in discussions with the Women’s Exchange, but I’m not privy to those discussions,” Haslun said. “At the moment it’s not part of the plan.”
“That’s a hold out?” Yeskey asked.
“We’ve had lovely discussions with them, from what I understand,” Haslun said adding that Putnam Court would be an access way to the development.
That may be challenged.
The P&Z application file includes an Oct 7, 2021 memo from the Greenwich Exchange for Women’s Work to town planner Katie Deluca saying the Exchange has “lawful, duly recorded deed rights to Putnam Place, also known as Putnam Court.”
The memo says, at present Putnam Place is a narrow strip of paved land running about 180-190 ft, flanked on both sides with pedestrian walks.
“It appears barely wide to accommodate two-way vehicular traffic,” they wrote.
The memo says the development appears to incorporate Putnam Place into the northeast corner of their preliminary plan as a public access for the entire development, which amalgamates 11 properties abounding or near Putnam Place, even though the deed gives exclusive use to only five properties: 1, 2, 3, and 4 Putnam Court (four of the 11 properties included in development), and The Exchange for Women’s Work at 28 Sherwood.
They say use of Putnam Place for the development could be detrimental to the Exchange, which has continuously, without interruption, used Putnam Place for volunteer, supplier and retail customer parking and as a drive.
“Any loss of parking could irrevocably and negatively impact The Exchange’s existence…” they wrote.
And while the building that houses Townhouse Restaurant is not one of the five properties with deeded access to Putnam Court, the memo says The Exchange has accommodated the restaurant for use of Putnam Place in the evenings, though that is revocable at any time.
The memo says that in the past, “at the goading of an earlier one particular owner of several of the properties, namely, Luca Gabriele,” they allowed the restaurant to use Putnam Court in the evenings.
During public comment, Silvia Gentile said the seven story Town & Country building has 100 units, which is half the number proposed by the applicant.
She said cars have to pull to the side of Church Street so oncoming traffic can pass, and the development would worsen that. Ms Gentile said the parking count was unrealistic for such a large building (1.25 cars for a two bedroom unit and 1.5 cars for a three-bedroom unit) and would likely spill over to on street parking.
She said there was inadequate already on street parking for existing residents who need it.
Greenwich Communities (formerly the Greenwich Housing Authority) board chair Sam Romeo testified in opposition to the development.
“I think this application is an abuse of 8-30g to the extent you’re building a lot of one bedroom apartments. It really doesn’t serve working families.”
Romeo said in order to achieve about 56 affordable units, about 135 market rate units would be added, in turn increasing the town’s overall housing stock and the number of affordable units required to achieve 10%.
“We’re like dogs chasing our tail,” he added.
Francine Gingras, who represented the board of the Town & Country condo association, said her building had been in the Fourth Ward since 1945. She said the architecture was fitting to the neighborhood.
The Town & Country building is seven stories, with 100 homes and 150+ residents.
“How is it okay to bottleneck our streets?” she asked.
Ms Alban said, “I keep wondering if we need to re-evaluate two way traffic on Church and Sherwood if we’re going to have this kind of development. …It’s early days yet.”
The applicant was also asked to do a traffic study with data noting peak hours and ways to mitigate traffic.
Gingras noted the POCD says affordable housing should fit seamlessly into neighborhoods.
“How is the displacement of 11 current rental units and their residents, who would most likely be considered for affordable housing be considered seamless? Can’t you consider using those 11 units to add to our state’s 10% quota versus having to build 192 additional units to get 47 (affordable units)?”
Diane Fox from the Greenwich Preservation Network argued historic preservation issues were just as important as the need for pubic health and safety.
She said the 8-30g statute refers to, “the decision for the commission is necessary to protect substantial Public interests in health, safety or other matters which the commission may legally consider … such public interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing; and such public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development” (bold added for emphasis).
“We suggest that historic preservation of the National Register District structures is that legal consideration,” Fox continued, adding that the development should be reduced in size and scale to protect the contributing buildings in the Fourth Ward.
She said her group recommended the application be reviewed by Greenwich’s Historic District Commission.