Since the 192-unit 8-30g affordable housing development proposed for Church Street and Sherwood Place came more clearly into focus last week, controversy has intensified.
A final site plan and special permit application for the project was filed last Tuesday with Greenwich P&Z an are available to view at town hall.
By Friday the Greenwich Preservation Network, an offshoot of the Greenwich Historical Society, launched a Change.org petition in opposition to the development on the grounds that it requires the demolition of several significant historic buildings in the district.
The petition was created by Christopher Shields, the archivist at the Historical Society and will be presented to the Planning & Zoning Commission.
A memo from Nick Abbott, a Greenwich resident and law student who is part of the DeSegregate CT team, is part of the developer’s application on file. In it he notes that other historic houses have been demolished in the Fourth Ward to make way for expensive new residences. For example, at 55 Church Street, a house dating back to 1875 was razed to make way for two-story luxury rental condos. A new 3,744 sq ft two-story house at 36 Church Street replaced two houses dating back to 1886.
The difference is Church-Sherwood proposes to demolish a total of 11 buildings, nine of which are historic and replace them with a 7 story building.
Under state statute 8-30g, developers are mostly exempt from local zoning, including for maximum height, lot coverage and setbacks – as long as 30% of the units are set aside for affordable housing for at least 40 years.
To be “Affordable” with a capital A, the resident must not exceed income limits according to a formula designated by the state.
Planning & Zoning commissions may find exceptions in rare instances of health, safety, environmental or other major concerns that outweigh a Town’s need for affordable housing.
If they do, there is the chance a denial will wind up in court, especially in Greenwich where land prices are so high.
The Greenwich Preservation Network argues that the value of the historic neighborhood might meet the criteria for an exception to 8-30g.
When the Church-Sherwood development was in its pre-application phase last October, Diane Fox, from Greenwich Preservation Network, testified that historic preservation issues were just as important as pubic health and safety.
At that same meeting, P&Z Chair Margarita Alban spoke about the value of the Historic District.
“You’re building in the very middle of the Fourth Ward,” she told the applicant, adding that the Fourth Ward became a National Register Historic District in 2000.
She said in the state’s general statutes, the CT Environmental Policy Act, chapter 439, Sec 22a: 19 and 19a, refers to “unreasonable destruction of landmarks of the state.”
In their petition launched on Friday, the Greenwich Preservation Network refers to the “unreasonable destruction” of 39, 43 and 47 Church Street and 32 Sherwood Place, properties they say are contributory and significant buildings in Historic District, with a significant street presence.
They say that while not as visible from Church Street, 1, 2, and 3 Putnam Court should also be preserved because they are contributory residential structures in the district.
Lastly, the petition notes that in addition to being the nucleus of the Town’s Irish population, the Fourth Ward is one of Greenwich’s most important 19th-century African-American enclaves.
The district includes one of only two African-American churches in town, and it was home to its first Roman Catholic Church.
The history of the Fourth Ward was recently brought to light when a family applied for and received permission to build a secondary dwelling at the rear of their historic property at 11 Division Street in exchange for a Historic Overlay requiring them to maintain their original 1885 house along the streetscape in perpetuity.
The key words being ‘in perpetuity.’
Residents in the Fourth Ward today say they struggle to reconcile the loss of historic properties with an affordable development that will expire in 40 years, as opposed to ‘in perpetuity.’
Research compiled by historic preservation research consultant Nils Kerschus, key to the the Fourth Ward being declared a Historic District in 2000, noted that the neighborhood was platted in 1836, predating the coming of the railroad in 1848.
He said the railroad brought about the transformation of Greenwich from an agricultural town to a renowned residential suburb of New York City.
Kerschus said if the neighborhood had been developed after the railroad, it would likely have been developed into estates like those on the south side of the Post Road.
“Because of this early evolvement, the district would be the only major moderate-income neighborhood within the confines of the Borough of Greenwich,” he wrote.
Kerschus said Church Street was developed in the 1870s, but did not start selling until 1872 when its developer, Nathan Peck, sold the first lot.
“The majority of the houses built were slightly larger and more stylistically treated than most houses in the district, particularly contrasted with neighboring William Street,” he said.
“Since Greenwich never had wards, the origin of the name is probably New York City’s old Fourth Ward, a well-known staging ground for immigrants on the lower East Side,” Kerschus surmised, adding, “Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the birthplace of William M. Tweed, the Tammany Hall politician and a summer resident of Greenwich in the 1860s.”
While William Street was home to Irish who fanned out onto Northfield Street and Division Street, Kerschus wrote, “Church Street and most of Sherwood Place, however, remained solidly native stock, represented by old Yankee families such as Knapp, Ritch, and Mead.”
Kerschus wrote that by 1920 a large proportion of residents of the Fourth Ward were directly dependent on Greenwich’s upper and upper-middle-income residents, working as chauffeurs, laundresses, and gardeners.
The Greenwich Preservation Network petition notes that development proposed by Church Sherwood LLC is scheduled to come before the Planning & Zoning Commission in March.
More information on the Greenwich Preservation Network is available online.
(See also “Tales of the Fourth Ward” by Carl White who was formerly the Local History Librarian at Greenwich Library)
Diane Fox, Greenwich Preservation Network Hone the Gentle Art of Persuasion By Kai Sherwin, 2016