P&Z Watch: 8-30g Application on Mason St – “A Cavernous Effect on the Street”

An 8-30g application for final site plan & special permit for two buildings straddling Mason Street at the former Honda dealership was discussed at Wednesday night’s P&Z commission meeting.

The application is being submitted pursuant to the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g.

Prior to Wednesday, the application had only been discussed as a non-binding pre-application.

P&Z chair Margarita Alban. May 29, 2024 via Zoom

Applicant John Caspi of Caspi Development. May 29, 2024 via Zoom

A total of 92 units are proposed, of which  28 units, (29% of the total unit count) would be below market, deed restricted for 40-years.

Both buildings are proposed to have first floor retail use.

The west side building would be 40 units, with 7,265 sq. ft. of retail, 5 stories tall, with 16 parking spaces.

The east side building would 52 units, with 7,909 sq. ft. of retail, 6 stories tall, with 151 parking spaces.

Commissioner Mary Jenkins who co-chairs the Affordable Housing Trust Fund board, recused herself from the meeting, but shared a statement.

She said in Nov 2023 the trust board approved a conditional commitment for $100,000 bond to Caspi Development for the multi-family development, subject to the application. During negotiations the condo building was reduced from proposed seven stories to six.

The commissioners expressed great concern about the size and scope of the project, ranging from the height of the building, to how the retail element would work from a regulatory standpoint. The state affordable housing statute 8-30g talks about residential use, and does not talk about commercial.

Originally the applicant proposed to put all the affordable units in the building on the west side of the street and the for-sale luxury condos in the building on the east side.

On Wednesday, they offered to mix in a few affordable units in the condo building, but the commission continued to question whether that met the intent of 8-30g.

Attorney or the applicant Tom Heagney said the project was “integrated” through parking, which is mainly on the east side.

During discussions of pre-applications the commission had been uncomfortable with having all the affordable units in a separate rental building.

With the history of automotive use of the property, there may be significant environmental cleanup required before using the site for residential use. The applicant retained Langan Engineering for an environmental analysis.

Mr. Heagney said as part any transfer of the property triggers a process with the DEEP, and requires a supervised remediation plan.

“As part of any sale, the question is who is going to be responsible for this,” he said. “There has been an escrow established as part of the sale to Mr. Caspi’s group  to ensure that the remediation is carried out and the work is monitored by the DEEP. This is a state issue.”

“We’ve got to be very careful from an environmental justice point of view,” said P&Z chair Margarita Alban said. “We have to be very careful that this site is not so contaminated that it would not be usable for residential.”

Mr. Caspi said he anticipated soil remediation would take a couple months.

“It’s completely cleanable,” he said.

Retail and Setbacks from the Street

The fact that 8-3og only talks about residential, not commercial, came up at a recent proposed development on Hamilton Avenue, and the commission noted the exemption from setbacks for residential did not carry over to commercial.

“The reason we set the precedent on the Hamilton Ave application – an 8-30g with a non conforming commercial use – and (the developer) believed that was a right and we said no. The law is silent on that,” Alban said.

She said setbacks were key to maintaining the scale and structure of the community.

“By ceding on the commercial we would be reducing setbacks which are important as you begin to build more density,” Alban said.

Just three condos are proposed to be included in the rental building, in perpetuity.

Attorney Heagney explained that was because in the 40-year life of the apartments they would likely need substantial renovation, whereas with, condos owners tend to invest significantly in them.

“You’re expecting the building to fall apart in 40 years, that’s why it’s not in perpetuity?” Macri asked. “Would it be a consideration to have the west side (deed restriction) in perpetuity?”

“That was something we did consider and did not think it was viable,” Heagney replied.

Mr. Heagney said since the site was in the CGB zone, the retail component would add to the vitality of downtown.

Dennis Yeskey said the intersection of Mason Street and Railroad Ave was well traveled and very congested. He was concerned about construction phasing for two buildings on the highly trafficked road.

“It’s huge because Greenwich Ave is one-way and everybody off the train goes up Milbank Ave. That’s a very sensitive intersection,” Yeskey said.

Yeskey was also concerned the developer might build the east side and not the west side.

Mr. Caspi said said the west side already had a cellar level excavated many years ago.

“The ability to expedite that side of the street 3-4 months in advance of the other side of the street is the plan. While we’re going through excavation on the east side of the street, the west side of the street will be demolished at a quicker pace and all the contents discarded, and we’ll start prepping for the cellar level foundation, working our way up with the superstructure,” Caspi said.

“I think we’ll be well ahead of the east side, to the tune of 4-6 months, not only because of the existing conditions, but also because we would like to be concluded with construction when we’re selling the homes on the east side as well.”

Mr. Yeskey asked about trucks and deliveries, and construction phasing, and noted that the train station project might overlap.

Further he noted the Benedict project might happen also overlap.

Mr. Caspi said he did not foresee an issue a with phasing, and he believed the train station project would be completed before his project began.

Ms Alban said it was a condition of approval for the Benedict project that they work with the town to optimize phasing and not tie up the downtown network.

Building Height and Mass

Peter Levy was also concerned about disruption downtown from DPW’s point of view.

He went on to say that while he thought the location was good, he had concerned about the buildings’ height.

“These are very tall buildings and I think it’s going to be changing the streetscape in a way that doesn’t feel like Greenwich, and downtown,” he said. “That’s a great concern. I’d like you to knock a story off each side and get rid of the retail.”

Alban noted the residential ceiling height in the condo building was planned to be 12 feet.

“I think the project height and its cavernous effect on the street, it would be a great help to reduce that floor-to-floor height,” Levy said. “Anything you can do, even if you can modulate the streetscape by creating less of a wall….and it’s right on the street, there’s no set back.”

“The feeling walking down the street for the pedestrian is just not going to be very comfortable,” Levy said. “This is a very urbanized development.”

“It’s more akin to the grand Canyon than to Greenwich,” Levy said.

Mr. Caspi said he would take that comment into consideration, but there would be “undulation in the plane”…to “create moments… and “opportunities for a pedestrian experience that’s much more inviting than you would think.”

He said for example, the 2nd and 4th floors had some “meaningful setbacks” to create “a wedding cake effect.”

And on the west side, while there were not setbacks, there were features on the third floor that “echo setbacks on the condo site.”

Mr. Levy pushed back.

“Unless you have smoke and mirrors, I don’t think you can do much,” Levy said. “Somebody looking up 70 ft from the sidewalk, you might as well be in New York City.”

Levy pointed out that on the east side, there was more setbacks at the rear property line than in the front.

“I wish it were the other way around,” he said.

Mr. Caspi referred to a once-in-a-generation opportunity with a perfect location by the train station, and said there was already a massive escalation in grade going up Bruce Park Ave.

Mr. Macri talked about a “startling increase in mass and height.”

Rendering of proposed condo building on the east side of Mason Street.

Concern about Two Separate Buildings

Alban said she was not sure whether the commission was okay with one application for two separate buildings, and that the input from the CT Dept of Housing emphasized inclusion.

“That they don’t want the low income people over here, and the higher income people over there,” Alban said. “We heard it straight from the commissioner of the Dept of Housing.”

Alban said the building on the west side was proposed to be underparked and would rely on parking across the street, but that low income people were not less likely to own cars and that parking was important to be protected in perpetuity.

Mr. Caspi talked about tying the two buildings together in perpetuity with permanent parking easements so that the two buildings could never be separated.

“From day one, I have not been in love with this project, but it’s an 8-30g,” Yeskey said. “It is a slippery slope.”

Rendering view of building on west side of Mason Street in relation to existing three story building at the corner of Bruce Park Ave and Greenwich Ave.

Public Comment

Ivana Sabar a resident of downtown for 10 years said she knew the corner well.

“I can’t see how the current transportation infrastructure, meaning the roads, can accommodate the flow of cars and the flow of traffic that comes with 90+ units,” Sabar said. “To me, using affordable housing to push this kind of rapid expansion seems like a misuse of the spirit of the law.”

She said a project this dense was more appropriate for New York City.

“A beautiful out-of-place behemoth is still an out-of-place behemoth,” she said. “As for retail, as an avid shopper, and a foodie, I am satisfied with the current retail and food offerings.”

Carin Ohnell, also a downtown resident, said traffic might rise to a safety issue.

“People try to turn left to get up toward the Bruce Park Grill or to get to the train station. It’s insane.”

Greg McLaughlin, a contiguous neighbor on Ridge Street said plans to demolish an old concrete house on Milbank as part of the development, would result in “a tight squeeze” to the north and said he was concerned about blasting.

“As an owner I have a tremendous grudge against this, and all my neighbors who have spent all in excess of $5 million to sit on the top of Ridge Street and now we’re gong to be looking into somebody’s living room,” McLaughlin said.

After public comment, the application was kept open.

See also:

Six Story, 120-Unit 8-30g approved behind St Mary Church in Downtown