P&Z Watch: Does Separating Market Rate from Affordables in 2 Buildings Pass the Sniff Test?

On March 5, the Planning & Zoning commission continued a pre-application discussion of a proposed development on Mason Street at the former Honda dealership.

Co-chair of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund board, Bill Finger, was invited to join the conversation.

The applicant proposes an assisted housing development with 94 units, of which 38 (40%) would be below market and count toward the 10% the state requires every town achieve.

Greenwich continues to hover under 6%.

The proposal is for two buildings, one on each side of Mason Street.

Former Honda dealership at the bottom of Mason Street. Photo: Leslie Yager

Applicant’s rendering to P&Z for a 6 story building of market rate units on Mason Street. November 2023 Rendering from Caspi Development

To make the proposal more palatable, the developer proposes to put one affordable unit in the market rate building, which is proposed to be condos potentially costing $3, $4 or $5 million, and one market rate unit across the street in the affordable building.

That was met with raised eyebrows.

A highlight of the discussion was whether that arrangement met the spirit of the 8-30g law.

Mr. Finger said the AHTF board had had many conversations with the developer, Josh Caspi.

Original Proposal

Mr. Finger noted the original proposal was for a 7 story condo building and a 5 story rental building, with affordable units split between the two buildings, but there were potential issues.

“If you sell an affordable unit, what happens if the purchaser earns more money, gets married, or has a partner who makes a fair amount of money and may put them over the limit?” he asked.

A second issue with that arrangement was that the affordable condo units would still be out of reach for some people in Greenwich.

He noted that over 20% of Greenwich residents are considered ALICE, (Asset Limited, Income Restricted, but Employed), and barely make enough money to cover basic needs such as housing and child care.

“The thought they could pay $250,000 for a 1 bedroom apartment or $375,000 for a 2 bedroom apartment just didn’t make sense to us,” Finger said.

With that in mind, Mr. Finger said the trust board offered to provide a modest financial grant or loan to Mr. Caspi that would allow him to charge rents based on AMI (area median income), which are higher than rents at SMI (state median income), and in return he would get to charge higher condo prices.

Finger said the back and forth continued.

“We said, give us a fully affordable rental building on the west side of the street, you can compensate yourself with the high priced condos you can sell on the other side of the street,” Finger said. “He came back and said, I can do that.”

Finger said instead of comparing the buildings on each side of Mason Street to each other, the trust compared the proposed affordable units to units in other rental buildings in town.

He said the size of the proposed affordable units exceeded virtually every market rate rental apartment in the area.

“They’re very generously sized,” he said. “And we talked about amenities. He found a way to include amenities in the rental building.”

“We thought given the needs in the town what he was presenting was the right mix for the town. It’s a great location, a block from the train station, with easy access to the shops on the Ave, close to the park, close to the ferry,” Finger said.  “It checked all the boxes.”

Finger noted that the buildings would feature retail on the ground floor which they thought made sense with foot traffic coming around the corner from Greenwich Ave.

The trust board voted 7-0 in favor of the proposed arrangement.

Letter of the Law vs Spirit of the Law

Ms Alban said she wondered if having one assisted unit in the market rate building building and one market rate in the assisted building met the spirit of the 8-30g law.

“Is this sufficiently inclusive to meet the intent of the law?” she asked.

Mr. Finger said the trust board had discussed that, and emphasized that the location was transportation-oriented and walkable to amenities.

Commissioner Peter Lowe asked if the separation of market rate from affordable units, with the exception of one unit in each building amounted to “paying lip service to the intent?”

“Why even bother?” he asked. “What are we satisfying by moving one unit into either place?”

Mr. Lowe said having one assisted in the market rate and vice versa “doesn’t pass the smell test in my view.”

Heagney said the developer had consulted 8-30g expert Brian Smith from Ronbinson + Cole. “And the answer they came back with, after looking at 8-30g along with case law is that this is acceptable. There’s nothing prohibits this from being done.”

“We think with 38 assisted housing units and 94 total is what you are in a position to approve,” Heagney said, “Both in the letter and spirit of the law.”

Mr. Lowe said he was not convinced.

“I’m very sensitive every time I testify in Hartford about the perception of Greenwich and the treatment I get when I’m testifying because I’m from Greenwich. I want to show that we’re putting our best foot forward and making a genuine effort,” Alban said. “I want to pass the sniff test.”

Heagney said Mr. Caspi had hired Robert AM Stern Architects, a world renowned architectural firm, to design both buildings, and that the sizes, finishes, and amenities would be comparable between the two buildings.

“We need to look into this and what the implications are down the road,” Mr. Lowe said.

“This may open the door for a slippery slope as far as the configuration of projects,” said commissioner Peter Levy.

Ms Alban pointed out that under 8-30g the applicant could make the building much bigger.

“They are trying to work with us,” she said.

“It still dwarfs the rest of downtown, and a large project like this can put inordinate stress on the commercial district down there which may have a deleterious effect,” Mr. Levy said.

Ms Alban and town planner Pat LaRow said another concern was whether the CT Dept of Housing would count the units toward points for a potential 8-30g moratorium.

“They don’t tell us what’s going to count. The rules are never disclosed,” Mr. LaRow said. “The target keeps moving and the context keeps shifting.”

Mr. Caspi said his project would contribute to the greater good of the town.

“You’re looking at nearly 4% of the town’s affordability requirement with this project, and you’re doing it with quality finishes and size that is above and beyond the market,” he said. “It’s an enormous win for the town.”

“You cannot integrate for sale and for rent in one building,” he explained. “So you have two purpose-built buildings across the street from one another, creating the maximum efficiency for these buildings.”

“We’re pioneering this thing right now,” he said. “There is no precedent for not doing this.”

Ms Alban explained Mr. Caspi’s reference to almost 4%.

“We need 1,100 more affordable units to reach our 10% but that assumes the denominator doesn’t grow,” she said. “His point is you’re making significant strides which we don’t normally get in a building.”

“The Governor wants to see us make meaningful strides,” Alban added. “Our next step is to get our counsel to opine.”

Commissioner Peter Levy, “This is something we have to swim through together….We’re not comfortable yet.”

There was no public comment.

See also:

Neighbors Weigh in on Proposed Residential Development at Former Honda Site

Dec 13, 2023

Multi-Story Buildings Proposed at Former Honda Dealership on Both Sides of Mason Street

November 2023

Residential Development on Mason Street Could Serve as Secondary Gateway to Greenwich March 2021