P&Z Watch: Greenwich Communities Proposal for Cos Cob Parking Lot – “Inward Facing and Closed Off”

The Nov 2 Planning & Zoning commission meeting featured a pre-application from Greenwich Communities (formerly the Greenwich Housing Authority) for 48 affordable units, on 2.7 acres owned by the Town of Greenwich.

The location is an underutilized municipal parking lot by the train station on Strickland Road in Cos Cob.

Specifically they seek to construct a parking garage under four 2-story buildings, all with entrances facing away from the street and onto a central courtyard.

The lot is in the R-6 and Coastal Overlay Zone (COZ) zones.

The idea of a pre-application is for the applicant to get feedback before spending much money on experts and design work.

The applicant referred to the entire proposal as in its “infancy” and “hypothetical.”

On the call was attorney for Greenwich Communities John Tesei and chair Sam Romeo, who has been a harsh critic of the state affordable housing statute 8-30g, saying it unfairly overrides local control.

In January 2022, Romeo testified against an 8-30g proposal for a 5-story 85-unit apartment building at 5 Brookridge,  describing it as “another offspring of the Hyde Hotel.”

Commenting in April 2022 on the  8-30g proposal for Church/Sherwood, he said, “This developer is counting on the statute to be on his side and is looking to go directly to litigation and have the court decide it.”

Then, in May 2022, the Church Sherwood 8-30g was discussed again, he referred to it as the Cinderella Statute. “The step sisters try to get their foot into that tiny glass slipper and make it fit at any cost,” he said.

Yet, the housing authority has objected to local control on their own project.

Unhappy with P&Z over the terms of their unanimous approval of Vinci Gardens in Byram, Romeo vowed they would resubmit it as an 8-30g.  Then, instead, they sued P&Z over the conditions of the approval.

Ultimately, the situation was settled and a design solution was developed.

8-3og at Strickland Road?

Today, the Strickland Rd application is set to be submitted under 8-30g.

The housing authority seek to lease the town parking lot and the air rights for 99 years.

“It’s an affordable housing development,” said their attorney John Tesei. “It is automatically an 8-30g.”

“No,” said P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban.

Alban noted the applicant needed a rezone of the property for approval.

“We need a zoning vehicle to build this project at this location,” Tesei said.

“You need a zoning vehicle because you are not within the zoning regulations,” Alban said.

Alban had researched the origin of Greenwich’s housing authority.

“Originally, housing authorities were supposed to work within zoning regulations, which is surprising because normally their economics have density requirements that many towns cannot accommodate. The reason you made it an 8-30g is so you won’t have to go get variances – because you’re not within the zoning regulations?”

Retail Component

Ms Alban asked Mr. Romeo if he would consider incorporating some retail into the development.

She explained that would involve a Transit-Oriented Overlay that she anticipated Desegregate CT will again propose in Hartford this year.

She noted the statute that created housing authorities in 1949 did not prohibit them from including commercial uses in a project.

“If you were not able to give this a more Cos Cob-front facing to the street, would the housing authority/Greenwich Communities consider some sort of retail coffee shop amenity?” she asked.

“Absolutely not,” Romeo said. “I wouldn’t even consider it.”

Attorney Tesei said there would be no guarantee that use would be profitable.

“What we try to do when we build these new housing communities is not build them in environmental injustice zones – not between loud train stations and loud highways with a large amount of air pollution.” – Kate LoBalbo, Cos Cob

Alban noted she was suggesting the idea because there was abundant foot traffic along Strickland Road to the train station and Cos Cob Park.

“You’re proposing this as a Transit-Oriented Development. Boy, would I love to go to Hartford and say, ‘Look at Greenwich. We are doing TOD and we have this complete approach to it,” she said.

Mr. Romeo said, as presented, he believed the proposal would very much impress Hartford.

Further he said after the project was completed, no one would even know there was a parking lot there.

As proposed, Greenwich Communities envisions four buildings all facing onto an interior courtyard rather than face the street.

Ms Alban commented that the lot was partially in a flood zone, which was alright, but it would not be possible to build residential at-grade there.

The applicant’s architect Rudy Ridberg agreed, explaining that was why the parking was proposed to be underneath. Parking would include both a below grade level of parking for commuters and an at-grade level for the residential residents.

Alban noted the parking lot might be on top of ledge, but it also might be on top of fill from the construction of I-95. When the applicant does test borings they will discover the answer.

The commissioners asked why the apartment entrances couldn’t be oriented outward.

They noted the neighborhood features houses with front porches oriented to the street.

The response was that was impossible because the apartments were over the parking garage rather than at ground level.

Commissioner Peter Levy said, “The more you can break up these masses, the more you are paying homage to the neighborhood and making the project fit in…If there are cost related issues, this is the place to spend the money. This is what makes a difference in our town. This is Greenwich. This is a historic community.”

Mr. Ridberg said they might consider incorporating Juliet balconies to the units to bring in air and light, but not proper balconies that protrude.

“We did talk about balconies. I think there was a concern. We don’t want people putting bathing towels and beach towels and chairs out,” Ridberg said.

“That’s why we got rid of them at Armstrong Court,” Romeo said.

Public Comment

During public comment, Kate LoBalbo, a lifelong Cos Cob resident, said she supported Transit Oriented Development as a concept, but that attention should be paid to where the development was being sited.

Noting significant tree removal would be required for building #2, she said, “I don’t think we can look to old growth tree removal and replacement – trees just aren’t growing in the same way because of the climate.”

LoBalbo said when Mill Pond floods, it is not safe to egress, and neighbors have received evacuation notices because emergency services cannot respond to their homes.

“What we try to do when we build these new housing communities is not build them in environmental injustice zones – not between loud train stations and loud highways with a large amount of air pollution,” Lobalbo added. “Even though this is raised 30 feet from the street, we have to remember this is an area that is going to continue to environmentally change.”

Also during public, a comment neighbor across from the proposed project, Staci Feinstein, described the development as an “egregious, absolute outrageous proposal done to us without our say.”

Ms Feinstein called the proposal a monstrosity in a peaceful, lovely, charming community.

“You’re talking about all kinds of people coming in, all kinds of traffic. It’s so upsetting to me and very disheartening to me. I want it on the record as a citizen of Greenwich that I am completely unhappy with this,” Feinstein said.

Ms Alban said since the applicant was applying as an 8-30g, that put the burden on the P&Z commission because only healthy and safety concerns may be considered in a decision, and all other zoning is moot per the statute.

“They are in fact doing us a favor by working with us to design something that fits in the neighborhood,” Alban explained.

Another Strickland Road neighbor, Susan Rattray, said the idea of blending into the neighborhood was ideal, but that she’d prefer three buildings instead of four. That way, she said, trees would be preserved and blunt some very loud noise from I95.

She also urged the addition of sidewalks on Strickland Road, noting that there were many speeding cars.

“Unless you get some sidewalks that go through on Strickland Road, you’re putting people in a very dangerous position if you’re putting housing that dense in there,” she said.

Cos Cob resident James Walsh questioned why all the units were proposed to be 2-bedrooms when there was such demand for three-bedroom family units.

He noted the neighborhood was diverse, with a range of households, from young couples, to singles to families raising school age children, to retired couples and individuals. He said he wished the proposal was for a similar range of households.

Mr. Walsh shared photos of some of the houses in the neighborhood.


Walsh noted the project was presented as a Transit Oriented Development, but said true TOD was more than building next to a train station.

Ideally he said TOD should allow for residents to accomplish some or all of their daily needs without driving, such as biking, walking or using public transit. And that rather than residents driving to pick up a cup of coffee or drop children at daycare before taking the train to an office, he repeated Ms Alban’s suggestion that Greenwich Communities include a commercial component on the ground floor – maybe a coffee shop and a daycare.

He said his greatest concern was that the development was mostly “inward facing,” onto an interior courtyard and closed off to the community.

Also he said the proposed enclosed garage was closed off and neither inviting to the neighborhood nor pedestrian friendly.

And, rather than a brick facade, he suggested given the historic nature of the block that clapboard or shingles might fit better.

Mr. Ridberg said they would consider differentiating the four buildings (each with 12 units) with  different colors.

Mr. Romeo said Greenwich Communities did not want to intrude on the neighborhood but rather improve it.

He promised to have public meetings with the neighbors and would try to incorporate their thoughts.

“We don’t want to bring neighborhoods down, we want to bring them up,” he added.

Stay tuned.

See also from Nov 2 P&Z meeting:

P&Z Watch: “Pemberwick Hills” 8-30g Requires Substantial Removal of Ledge Rock
Nov 5, 2023

P&Z Watch: Mason St Apartment Building Could Be “A Pretty Good Fit”Nov 3, 2023