P&Z WATCH: Tough Questions Posed for Greenwich Housing Authority’s 52-Unit “Vinci Gardens”

On Tuesday night Greenwich Communities, formerly known as the Greenwich Housing Authority, presented a pre-application to the Greenwich Planning & Zoning Commission for a 4-story, 52-unit, 50,000 sq ft, senior independent living housing complex at 71 Vinci Drive.

The site is near McKinney Terrace and the former Byram School.

The property is owned by the town, and the housing authority has a 100 year lease.

Anthony Johnson, director of the housing authority, said they planned to seek a variance for setback due to uncertainty about the property line between the housing authority land and town land.

Housing authority director Anthony Johnson described the proposed side for the 52-unit building as isolated. Nearby is Strazza field and the Hamill Rink.

Commissioner Nick Macri suggested Mr. Johnson connect with the superintendent of buildings for the town because a survey of the entire area was conducted by Langan for the ice rink project.

“They know where the property lines are,” he said.

The site is extremely rocky.

“We’re sitting at the top of a hill of rock. To minimize the amount of rock removal at the site, we are creating an empty floor underneath, which would essentially be a crawl space,” explained John Brice, architect for the applicant.

Mr. Johnson said they also plan to seek variances for building height.

Mr. Macri talked about ways to avoid having to seek that height variance.

“Because of your ledge issue the building pops out and starts mostly at a second story. I’d like to see if you could start it lower, and reduce the height of the building,” Macri said.

“You had talked about the site being secluded, but you’re taking down, by my count, 57 trees, and the building is very tall and maybe pop out above the tree canopy, and maybe not be so secluded,” Macri said.

Rendering of proposed 52 unit, 50,000 sq ft, senior independent living building in Byram.
View across parking lot of former Byram School, which is now senior housing.
The front of the former Byram School, which dates back to 1926, faces Putnam Ave.

Mr. Macri questioned how the proposed architecture was in keeping with the former Byram School, which dates back to 1929.

“I’m not seeing how the architecture as proposed is in keeping with the existing building. Did you consider brick?” Macri asked. “I know you’re keeping modular construction to save cost, but is vinyl siding indicative of a site that has a historic building on it?”

The site will potentially be under construction at the same time as a new Hamill Rink, and there were interesting neighbor comments including questions about the ability to share sewer lines, trenching and drainage work.

Mr. Johnson explained that the site is part of the former Byram School property. The school was shut down in 1978 and given to the HATG with a 99 year lease to operate senior housing, which they currently do with 51 units of senior housing. In addition they have 21 family housing units.

There are about 77 years left in the 99 year lease.

“This site is a wonderful site to provide senior housing, which is desperately needed in town,” Mr. Johnson said. “The existing building, the old school building, is considered a historic building.”

“The building we have designed was designed with that in mind to show appreciation to the architecture of that building and fit into the community,” he said, describing the site as “isolated” with no neighbors except the ballfield and skating rink.

All the units would qualify for the 8-30g designation as affordable. Johnson said the housing authority is looking at different avenues to finance the project.

The design features a mansard roof, mix of materials with brick below, some quoining at the corners, some cladding and porches at the exit doors.

During public comment Francia Alvarez made four points. She asked if the sewer line could handle both the housing authority project and the rink project.

She asked if utility trenching could be shared.

“Will Eversource have to provide upgraded electric service to feed both projects as they are now doing at GHS for the new stadium?” she asked.

Mike Kristoff beside the markers for the proposed Vinci Gardens and the memorial tree planted in honor of his late wife, Anne Kristoff, who advocated on behalf of the former Byram School. Mrs. Kristoff died in 1989. Photo: Leslie Yager

Lastly, she asked whether the proposed rink access road could be used for both projects, reducing damage to the forest.

“Nick (Macri) just said 57 trees will be coming down,” Alvarez said. “If there could be shared use of the access road and trenching, it would be helpful to preserve some of the forest.”

Mr. Johnson said it would not be possible to share trenching between the two projects.

He said the housing authority was separate from the town of Greenwich.

“We can’t really partner on these things,” he said. “We really can’t mix apples and oranges like that. Even if there are economies of scale, we probably can’t achieve them in that fashion.”

Lucy von Brachel, who is a member of the RTM and on the board of the Byram Neighborhood Association, said she spoke for herself when she addressed the commission.

“I know you are under a lot of pressure to add affordable units and this would add a significant number of units to our housing stock, but I hope you would review this application as you would review any other application,” von Brachel said. “I want to make sure this is scrutinized as you would scrutinize other things.”

Ms von Brachel said with the proposed loss of three parking spaces, plus and addition of 51 units, she was concerned of the supply of parking, given there is already pressure on surrounding neighborhoods for parking.

Also, she said she had counted closer to 70 trees being cut down.

“I’m concerned about the height. This is probably the highest point in the neighborhood, and you’re adding four stories on top of that. With a variance, that’s a lot,” she added.

“There is a memorial tree on this property where this housing would go. The memorial is for Anne Kristoff who was a neighborhood activist and RTM member. Her legacy was keeping this property as open space. It’s kind of an cruel irony that it would be cut down for housing. We don’t have a ton of open space in Byram. We don’t have a lot of trees in Byram. We’re pretty jam packed over here.”

Mr. Johnson’s reply was that the trees to be cut down were not specimen trees.

“You won’t be able to see the top of this building, except maybe from the baseball field,” he added.

JoAnn Messina, executive director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said her group had been working for the past 15 years trying to replenish the canopy specifically in the western park of Greenwich.

“We’d like to see minimal tree canopy taken down,” she said.

Mr. Johnson listed housing authority properties where greenery had been added, including Greenwich Close, Town Hall Annex, and Adams Garden.

“You’ll see how much we’re invested in greenery and landscaping at our sites. The neighborhoods I just described, we are the greenest in the neighborhoods.”

Ms Messina said she was aware of garden spaces recently installed at housing authority property.

“Tree canopy is separate and apart from that,” she said.

Sam Romeo, chair of the board of the housing authority, said the project was part of a long range plan to add 200-225 units, all of which apply toward the 10% required by the state to be affordable.

“We don’t have to make a profit,” he said, referring to for-profit developers who file under 8-30g and create large developments, of which 30% are affordable.

Recently, Mr. Romeo testified before P&Z about a possible 8-30g affordable housing development on King Street, noting that each time a large development with 30% affordable units, that the goal posts move further away.

As for the comment about making the building out of brick, he said, “If you give us the money. We don’t have a bottomless pit.”

Mr. Romeo addressed the memorial tree honoring Anne Kristoff.

“I don’t know if it’s over on the side where we’re developing. I think the memorial tree is on the back side down by the Byram School area, not in the wooded area.”

Mrs. Kristoff, who died in 1989, had volunteered extensively at the former Byram School and co-founded the Southwest Greenwich Association, the precursor to the Byram Neighborhood Association. She fought to keep Byram School open when enrollment dropped, but that battle was one that was lost.

She did fight successfully to have the memorial plaques returned to their right places under the majestic Sycamore trees in the memorial grove at Eugene Morlot Park, after they were removed by by the town with the idea of having them all affixed to one large piece of marble.

Anne Kristoff memorial tree adjacent to markers mapping out the location of the proposed Vinci Gardens senior, independent living project in Byram. Sept 29, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager
Marker in memory of Anne M. Kristoff for her dedication and service to the Byram community. Photo: Leslie Yager

On Wednesday morning, following the P&Z meeting, Mike Kristoff shared the location of his late wife’s memorial plaque and Wheeping Cherry Tree planted in her honor.

The tree is right up against the boundary of the proposed housing development.

He said he was proud of all his wife’s hard work for the school and the community and that the playground at Byram Park is dedicated to her memory.

He said that before she died, his wife had wondered if the town might consider planting a memorial tree in her honor.

He said that with the help of former Parks & Rec director Frank Keegan, a tree was planted and a memorial marker was put in place. He said he’d like the proposed building to be moved bck ten feet, or to have the tree moved ten feet away from the prposed building.

Mr. Kristoff said he’d spoken to Mr. Romeo about the tree and was told it might be possible to relocate it to an island in the parking lot.

On the grounds of the former Byram School are 13 markers by 13 trees, each dedicated to a service person who list his life for this country. May 27, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
In the memorial grove there are 13 markers by 13 trees, each dedicated to a service person who lost his life for this country. May 27, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Back of former Byram School where an event takes place every Memorial day to honor the former Byram School students who went on to give their lives in service to their country.

See also:

Byram Veterans Memorialized for All Time under Magnificent Sycamores at Former Byram School