P&Z Watch: Two-Story 8-30g Proposed Atop Historic Putnam Trust Building on Greenwich Ave Raises “Grave Concerns”

Note: this story has been updated to better explain the formula for determining rent for the affordable rental unit.

Original story: On Tuesday night the P&Z commission heard a proposal that would add two stories atop the historic former Putnam Trust building at 125 Greenwich Ave.

Built in 1925 in Classical Revival style, the building is now home to Shreve Crump & Low.

The building sold from Jenn Realty LLC to 125 Greenwich Ave LLC (registered to David and Antonella Walker) on Aug. 26, 2015 for $13,500,000

In a week that saw a stream of letters to the editor and commentary on Facebook, mostly against the impact of the state affordable housing statute 8-30g on Greenwich, all eyes were on the pre-application for 125 Greenwich Ave, which would bring the height of the building to 66 ft.

P&Z chair Margarita Alban referred to Greenwich Avenue as the most important shopping street in Connecticut, and said 125 Greenwich Ave was a contributing structure in the National Register District.

“Given the sense that change is somewhat inevitable, we want to preserve aesthetic factors. We also want to create affordable housing.”

– Chip Haslun, attorney for the applicant

Attorney Chip Haslun representing the applicant said one of three rental units proposed for the addition would be affordable, per the 8-30g formula.

He noted that the applicant had anticipated the commission’s concerns about historic factors and the aesthetics of Greenwich Avenue, and noted that the Progress vs Stonington P&Z case (The borough of Stonington, a peninsula in Long Island Sound, found that excessively tall buildings along the water did not fit the historic development pattern, and would obstruct existing views that tie the village to the water in an important way) and 22-19 of the General Statutes (*22A-19A – Historic Structures and Landmarks) were both applicable.

“Of course it’s applicable,” Alban said. “You’re supposed to do an environmental assessment for an 8-30g and that includes historic. We checked that with counsel.”

“When we were preparing this application, and Granoff was doing the plans, we tried to be responsible to those concerns, and I think we’ve achieved that, at least in the initial concept,” Haslun replied. “Given the sense that change is somewhat inevitable, we want to preserve aesthetic factors. We also want to create affordable housing.”

Drawing of “Greenwich Avenue Lofts”
Proposed height with additional two stories would move from 45 ft 2″ to 66 ft 2″ where zoning allows for a maximum of 40 ft, but for 8-30g which exempts affordable housing developments from local zoning.

Ms Alban said the commission’s concerns were not about aesthetics, but rather about the appropriateness of adding two stories to a building that is in a National Register Historic District.

She said the commission was looking for the applicant to provide research and analysis about the impact of the proposal.

“We’re not tearing down the building…We’re not proposing to put in a 15-story skyscraper within the facade of the building, which has been done in other cities.”

– Chip Haslun, attorney for the applicant

“Although you said the two stories can’t be seen from the street, as you proceed down the street, those additional two stories are visible,” Alban said. “Protecting the Avenue and its historic nature is critical to us, A, because of the heritage, but second, because of its economic importance to Greenwich. It is arguably probably the most important shopping street in Connecticut and it is known throughout the east coast, if not throughout the country.”

Alban said there were concerns about opening the door to similar proposals.

“What I am worried about is if you say yes to one, you get five stories on the next one,” she said.

Ms Alban said the commission planned to hire an expert and suggested the applicant do likewise.

“If you go out looking for experts, you’ll find someone who is very pro preservation or someone who is very pro affordable housing,” Haslun said.

“We’re not tearing down the building…We’re not proposing to put in a 15-story skyscraper within the facade of the building, which has been done in other cities,” Haslun continued. “What we’re looking to do is be sensitive to the aesthetic issues and historic issues of the Avenue, and of this building and come up with a happy balance.”

Ms Alban said the proposal would change the height profile of Greenwich Ave.

“Once you open that door, you have now gone around our height restrictions on the Avenue,” Alban said. “It isn’t a question of looking at each application. It means the commission has let go of protecting that historic district.”

Alban said she’d spoken to a strong advocate of affordable housing who believed historic districts should be protected. “…that you do your density and development in other areas and protect your architectural heritage,” she said.

“We can only tell you that this is a grave concern,” Alban added.

“I mentioned that to the client as well as to the architects, so we’ve been working with that parameter in mind, and the fact we don’t want to become another New Rochelle, or Stamford or White Plains,” Haslun said. “This has been done in other places.”

Ms Alban said additions had been made to historic buildings that increased their height in New York City, but not in a National Register neighborhood. “I said it had been done with historic buildings that were stand alone. And I said I could think of several in the Upper East Side that have built condominiums over them. You already have a loom factor in the city and a much higher building profile.”

“We’re dealing with a different type of historic neighborhood,” Alban continued. “The city is already a canyon. It’s where you draw the line.”

Commissioner Nick Macri had voiced concerns during Monday’s briefing about whether, structurally, the building could accommodate the additional two stories.

“Give us more on why you think you’re respecting the Register and why you think this doesn’t damage the value of the Avenue,” Alban said.

“I think it is respectful,” Haslun said.

Dennis Yeskey said the commission was very concerned about the entire Avenue, and how allowing one building to add stories under 8-30g would set a precedent.

“What we’re all worried about is a slippery slope,” he said. “All of a sudden, as we’ve had with 8-30g, 20 applications on different parts of the Avenue, and I guarantee you they won’t all be the same. The Avenue can maybe afford one project, but that’s not what happens.”

“In our minds this does rise to a very important issue for the community,” Alban said.

During public comment John Cooper asked for an explanation of Affordable housing per state statute, and whether the units would be rented or purchased.

Mr. Haslun said the units would be rentals, and that he anticipated rent for the affordable unit would reflect 60% of State Median Income.

Rent must be affordable to a person earning 80% of state median income which is about $57,000 or a person earning 60% of state median income which would be about $43,000.

For example, rent for a three bedroom at 60% of state median income is $1,401 per month.

The item was left open and the applicant will return before the commission at a future meeting.

In 1982, the General Assembly passed HB 5814, “An Act Concerning the Environmental Protection Act.” The act, PA 82-367, included historic structures and landmarks within the protections and rights established by the Environmental Protection Act (CGS §§ 22a-14 to 20).

*Sec. 22a-19a. Historic structures and landmarks. When court costs assessed against plaintiff. The provisions of sections 22a-15 to 22a-19, inclusive, shall be applicable to the unreasonable destruction of historic structures and landmarks of the state, which shall be those properties (1) listed or under consideration for listing as individual units on the National Register of Historic Places (16 USC 470a, as amended) or (2) which are a part of a district listed or under consideration for listing on said national register and which have been determined by the State Historic Preservation Board to contribute to the historic significance of such district. If the plaintiff in any such action cannot make a prima facie showing that the conduct of the defendant, acting alone or in combination with others, has or is likely unreasonably to destroy the public trust in such historic structures or landmarks, the court shall tax all costs for the action to the plaintiff.

See also:

Six-Story, 110 Unit Affordable Housing Development Would Be a Stone’s Throw from Greenwich Ave