RTM Votes on Vinci Gardens Despite Pending Lawsuit

At this week’s RTM meeting the vote to reject the Municipal Improvement (MI) for controversial intersection improvements on Greenwich Avenue got the lion’s share of attention.

But the RTM also voted on an MI for elderly housing proposed by the housing authority after it was referred to the 230-member body by Byram resident Al Shehadi, who is the head of land use for the Byram Neighborhood Association. Professionally, he has developed and financed affordable housing for 30 years.

RTM members had to sift through opposing views so stark that State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) remarked that he didn’t know how to vote because the two sides were arguing about facts.

In September, after multiple appearances before P&Z and ARC, the MI for the four-story, 50,000 sq ft 52-unit independent living building for seniors, “Vinci Gardens” was unanimously approved 5-0 by Planning & Zoning commission, albeit with conditions.

The housing authority, recently rebranded “Greenwich Communities,” did not like the conditions of the approval and sued the town.

At Monday’s RTM meeting the last person to testify was housing authority director Anthony Johnson.

Mr. Johnson told the 230-member body that the lawsuit had been settled, and all that remained in the way were the NIMBYs in Byram.

But on Friday Patrick LaRow, the incoming director of P&Z, confirmed that the town was still in discussions with the housing authority.

Mr. LaRow said Mr. Johnson’s statement that the lawsuit was settled was not accurate, though they have had “very positive discussions.”

State Rep Steve Meskers said he was torn about how to vote given the opposing sides had different sets of facts. Dec 12, 2022

75 Yes votes were in favor of rejecting the MI for Vinci Gardens

117 No votes were opposed to rejecting the MI for Vinci Gardens

Abstain: 5

From the get-go, Vinci Gardens was controversial.

Criticisms from Byram residents focused on the building’s bulk, height, modular construction, vinyl siding and mansard roof.

They noted the property is adjacent to Eugene Morlot Park with its memorial grove dedicated Byram men who lost their lives in service, and the former Byram School, a building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which has been turned into housing for the elderly and is run by the housing authority.

Anthony Johnson, executive director of Greenwich Communities (formerly the Housing Authority of the Town of Greenwich) was the principal proponent of the Vinci Gardens 52-unit development. Dec 12, 2022

Burdensome Conditions

The conditions of the approval that did not sit well with the housing authority included the requirement that they work with P&Z staff on a change from vinyl siding to brick veneer.

Also, they were told to revise the roofline from mansard to hip or gable geometry, to be more in keeping with the historic Byram School.

Housing authority board chair Sam Romeo said the P&Z commission had gone outside their purview and “redesigned the building.”

He insisted the conditions would result in the loss of 17 units and make the project not viable.

“The lawsuit has been settled. We set an agreement with the town. We had an agreement, because their stipulations would have required the removal of a third of our units, which would have made the project not viable. That’s why we did what we did.”

– Anthony Johnson, executive director of the housing authority. Dec 12, 2022

At Monday night’s RTM meeting, Mr. Shehadi described Vinci Gardens as an example of how not to do affordable housing right.

“The town deserves better,” he said.

He listed three reasons to reject the Municipal Improvement: Inconsistency with the POCD, lack of affordability commitments absent Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) requirements, and lack of outreach to the Byram community.

Al Shehadi, who chairs the land use committee of the Byram Neighborhood Association, spoke in favor of rejecting the Vinci Gardens MI. Dec 12, 2022

Shehadi noted the four-story building would be the tallest in Byram, and the largest residential building in Byram – almost double the size of the former Byram School. Also it would be situated on the highest point in Byram.

“The Byram School is one of the few historically recognized buildings in Byram. The 1980s renovation and new construction done by the housing authority was explicitly done to respect the historic character of the school,” Shehadi said. “The height, the bulk, the vinyl facade, the flat roofline of Vinci Gardens completely conflicts with historic character of the Byram School.”

“If the housing authority of the 1980s could build affordable housing and respect the historic character of the school, why can’t they do that now?” he asked.

Mr. Shehadi also questioned the housing authority’s guarantee that all units would count toward state requirements for affordability. He said the town lease of $1.00 a year for 99 years had no affordability restrictions.

“The letter they circulated earlier this week from the housing authority only commits to affordability if they get CHFA financing. And if they win the 8-30g lawsuit, who knows? Maybe 30%.”

Shehadi said the housing authority’s track record over the last 30 years was not comforting.

“Their 2020 audit had $8 million of unrestricted cash on their balance sheet. In 2021 they spent $6.3 million to buy six houses with 14 units. According to the Dept of Housing, none of those units count toward the numerator of the 10%.”

He noted how back in 2018 the Board of Selectmen approved a 50-unit senior housing project at Armstrong Court with minimal affordable units.

“Of those 50 units, 10 were affordable, and 40 were proposed to be market rate,” Shehadi said.

The state of Connecticut requires that municipalities have 10% of their housing stock be affordable. Greenwich has hovered around 5% for decades. As long as the town remains out of compliance, it is subject to the 8-30g affordable housing statute that exempts developers from zoning laws except in rare instances such as health and safety.

“Since 1990, roughly when 8-30g started, the housing authority has added 216 units to its portfolio. Eighty-nine of those count toward the 10%. The numerator – half of that is Parsonage Cottage – the other 127, at market rate, do not.”

He added that Greenwich Close apartments, where some units are affordable and others are market rate, do not count toward the numerator either.

He questioned what affordability restrictions there would be if the development did not receive CHFA financing.

“Tax credits are not a slam dunk. They’re highly competitive,” he continued. “They’re oversubscribed regularly two-to-one, sometimes more.”

Bob Barolak, chair of Greenwich’s affordable housing trust, spoke against rejecting the MI at Vinci Gardens. Dec 12, 2022

Bob Barolak, chair of Greenwich’s affordable housing trust, said he’d seen the financing plans for the property, and knew from his own 40 years of financing, developing and operating multi-family affordable housing properties that it would be impossible to construct Vinci Gardens without tax credits.

“The housing authority has been invited by CHFA and the Dept of Housing to apply,” he said.

“That is effectively – not a firm, done deal – but that is your very high assurance they will get tax credits. If they don’t get the tax credits, the building will never be built.”

Barolak defended the height and bulk of the building.

“This is not an 8-30g that is blowing out zoning with a 19-story thing going lot line to lot line. It conforms to the height and bulk of the zoning in the area,” Barolak said.

Vinci Gardens, a 52 unit building (at left) with mansard roof. The building was approved by P&Z with the condition there be no mansard roof, but rather a gable or hip roof.
The vote to reject the Municipal Improvement status for the Vinci Gardens project failed. Red was a vote yes to reject. Green was a vote no not to reject.

State Rep Meskers (D-150), who ultimately voted not to reject the MI, said there was unresolved conflict in the community.

“It concerns me that we are arguing about facts,” he said.

“It wasn’t clear to me where we were with affordability in the index. It wasn’t clear where we are on the lawsuit between the housing authority and the town.”

Mareta Hamre said the town was “expert at saying no” to affordable housing projects.

“We have said give us local control and we will prove that we do favor affordable housing, and yet when there is any specific policy that comes up that would provide more housing, we say no,” she added. “I am here to say yes…We need this project because it is the only one that is in front of us.”

“There is no perfect proposal. I say we say yes to this one,” Hamre added.

Maria Popp emphasized the importance of preserving the open space in densely developed Byram.

“Many other parts of town have preserved open space, but the western part of town has lost both trees and open space to town projects such as New Lebanon school and a proposed new skating rink. To date, trees promised to be replaced at New Lebanon School have yet to materialize,” she said.

RTM member Liz Eckert, who is vice chair of the BNA testified, describing herself as “nobody.”

“Mr. Johnson of the housing authority has stated publicly that ‘nobody’ is going to be able to see this 50,000 sq ft structure sited at the highest point in Byram. And that makes me a nobody. My children often visit the memorial park to see the beautiful Oak tree that was planted in their uncle’s honor when he lost his life at age 20 in Vietnam. They are nobodies too.”

Ms Eckert said the park was frequented by Byram residents including children in the playground, baseball field and skating rink.

“They are nobodies too.”

“To be clear, I fully understand the need and fully support building affordable housing in Greenwich and I am not a NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – as Mr. Romeo described us nobodies in reaction to community objection to this project.”

“Being called a NIMBY is quite amusing to me as I live in Byram and many of us nobodies don’t even have a back yard,” she said.

Eckert asked the housing authority to return with an application consistent with the POCD and incorporating community input, with all the units counting toward the 10% state requirement for affordable housing.

The former Byram School faces Putnam Ave. Per the National Register, the school was constructed between 1925 and 1926 in the Colonial Revival style, with an addition in 1936. Photo: Leslie Yager

Joe Kantorski, chair of the BNA, said the Byram community had not been involved in the project, and that four members of the BNA had made objections over the course of several public hearings about the design and planning of Vinci Gardens.

“We do not take this step lightly,” Kantorski said. “We believe Byram has been ill-served by the process that brings us here…We deserve better.”

Allison Walsh, an attorney who lives in District 3, said the housing authority was giving the town the finger.

She quoted the housing authority’s original 99-year lease:

“This lease is contingent upon the THAC – now the housing authority – being able to obtain the proper planning & zoning authorization, including variances, site approval or permits from the P&Z commission or P&Z Board of Appeals for the construction of rental housing satisfactory to the THAC.”

“It is very clear from the lease that the P&Z commission had the right to impose restrictions on the size of this building, which is out of character with the neighborhood and will disturb the peace and tranquility of the people who already live there,” she said.

“If the housing authority has sued the town, given this clear language in the lease that the P&Z has the right to impose conditions of its development on the site, it seems to me it is giving the finger to the town in a very big and clear way,” she added.

Lucy von Brachel, secretary of the BNA, said the housing authority participated in the P&Z pre-application process, where they were given feedback on their proposal.

“Greenwich Communities leadership refused to engage with the community in any way, and returned without addressing any of the feedback,” von Brachel said.

Anthony Johnson, executive director of the housing authority, had the last word before RTM members submitted their electronic votes.

Speaking as the principal proponent of the project, he assured members that the project would be 100% affordable.

“One hundred percent. Not 20%, not 30%, not 40%,” he said.

He talked about all the numerous times the project had gone before town agencies.

“P&Z at least three times. We received their approval,” he said without mentioning the lawsuit was not yet settled.

“What’s being asked is for you guys to substitute your emotional judgement for the professionals you hired in this town to do their jobs.”

He disagreed with Mr. Shehadi that the building could be spotted from the neighborhood.

“This is not open space. This is space that was given to the housing authority for development. And guess what? We’ve been trying to develop this land for exactly 12 years. Why? Because everybody says no.”

“But then the 8-30g law comes along, and we all get upset when a developer comes to town and wants to put up big monstrosities when we can’t even get support for the housing authority who is paying for this project on their own,” Mr. Johnson said.

“There’s no town money,” he added.

Mr. Johnson reminded the group that the P&Z had approved the development.

“It’s a beautiful building. I swear before God, in my opinion, it’s a beautiful building,” he added.

“The lawsuit has been settled. We set an agreement with the town,” Mr. Johnson added.

“We had an agreement, because their stipulations would have required the removal of a third of our units, which would have made the project not viable. That’s why we did what we did.”

See also:

Greenwich Communities to Challenge Local Control of P&Z and Resubmit Affordable Project under 8-30g
Sept 15, 2022

Greenwich Communities Unhappy with Conditions of P&Z Approval for Vinci Gardens
Sept 13, 2022

Greenwich Housing Authority Frustrated over High Cost of P&Z Process for Vinci Gardens
August 6, 2022

Proposed “Vinci Gardens” Criticized for Height, Mass, Tree Loss, Lack of Respect for Historic Byram School June 10, 2022

P&Z WATCH: Tough Questions Posed for Greenwich Housing Authority’s 52-Unit “Vinci Gardens” Sept 29, 2021