P&Z to Benedict Place 8-30g Applicant: Consider Workforce Housing

Two possible 8-30g developments were discussed by the Planning & Zoning commission this week. Because both are pre-applications, the discussions were non binding.

One was “J Lofts West” at 240 Greenwich Avenue – a 60-unit building with 6 residential stories over two underground parking levels.

The second was a 110-unit development with 6 residential stories on Benedict Place and Benedict Court. It would include 190 parking spaces on two levels of underground parking.

Cars parked along Benedict Court
View looking south along Benedict Place. Photo: Leslie Yager
Benedict Place.

Many of the same questions about 240 Greenwich Ave were asked, including whether the applicant would be willing to set aside more than the required minimum of 30% units as affordable housing.

Developments are submitted under the state affordable housing statute 8-30g do not have to comply with local zoning. In evaluating them, the P&Z commission instead looks at the balance between the need for affordable housing and public health or safety issues.

The Benedict application would have a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units, but attorney for the applicant, Chip Haslun, said two and three bedrooms would be 70% of the building.

Like attorney John Tesei who represented the J Lofts West application, Mr. Haslun noted that the proposed location was already near other tall buildings.

33 Benedict Place
25 West Elm Street

“We think this fits in very well with your POCD, which suggests finding areas in central Greenwich that are underutilized for infill. In this case, 11 buildings on 12 properties that would be consolidated,” Haslun said.

Philip Wharton, Chief Investment Officer with Twining Properties, who are partnering with the owner of the properties, Joe Tranfo, said the location was ideal, remarking that it was “walkable to downtown, while not bringing congestion.”

He said the target market was empty nesters who want to stay in town, but not own a house.

Amenities would include high ceilings, granite tabletops and high-end appliances.

“We also think despite it being highly walkable, for the foreseeable future people will own cars and some of the residents will want to own two cars,” he said. “We think the market will demand that.”

As for the affordable piece, he said, “We feel the way it works for our business and our investors is the 70% renters subsidize the 30% affordables. Rents are high enough in Greenwich to support 30%. In my experience – I’ve done a lot of multi-family development and 20% is quite common.”

He said he did not think it would be possible to subsidize 40% affordable.

There are 6 floors planned at grade level and above, with 5 floors of residential, with 20 apartments per floor. The ground floor will have 10 apartments and amenities, which are not finalized.

Access will all be via Benedict Place. The plan is to create a driveway off the street so when people drop off they won’t block traffic.

“(Amenities) you see often in the market are a private dining space, a library, perhaps a co-working space, a wine cellar,” he said. “People will have high expectations, and we’re asking premium rents, so having those amenities is important.”

The roof will feature a deck that would look out over Long Island Sound.

The other side of the roof would feature an outdoor courtyard or “park” that would have other amenities, such as an area for picnicking.

Rendering of proposed development at Benedict Court and Benedict Place with landscaping and trees.

Mr. Wharton said he wasn’t sure if the rooftop park would be open to the public. “There are maybe some security or liability questions, but we’ll look into it,” he said.

Overall Wharton said the project would reduce impervious surface.

Bruce Beinfield, the architect for the project, said the goal was to break down the scale of the building, and make it read like a series of brick townhouses facing onto Benedict Place.

“This type of articulation allows for individual balconies on individual units and reduces the canyon effect,” he said.

Commissioner Nick Macri asked Mr. Wharton about the 70-30 ratio.

“Can it work in 10 units? Can it work in 20 units? Is there a make or break number where it’s not applicable any more?” Macri asked.

“It depends on the fixed costs,” Wharton said. “As you go down in scale, whatever fixed costs there are become more expensive on a per unit basis.”

“We’re shooting on the market rate side for the highest-end, premiere building in town. We want to have amenities to reflect that. Having the 77 market rate units out of the 110 total is what we think is the right size to deliver the amenities.”

Macri asked if there was data on the potential market-rate renters.

“I was referring to the concept of empty-nesters,” Wharton said. “I don’t want to say we’d only cater to that or that we want to restrict to that, but someone who has been living in Greenwich with a larger house whose kids have grown up and they don’t need as big a house.”

Macri asked if there was a market for the affordable units.

Mr. Wharton explained the affordable units was a qualification process that is regulated. And while he had not done an affordable housing development in Connecticut, he had done them in New York where the qualification process is heavily regulated and there is a lottery system.

“We’ll be looking at energy efficiency, sustainability, the materials used and also efficient use of utilities,” Wharton added.

Mr. Beinfield said in the march toward a sustainable future, the industry was evolving quickly, and there are extremely high energy heating and cooling systems that were not available five years ago. And the amount of insulation in a building is far better now. And glass and glazing, which is where most of the heat leaks out of a building, has gotten much better. The idea of double or even triple glazing the windows is something we’d look into with that in mind.”

Mr. Haslun said he’d spoken to DPW commissioner Amy Siebert, who indicated there was ample capacity at Grass Island. “They know of no issues whatsoever with the sewer line. Horseneck is a horse of a different color, but this one, no. We’re of the belief that there are really no issues.”

Mr. Yeskey asked if any of the properties to be torn down were historical.

“I don’t believe that any of these buildings are contributing to any designation of historic district or the national registry,” Haslun said. “It may be that one or more of the buildings has a Connecticut plaque on them.”

The adjacent building behind Tiffany has a Historic Overlay, but it is not part of the Benedict development.

Yeskey asked whether the proposal contained a public-private partnership aspect as it had in a previous iteration in 2018.

That proposal offered to swap the town’s 77-space municipal parking lot on Lewis Street at Benedict Place in exchange for an underground level of parking. The idea was to turn the Lewis street lot into a green passive park.

This time around, there is no public private partnership aspect proposed, and no public parking in the underground garage.

Ms Alban asked if the applicant would consider workforce housing.

“We spent all this time writing the 6-110 regulation. We thought it accommodated,” Ms Alban said, referring to the town’s moderate income “workforce” housing regulation.

“The reason we wrote 6-110 the way we did is we are trying to accommodate people who make more than state median income.”

“I’ve been talking to the Board of Education, and half of the staff of the BOE doesn’t even qualify for Area Median Income. They (earn) higher than that, and they still can’t afford to live in town,” she said. “So maybe more apartments begins to solve that problem, but we also have a group of people who work for the BOE who are between 80% of SMI, and the 60% and 80% of AMI. And they are not being accommodated by what we’re seeing in town. We wrote this great regulation. We thought everyone was going to love it, and bingo everyone is doing 8-30g’s.”

“Would you consider our 6-110? Does that work for you. If it doesn’t work for you, how would you change our 6-110 so that it works for you?” Alban asked. “How could we structure something that provides below market housing at all the levels of income that aren’t being accommodated in Greenwich right now.”

Mr. Barolak mentioned the Town was in the process of creating a housing trust fund.

“And there seems to be a strong interest in government putting money in to support the development of affordable housing,” he said.

He said 8-30g gave a developer two options: One is as a set aside, which constrains a developer to income limits for the 30% based on State Median Income, which he said was 50% lower than Area Median come.

“The second way is to come in under ‘assisted housing,’ which means a unit of government – in this case the Town of Greenwich, via the housing trust fund, or some other way, would invest some amount of money in a subordinate position into the property, probably as low interest debt. Once the building and its affordable units qualify for ‘assisted housing,’ those units can charge rent based not on State Median Income, but whatever median income the government unit providing the money provides,” Barolek said.

“We are hopeful that when we get our trust fund up and going, that it can designate Area Median Income as the source, which in effect gives the developer a 50% increase in the rents on no less than 30% of the units,” he added.

Ms Alban talked about the waiting list for housing through Greenwich Communities (formerly the Greenwich Housing Authority).

“We know we need SMI,” she said. “We went through the numbers with the previous applicant.”

She said the housing authority had 1,016 names on its wait list that can’t be accommodated for 18-24 months, and, she said the lists are closed.

“No more new names,” Alban said. “SMI works, but there is this other range of people, and as we write the town’s affordable housing plan, we are thinking about the whole gamut.”

Alban said by the time the applicant returned the town would might have completed its affordable housing plan.

“People are worried about all the traffic, and the high building, but we also recognize we need the housing,” she added.

“We are open to other ideas, other formats,” Wharton said. “So, we could look at the 8-30g as a fallback. But if we can explore other levels of affordability to help people who are caught in the middle, we’d be very open to it.”

Ms Alban said there were benefits to having Board of Education and hospital employees living in town.

“If we can get folks who work in town to live in town, and maybe even walk to work, your traffic is going to get tons better,” she said.

Commissioner Nick Macri asked what is the upside of the project for the town? Eleven structures are being torn down including 5 residential units.

“We’re taking about premium rents, catering to empty-nesters, it’s walkable and we’re providing lots of parking spaces. I’d love to know what the perception of the balance is here,” Macri said. “I have a 110-unit, 6 story building giving us a little bit of affordable housing.

“You’re getting 33 unit of affordable housing,” Haslun said.

“That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we actually need,” Macri said. “Why not more affordable housing?”

Mr. Wharton said that in New York City, the 80-20 program had generated a lot or affordable housing

“Coming in at 8-30g is really creating a wedge between what you’re trying to do and what the community is trying to do,” commissioner Peter Levy said.

“We’re open to ideas. We only had 8-30g to start with, but if there’s a way to play off the difference between the Greenwich median income and the state median income, that seems like a way to generate even more than 30%,” Wharton said.

“Whenever I meet with clients looking to do development in town, I always bring up 6-109 (Historic Overlay), 6-110 for moderate income and 8-30g or affordable housing,” Haslun said.

During public comment, Linda Molnar from 25 West Elm Street said her building was between both of the proposed 8-30g developments and would feel the impact of increased traffic. She said she hoped they wouldn’t both be under construction at the same time.

John Hilts from 25 West Elm Street said blasting for underground garages would impact neighboring buildings. He said cars already speed up and down Benedict Place.

See also:

Potential Issues for Proposed 8-30g Affordable Housing Development at 240 Greenwich Ave Come to Light during P&Z Discussion