With mixed feelings and in the most heavily conditioned approval in memory, the Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night voted unanimously in favor of allowing up to 110 units for the planned redevelopment of the Merritt Apartments property on the edge of downtown New Canaan.
Though the proposed ‘Merritt Village’ complex came down in the total number of units since an application was filed in June—from 123 as originally planned and 116 as later offered—some parts of its townhouse-style buildings will reach four stories.
Despite multiple adjustments from the applicant, M2 Partners LLC, which brought down the height of the development in some of its most conspicuous street-facing areas, the new allowable height—which is to be specific to the Merritt Village development—concerned much of the commission.
“I am not happy with it,” P&Z Commissioner Jack Flinn said of the decision.
“I really, really wanted to see it stay at the 3-story level and not break the 4-story ceiling with this. I think by doing that we are not protecting the character of the town. With the Plan of Conservation and Development and all of the meetings after meetings that we had on this issue and others, we talked about the character of the town and I have thought about that and for myself, I have concluded that the character of the town is really set by the people of the town. It’s the people who come here, who move here with their values, their families and see a town that they admire and want to live in and raise their children and send their children to the great schools that we have and so on. It’s what the people want. The housing, the stores, the trees, the parks and what have you, they all contribute, but it is the people who determine the character of the town.”
He added that M2 managing partner Arnold Karp, a New Canaan resident, is a “very good builder who we know well, who is going to build it for us.”
“We can live with that and I think that it can be done very well, and we are going to have to go with the buildings. The question I have is: Can we live with the decision to go with two [buildings at] four stories? And we have to live with that as well. So I just wish us good luck. I think that we all worked very hard trying to do the very best that we could, putting in a lot of time and a lot of effort. Putting ourselves into it, really. And I think we did the best we can for the people of the town, that’s how I feel about it and that has been my motivation through the whole thing.”
Approved 8-0 by the commission on 65 conditions—far more than anyone can remember for a building project in New Canaan—the decision follows months of vigorous debate and discussion among neighbors of the proposed condo-and-apartment complex, as well as P&Z members, advocates for seniors, St. Aloysius Church representatives, Realtors and third-party consultants who weighed in on pressing questions of traffic, school enrollment and real estate valuation.
Commissioners voting in favor of the approval included P&Z Chairman John Goodwin, Bill Redman, John Kriz, Claire Tiscornia, Flinn, Dick Ward, Laszlo Papp and Kent Turner. Commissioners Elizabeth DeLuca and Tony Shizari were absent, while Jean Grzelecki recused herself as a neighbor and Dan Radman recused himself as owner of a nearby property.
The conditions include one single underground parking garage with 193 spaces (instead of two garages as originally proposed), restricting a “common” building along Park Street to one story and with no dwelling units above it, appointment of a project liaison to keep an open line with neighbors and hear their concerns and multiple protections through and after construction for the “Maple Street Cemetery,” followed by creation of a public access way—possibly through an easement—to the historic burial ground.
“I think we want to make sure that the cemetery which we all agree is a cemetery is not infringed upon and is protected,” Kriz said during a lengthy discussion of the conditions. The meeting itself went five hours.
In weighing Merritt Village’s pros and cons, commissioners echoed many sentiments expressed by residents who took to the podium during some of the six public hearings that started after attorney Steve Finn of Stamford-based Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky LLP filed an application June 1 on behalf of M2.
Advocates of the project have pointed to a dearth of single-story downtown housing for seniors, pointing to several directives outlined in the POCD, which is meant to guide development in New Canaan.
Opponents have voiced concerns about the proposed height of Merritt Village, density, affect on real estate values, potential for increasing school enrollment, bringing unwanted traffic and altering the look and feel of New Canaan.
The approval calls for 110 units in four buildings of up to four stories where the 38-unit Merritt Apartments now stand—a combined 3.3-acre lot fronting parts of Maple and Park Streets, catty-corner to the library. P&Z approved a site plan and special permit, as well as an “overlay zone” that is specific to Merritt Village, makes the project possible within the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and could not be used elsewhere in town.
Tiscornia said she feared allowing the proposed overlay zone would “set a dangerous precedent for future developments.”
“I do not like the idea of adding an overlay zone to zoning that already exists,” she said. “I am concerned that this may open the door to developers in the future to construct their own overlay zones to tailor their own future projects. However, in regards to the Merritt application, the site is unique due to its size, proximity to the downtown and its overall location in the town. What we have here tonight is a compromise. Not everyone will be happy.”
P&Z during a hearing last month had broached the possibility of 105 units at Merritt Village. Goodwin said it made sense to restrict specifics such as setbacks, height and building footprints and to allow the developer “some flexibility” in determining the exact number of units.
The decision regarding the Merritt Village, as approved, now shifts to Karp. The prospect of an affordable housing application from M2 has loomed over the application all summer and into the fall, when P&Z commissioners closed the public hearing on Merritt Village and took up a discussion among themselves.
Karp indicated after the October hearing that his partners at M2 were unhappy with the figure of 105 units and willing to go the affordable housing route in order to redevelop Merritt Apartments.
New Canaan falls well short of a state standard, under which 10 percent of all housing stock in town qualifies as “affordable” under the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development’s definition. The town expects to achieve a four-year moratorium in early-2017 when a Certificate of Occupancy is issued for the more densely built affordable housing complex at Mill Pond. A second phase of that project is expected to get New Canaan a good way toward another four-year moratorium, and officials now are looking at Canaan Parish as a possibility for creating even more units.
Yet M2 likely has time to file its application for an affordable complex at Merritt Apartments before New Canaan qualifies for an exemption from the Affordable Housing Appeals Act—a state law often called by its statute number, “8-30g,” that would allow a developer such as M2 Partners to skirt local planning decisions by designating 30 percent of the units in a given development as “affordable” under the state’s definition.
Goodwin said that though he would have preferred to a development of 85 to 95 units—a figure the former town planner arrived at by calculating the most densely housed part of New Canaan and applying that math to the Merritt site—still the project in initial discussions was at 160 units.
“I think we were able to address the 4-story issue in the most significant areas on the property and get it down to three stories,” Goodwin said.
He also said the prospect of an affordable housing application was a driver for him, not least because New Canaan is fast approaching a period of relief from the law that could spur a developer to put in for an 8-30g project sooner.
The prospect of such an application was “a clear and present danger,” Goodwin said.
“So as I think about what is the right project for this location, I can live with 110 units and hopefully less. But what if it was 8-30g? At this location, it could support over 200 units, so would a 200-unit project be suitable at this location? I will admit that was a driver.”
Redman said that the applicant listened to many neighbors and “met the commission halfway in terms of requirements for height and loom.” The project is consistent with POCD goals and will address identified housing needs for empty-nesters and seniors, among others, he said.
Citing renowned urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Papp discussed the difference between “zoning for conformity” and “zoning for diversity.”
“Zoning for conformity will lead to stagnation and eventual decline in the community,” he said. “Zoning for diversity provides for progress. This commission, as I have known it, has always zoned for diversity. This was done when we were first among neighboring towns to approve a multifamily zone, taking into consideration the site and population needs.”
The town followed its philosophy in protecting open space, preserving historic buildings and recognizing the different districts within New Canaan.
“Diversity assured that the various areas of the town maintained their distinct characters, and I am totally satisfied that the proposed approval will satisfy these principles of good zoning practices,” Papp said.