Canaan Parish today. Credit: Michael Dinan
As redevelopment plans for an affordable housing complex materialize, New Canaanites must balance safeguarding the town from a punitive state law with creating buildings that look just how they want and doing so in a financially viable way, project leaders said this week.
Specifically, increasing the number of units at Lakeview Avenue and Route 123 in order to gain relief in the future from an affordable housing law known by its statute number ‘8-30g’ means working within restrictions in terms of building height and even style, according to the chairman of the New Canaan Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners.
Such considerations long have weighed on the minds of the Housing Authority and an organization called New Canaan Neighborhoods, which created and manages Canaan Parish, a 60-unit Section 8 housing complex, Chairman Scott Hobbs told members of the Town Council during their regular meeting Wednesday night.
And though early-stage renderings of a redeveloped Canaan Parish have been received poorly by at least some in New Canaan, those schematics are not final and, in many ways, result from careful considerations in how to achieve a workable balance between financial viability and legal qualification on the one hand, and usefulness and aesthetics on another, Hobbs said.
“If you want to build a giant box and put a low-sloped roof on it, you have more options,” Hobbs said at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “But we looked at that. That looked really bad. I mean really bad. And so we looked at various options—this comes down to the tradeoffs—and as a community we get to decide ‘Which tradeoffs do you want?’ And if 8-30g is important, it will lean one way. And if you want to say ‘Well, forget 8-30g and we are willing to take that chance and risk,’ we can go a different way.”
He added: “If you put this building in Seattle, I mean people would line up all around the block to get into this thing. We are not going for bad architecture. We are not trying to compromise architecture. We are trying to create something that is really nice. Is it different from what is here? Yeah, it is different. But we are really trying to create a very nice, attractive building that will be a great living experience for all the residents.”
Selectman Kit Devereaux at a Board of Selectmen meeting earlier this month raised concerns about the appearance of the redeveloped Canaan Parish based on available schematics. Though the secretary of the Housing Authority’s board did attend that meeting, that individual is not an architect or builder.
Town officials long have said New Canaan, like similar towns nearby, will never will hit a goal whereby 10 percent of its housing stock qualifies as “affordable” under the state’s rigid definition. Achieving such would pull New Canaan permanently out from under the threat of the Affordable Housing Appeals Act, whereby builders by setting aside a certain percentage of new developments as “affordable” may skirt local planning decisions. Even so, following a Housing Authority-led, higher-density redevelopment of the affordable complexes at Millport Avenue, New Canaan did achieve four years of relief from the state law.
Plans at the 5.2-acre town-owned property (New Canaan Neighborhoods owns the buildings) call for rebuilding the 60-unit Section 8 housing complex in a single structure and construction of a new, 40-unit structure that would count toward the state’s affording housing requirement.
Hobbs appeared before the Town Council to request $125,000 from a town fund to work toward the Canaan Parish redevelopment, and used the opportunity to review how the Housing Authority found its way toward the buildings now under consideration (Stamford-based Amenta Emma is the architect).
Currently, Canaan Parish—a 40-year-old development whose lifespan was about 30 years, Hobbs said—has very small units with no amenities, lots of stairs and no air conditioning that fail to meet current code and sit on a piece of land that has no green space so that children there end up playing in the parking lot. New Canaan Neighborhoods has been seeking to redevelop the property, separate and apart from any considerations related to 8-30g, he said.
In seeking to create affordable housing in New Canaan, developers such as the Housing Authority face a major obstacle in that available land is limited and expensive. Though it makes sense to redevelop Canaan Parish with higher density, the Housing Authority itself is hamstrung in several ways, Hobbs said—for example, the agency must pay prevailing wage, faces heavy government regulations and doesn’t collect market rents.
“So making these developments happen is really, really hard and maximizing the use of land becomes very important,” he said.
The plans set to go before P&Z in two weeks create more “green space” or common exterior communal areas, Hobbs said, and rise to four stories, in part, to leverage the economies of scale in order to offset the high costs of installing elevators.
Every piece of the design has resulted from careful thought, he said, including whether to use a gabled roof versus a flat roof.
“If you do a gabled roof you are now adding to the massing of the building something that is really really substantial for no benefit as far as the use of the downstairs area, the lower areas,” he said. “As such we decided to go back to some of the best architecture that is out there today in terms of more higher density residential units and we are also playing a little bit off of New Canaan’s modernist tradition and going toward something that is more modern.”
The new apartments admit more natural light, offer more amenities and represent an upgrade to mechanical systems, according to Hobbs.
Yet they are not a final version, he said.
Specifically, the yellow-and-black colors result not from what the Housing Authority wants (that will be something more like natural cedar and a driftwood gray in clapboard), but from a communication problem between architecture software called ‘SketchUp’ and a printer.
“Those should never be viewed as those are the colors we are looking for,” he said. “That would be a failure if those are the colors.”
He added: “By breaking up all the different elevations, by having shapes that move forward and back you break up the massing of the building. We are going to have more jogs inside the building. You have to be a little bit careful, you have too many jogs inside the building you could jump the cost. We will have more fenestration on it, we are trying to break up the horizontal element of it. it will have natural fieldstone down below toward the parking areas which will ground it and hide it into all of the site package.”
Town Councilmen asked Hobbs about the cost-savings in being able to relocate current residents on-site during the redevelopment (it’s tens of thousands of dollars per family), what is the planned timetable (three years overall—start construction of the 60-unit building one year from now, finish it in one year and start the second one), whether the two buildings would operate under the same Section 8 authority (no the first 60 units would but the second 40-unit building would be cooperative between New Canaan Neighborhoods and the Housing Authority), at what stage in the municipal approval process design is figured out (Planning & Zoning Commission), whether the occupancy rate on the new structures is expected to reach 100 percent (yes and quickly), how much the additional units would add to the tax base (some but not as much as there would be if the additional 40 units were market rate—their costs to tenants will be set at 60 percent of the area median income), whether there would be age restrictions for those residing in the new 40-unit building so as to make it “senior-friendly” (no, though one-third of them will be single-bedroom units) and what people could look at now for a comparable view (the four-story Millport Avenue units though a bit lower and “boxier toward the front”).
Councilman Penny Young asked whether the Housing Authority had studied the impact of creating an additional 40 units at Canaan Parish on East School.
According to David McCarthy, president of Heritage Housing Inc., a consulting firm assisting on the project, about 20 additional children under the age of 10 could be expected at Canaan Parish following the redevelopment.
Young also asked whether Hobbs expected P&Z to approve the four stories proposed for the site, which is higher than what the town’s Zoning Regulations normally allow.
Hobbs said he was “hopeful for that.”
“We looked at locations for a site for higher density housing, Lakeview is pretty good,” he said. “Its neighbors are East School off to one side, the dump—sorry, the ‘Transfer Station’ over on the other side, the power station—and then Avalon and way off to the side there is one house down the hill that quite frankly we are creating a much better situation for them than what they currently have with all the townhouses overlooking the pond. So of all the places in New Canaan it is a minimal impact versus almost anywhere else where you could find to put something. And it really does become that tradeoff between how long you want to build it versus how much you want to go up and how much green space versus the building footprint. So we are hopeful that they will. Obviously it’s their choice at the end of the day.”
The Council voted 10-0 to approve the $125,000 request. Those voting included Liz Donovan, Joe Paladino, Young, Vice Chairman Rich Townsend, Chairman John Engel, Vice Chairman Sven Englund, Steve Karl, Tom Butterworth, Cristina A. Ross and Mike Mauro. Christa Kenin and Jim Kucharzyck were absent.
P&Z is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on July 31.