NEW CANAAN—Tom Ferguson, 70, moved to New Canaan almost thirty years ago when he took a job in Stamford. He chose the town over other neighboring communities because he wanted someplace more rural and with a good school system for his son, then 11. Now Ferguson’s son is raising his own boys right here in town.

New Canaan remains home to Ferguson for more reasons than family. The friends he’s made while working for Staying Put in New Canaan and Waveny Lifecare Network are here. When they’re not taking advantage of New Canaan’s proximity to New York City, they’re enjoying the town itself, trying restaurants or walking the neighborhood.

“We have family here and we also like it here,” Ferguson said. “It’s a busy, nice town to live in with great services and volunteer organizations. People are really nice here. It’s a bit shocking when you come from other places how nice people are [here].”

Ferguson said that he and his wife have looked into relocating, “but nothing even made it to first base on that.” The issue of accessibility and ease, however, is important to Ferguson as he ages.

“I know what happens when people get older,” he said. “They can’t move around as well and can’t see as well. At some point, many people want to move to some place that’s easier for them in their later years.”

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Public learns details of Merritt plan

By Justin Papp

A plan to tear down the existing 38 units known as Merritt Apartments on Park Street and replace them with up to 123 units went before the town for the first time last month at a Planning and Zoning Commission Public Hearing.

A large number of New Canaan residents and the commission listened to “a thorough and informative presentation” on the proposed redevelopment at Town Hall on June 28, said Laszlo Papp, a Planning and Zoning Commission member. The commission heard a request made on behalf of M2 Partners, the architectural firm proposing the redevelopment, for a zoning change that would allow increased density in the area.

In addition to the 123 residential units—many of which would be four stories high and built with empty-nesters in mind—the Merritt Village Residence plan includes subsurface parking, a focus on pedestrian friendliness and green spaces.

Those most vocal at the meeting were owners of neighboring homes concerned with the effect the size of the new units would have on property value, the commissioner said.

“The concerns were basically that the proposed buildings were too big and out of character for the town and they may create traffic issues,” Papp said. “The commission always looks at both sides of the application as neighbors, not only the neighbors around the applicants, but the applicant itself is a neighbor.”

Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce Tucker Murphy said she looks forward to the idea of increased foot traffic in town, but she believes concerns about such a development need to be weighed.

“From the chamber’s perspective, certainly we’re always encouraged by anything bringing more people into town. Having said that, we’re very aware of the character that this town exudes to people,” Murphy said. “It’s a charming village, so the balance of those two is something that P&Z and everyone here strives for.”

The plan is “intended to add to the diversity of the housing types in New Canaan located within walking distance (less than 1,000 feet) of the Metro-North train station and downtown, and in the area that has the potential for transit and local demand for shops and services,” according to the application submitted by M2.

The concept, Murphy said, is something the chamber fully supports.

“We’re trying to look ahead many years and see what will happen if an application is approved, or disapproved, or changed,” Papp said. “How this will work out in the future.”

Discussion on the Merritt Village proposal by the Planning and Zoning Commission will continue on Tuesday, July 26 at 7 p.m. at the town meeting room.

For many, that means units without stairs, something which is currently lacking in New Canaan. According to Gillian DePalo, sales vice president for William Raveis Real Estate, out of 40 currently available condos in New Canaan, only five have first-floor suites.

“Most seniors want to not have to deal with steps and a lot of housing is not that conducive to seniors who want single-level living,” DePalo said. “There’s not a lot of single-level living in New Canaan. Most condos don’t have elevator access and may have stairs. That’s one of the biggest needs we have for seniors. They don’t want to go up and down stairs in unit.”

While Ferguson and his wife don’t intend to move out of New Canaan, he said if the time comes that they need to find more suitable housing and there’s none available, they may need to look elsewhere. With a tight condo and rental market with few handicap accessible options, that may just be the case.

Cue the Merritt Village apartments. Proposed by M2 Partners at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in Town Hall on June 28, the two-year project would theoretically bring 63 rentals and 60 condos to New Canaan where the Merritt Apartments currently stand. The units will be for anyone looking to live in the area without the hassle of owning a home, according to Arnold Karp, principal at M2 Partners and investor in the project.

“The audience, really, for this complex is 21 to 101,” Karp said. “We think the rentals will be for people who want to come to New Canaan. They may not be ready to buy, but they’re coming from another community. We imagine New Canaan people living there as well, people who currently live in town or are looking to move down potentially ”

Karp said the units would particularly appeal to the elderly because, currently, few rentals in New Canaan offer “flat living” or homes without any stairs.

For Ferguson, the flat living aspect of the apartments makes it a valuable potential addition to town.

“I’m hoping the Merritt development goes through,” he said. “It’s going to be ideally suited for people who are older and have issues with mobility that make it hard to stay in other places that aren’t handicap accessible.”

But there are concerns from the senior community about other aspects of the project.

Sitting and working on their knitting, many of the women at the Lapham Senior Center at Waveny Park said they are content living in their current homes and weren’t interested in smaller units, despite their handicap accessibility. Instead, they worried about the traffic and other problems the new development may bring.

“I have a lot of questions about how close are they going to be to the street, how many units are there now versus going to be and how tall they’re going to be,” said Carolyn Rowland of New Canaan. “That corner is so bad for traffic now.”

The 70-year-old also expressed concern about the costs of the units and their size when asked if she would consider moving into them. Rowland has been living with her husband in a condo they own in New Canaan for about thirty years now. She said she likes the size and the control she has over their two bed, two-and-half bath unit and doesn’t think she’d like to live in anything smaller.

“We live in one of the least expensive condos in town and I can’t imagine moving into a one or two bedroom apartment,” she said.

Rowland said she is also concerned about the potential pricing of the proposed units and how many families they’d bring in. She believes if priced too low, the units may attract many families, something which doesn’t appeal to some seniors who’d like to live in a quieter community.

“My husband is 77 and he’s not going to want to live where there’s a lot of little kids,” she said. “Seniors are not going to be patient about that. What kind of facilities are they going to have for kids to play with? You could accommodate a hundred more new families in town, but you don’t want to concentrate them in one area.”

Ferguson, on the other hand, believes this affordability may help the community.

“It’s important we have more of that category to retain young people,” he said. He also warned that people who might not be interested in the development now for other reasons may be shortsighted so far as it serving their own future needs.

“My impression is people are pretty well set and don’t care about anybody else. It’s a little selfish,” he said “The basic concept of flat living is terrific and the number of places in New Canaan that fill that bill now is really small. Thirteen percent of people have a handicap. The idea that it’s somebody else and not me is incorrect. We all end up with infirmities. The need really is for us all at some point in our lives.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata