Lumberyard grant moves forward but awaits final Town Council approval
The Town Council voted to postpone final approval for a grant application for a feasibility study exploring possible senior housing and decked parking in the Lumberyard Parking Lot July 27.
However, the council did allow First Selectman Jeb Walker to send in the application to the state by the Aug. 4 deadline as a placeholder. After that, town council has until Sept. 15 to give the final go ahead for the grant to move forward. Council members said they will likely hold a special public hearing and meeting before that deadline. The vote was already delayed after July 21 in order to gain more public opinion.
The Board of Selectmen also moved the initiative forward Aug. 2 where First Selectman Jeb Walker and Selectman Rob Mallozzi acknowledged concerns on both sides of the issue.
"Let me just assure everybody that your concerns are real and valid and understandable," Walker said. "As long as I am first selectman I will just guarantee that we're not going to do anything that doesn't meet the needs of the town or meet the needs of our community."
While weary of dealing with the state's involvement in a town issue, Mallozzi believes the town has a responsibility to learn what may or may not be feasible.
"The good news is that if this turns out to not be a good fit, thank God we have other things in place," Mallozzi said. "We have the Health and Human Services Department. We have the GetAbout. We have Meals on Wheels and the town can keep on funding [those initiatives for seniors] if need be. But the good news is that this is not the start for us. This is just one of a sequence of things that we have in place that so few towns have and that keep New Canaan the envy of Fairfield County and probably Connecticut. So even if this was to never come to fruition, the point is we will take care of our seniors in any way, shape or form we can through budget or through whatever it takes. That is a commitment that I will stand behind also."
The grant application would be on behalf of the Senior Health Care and Housing Policy Development Team's Phase III initiative, chaired by Judy Bentley. The senior housing team decided to pursue the grant nearly three weeks ago and wanted to complete it before the Aug. 4 deadline. However, in order to gain more public insight, they came up with the current scenario where the application is in on time but does not need final approval until Sept. 15. So if the Town Council decides not to move forward with the grant, it can still be withdrawn. Both Bentley and Town Planner Steve Kleppin told council members that this grant would only pay for a study and does not mean any building proposals are in the works.
"Fundamentally, it is an opportunistic grant," Jim Lisher, head of the Phase II senior team told the Board of Selectmen Aug. 2. "I don't know if we will get half a million dollars for the study. I don't know that we'll get anything. The fact is that it's money that comes out of a pot that sits there that we'll compete for. If we get it, then we'll use it and the town will have saved a substantial amount of money in the planning process."
According to the official grant application, available online on the town's website, "the town wishes to study the feasibility of adding additional commuter parking through decking the existing lot and then proposing senior-oriented housing atop the structure and possibly include a commercial medical facility through a public-private partnership. We are hopeful that this proposal will provide the framework for the future development of the site, so the town can partner with a private entity(s) to limit the actual time and costs associated with a project of this scope."
The request for funds of $495,000 would include an engineering study, design charrette, architectural consulting services, a transit-oriented development overlay zone, traffic impact, market analysis as well as financial and economic benefits.
The lumberyard area has always been a hot button issue. New Canaan commuter Patrick Swearingen wasn't pleased with the idea of decked parking.
"I've come here to prevent yet another divisive issue from pitting good citizens against each other just like the sidewalk, the bridge and the long range plan have done," Swearingen told the Town Council. "Every commuter that I know that I have talked to about tiered parking at the lumberyard thinks it's a bad idea."
Greg Smith, also a commuter, had strong views against anything happening in that area.
"I'm a commuter. I wouldn't want to go into a two or three tiered parking lot," Smith said. "Can you imagine how the traffic trying to get out of there in the evening or the morning right during rush hours? It's going to be an absolute nightmare."
To try and allay these concerns, Kleppin cautioned that nothing is on the table just yet. If and when Town Council approves the grant before Sept. 15 and if New Canaan is awarded the grant, the money, will go toward engineering and design study of the potentials.
"This is not a proposal to deck the lumberyard lot and add a hundred units of housing. This is to see if something like that is even feasible. What would even work on the site?" Kleppin said. "This is just to look at it. That's it, for the record."