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In marathon session, financiers grapple with Baron's South plan changes

Updated 8:36 pm, Thursday, November 29, 2012
  • Board of Finance members, from left, Janis Collins, Brian Stern, Chairman Avi Kaner and Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten on Wednesday discuss possible changes for a new "request for proposals" to develop a senior residential project on the Baron's South property.  Westport CT 11/28/12 Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Board of Finance members, from left, Janis Collins, Brian Stern, Chairman Avi Kaner and Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten on Wednesday discuss possible changes for a new "request for proposals" to develop a senior residential project on the Baron's South property. Westport CT 11/28/12 Photo: Paul Schott

 

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In a meeting that lasted more than five hours Wednesday night, Board of Finance members reiterated support for a new "request for proposals" for First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property.

Finance Board members are debating the scope and conditions of prospective proposals after Joseloff earlier this month recommended that a new RFP be issued.

Joseloff's endorsement of a new RFP came largely in response to Finance Board members' desire for a greater financial return on a senior residential campus. To achieve that goal, finance members signaled Wednesday that they would push for a more expansive RFP than the original version, which was issued by the town in December 2011.

"We need to construct the RFP such that it's timely and that we allow the bidders to play with these options," said Brian Stern. "We've got to give the bidders flexibility."

Finance Board members and Joseloff appear to concur that the required minimum number of "affordable" or below-market-rate homes for seniors at Baron's South should be reduced.

In a Nov. 20 memo to Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner, Joseloff recommended lowering the threshold for affordable units from 60 percent to 30 percent of the total residences. Most finance members indicated that affordable units should make up between 20 and 30 percent of the housing stock at Baron's South.

"It's clear that the 60 percent (minimum), which obviously is extremely well-intentioned, is basically going to limit the return that it will have. It's going to limit the financing and it's going to affect the flexibility as to the number of bids that come in," said Helen Garten, the board's vice chairwoman.

Changing the affordability benchmark would require a text amendment to the town's zoning regulations to modify an amendment passed last year by the Planning and Zoning Commission, at Joseloff's request, which established the 60 percent affordability threshold at Baron's South.

Despite the prospect of having to navigate another RFP process, the three development groups that submitted proposals in response to the first RFP still appear interested in building a senior living center at the 23-acre property. Principals of each of the firms -- Jonathan Rose Companies, Affirmative Hillspoint and Becker + Becker -- made presentations Wednesday to the Board of Finance. The Baron's South Committee, a nine-member panel appointed last year by Joseloff, endorsed Jonathan Rose's 99-unit proposal in September, after reviewing the three groups' plans in closed-door sessions over about five months earlier this year.

Jonathan Rose, the president of the development firm that bears his name, told the Westport News Wednesday that his firm plans to respond to a new RFP.

"In our experience, our projects go most smoothly when there is community consensus about the project," Rose said. "I would rather invest the upfront time to get the project right and define the balance between all the different community needs than to start going down the wrong path."

Becker said Wednesday that his firm would likely submit another proposal if the conditions of a new RFP were similar to the original.

"I think we're quite flexible," Becker told the Board of Finance. "We see this as a project that is more of a town asset, than a private asset."

Affirmative Hillspoint principals have shown less enthusiasm for a new RFP. In a letter Monday to the Board of Finance, they argued that the three firms that responded to the first RFP should have the opportunity to propose revised terms to the town. That letter also included modified plans for a continuing-care retirement community at the Baron's South campus with fewer total homes, but more subsidized rental units than proposed in its first offer.

"The only reason that this retirement community is not the overwhelming solution is because there's been a judgment, which nobody has explained, that a CCRC is not the right solution," said Affirmative Hillspoint President Marshall Breines. "I ask the process to reconsider its position on CCRC because I don't think, to anybody's satisfaction, it's been justified as to why it's been demonized, quite frankly."

While they appear to agree about issuing a new RFP, Joseloff and Board of Finance members still have yet to resolve a number of key questions. Perhaps the most important decision yet to be made is whether a new RFP should allow developers to present CCRC plans. In his memo to Kaner, Joseloff expressed his opposition to developing a CCRC at Baron's South.

Joseloff did not speak publicly Wednesday, instead spending much of the meeting sitting in one of the back rows in the Town Hall auditorium. He declined to be interviewed after the meeting about the status of the proposed new RFP.

Selectwoman Shelly Kassen indicated that she would not be keen for a new RFP, if it would significantly delay the project.

"We seem to sort of be in a circle here," she said. "I think I speak for the [Baron's South] Committee, when I say, `We're tired.' This could go on forever and there are a lot of people who would like to live in this place."

After more than five hours of discussion, the Board of Finance's meeting ended Thursday at about 12:30 a.m., without the board taking any votes.

In an interview with the Westport News after the meeting, Kaner maintained that Finance Board members support senior housing at Baron's South.

"We certainly don't want to kill the project," Kaner said. "We want to make it better. This is a decision that the town will have to live with for the next 75-plus years and it would be unfair to current taxpayers and future taxpayers to rush into a less-than-optimal project. If it takes a few more months, let it take a few more months. We're looking at this for the long-term."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com