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Joseloff willing to consider modified bids for Baron's South project

Updated 3:40 pm, Wednesday, November 21, 2012
  • A view of the 23-acre Baron's South property, which is located between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue, near downtown Westport. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    A view of the 23-acre Baron's South property, which is located between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue, near downtown Westport. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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The Board of Finance will hold a special meeting Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium to discuss First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property.
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In a bid to attract Board of Finance support for his proposed senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff reiterated Tuesday his willingness to issue a new request for proposals for the project.

Joseloff first publicly floated the possibility of a new RFP at the Nov. 12 session of the Representative Town Meeting. During that meeting and another RTM session the following night, many RTM members voiced support for senior housing at Baron's South. A number of them also urged Joseloff to continue negotiations with Jonathan Rose Companies, the development firm whose plan for an approximately 100-unit senior residential center at Baron's South was endorsed in September by the Baron's South Committee.

In a public memo Tuesday to Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner, Joseloff recognized the RTM's backing and described the Jonathan Rose proposal as a "balanced and responsible plan," which "addresses our needs for mixed income rental housing for seniors and provides a solid financial return."

Jonathan Rose proposed to pay a $500,000 fee to lease Baron's South and contribute $250,000 annually to the town in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, also known as PILOT. But that projected revenue stream has elicited a lukewarm response from Board of Finance members. At a meeting last month, Helen Garten, the board's vice chairwoman, called for a "reset" to initiate issuing a new RFP. Joseloff acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm from the finance board in his memo to Kaner.

"We recognized that your board seeks a greater financial return, as we provide senior housing on Baron's South," Joseloff said. "Above all, we want to avoid pitting one town board against another. This memo is an attempt to find common ground. We believe now the best way to do that is through an expedited rebid."

Joseloff suggested parameters for a new RFP in his memo. The new RFP would consider proposals for a total of 100 to 150 residential units. At the same time, it would lower the required minimum number of below-market-rate or "affordable units" from 60 percent to 30 percent of the total residences. That would require a text amendment to the town's zoning regulations to modify a text 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.

In addition, Joseloff called for a new RFP to set an eight-acre cap on the portion of the 23-acre Baron's South property that could be used during an initial development phase. The Jonathan Rose proposal conforms with an eight-acre limit.

Bidders would have 30 days to respond to the new RFP, according to Joseloff's plan.

In December 2011, the town issued its first RFP for senior housing plans at Baron's South. Jonathan Rose and two other firms, the Westport-based Affirmative Hillspoint and the Fairfield-based Becker + Becker, submitted proposals in late March. The Baron's South Committee, a nine-member panel, reviewed the three plans in closed-door executive sessions for about five months before endorsing Jonathan Rose's offer.

Joseloff ruled out inviting developers in a new RFP to present plans for a continuing-care retirement community at Baron's South. Affirmative Hillspoint responded to the first RFP with a continuing-care retirement community plan that envisioned 220 residential units and a 48-bed skilled-nursing center. Based on the Affirmative Hillspoint proposal, Joseloff listed in the memo to Kaner his concerns about building a CCRC at Baron's South. Those reservations include the development's impact on traffic and neighbors of Baron's South; the cost of "high-end" entrance fees to a CCRC, and the "significant burden" that would be placed on the town's Human Services Department, if it were to manage a scholarship fund set up to subsidize dozens of seniors' residency at the CCRC.

The CCRC concept has divided town officials. At the Nov. 13 RTM session, Baron's South Committee Co-Chairman Steve Daniels and Board of Finance member Tom Lasersohn strongly disagreed about the Affirmative Hillspoint plan. Lasersohn argued that a development plan similar to Affirmative Hillspoint's could provide senior housing and help to finance other town services. Daniels responded that Affirmative Hillspoint's plan was "not affordable in any way and it will not serve us."

Both Kaner and Garten reacted enthusiastically to Joseloff's proposal to issue a new RFP.

"A rebid is the way to achieve a level playing field and allow the town to choose among all available options," Garten said in an email Tuesday. "The original bidders will have an opportunity to improve their proposals. New bidders will have a chance to take a second look and hopefully decide to participate."

But Joseloff may not be able to count on such effusive backing from key members of the RTM.

"I am concerned with what amounts to a 50 percent increase in the number of possible units and the commensurate density," Matthew Mandell, the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee chairman, said in an email Tuesday. "We have to be conscience of what greater impacts will occur and costs that would be involved with this."

Joseloff may also encounter a P&Z less amenable to changing zoning regulations for senior housing at Baron's South than the zoning board he faced in 2011. The P&Z now has a Republican majority; those GOP members have often expressed unease pursuing about new large-scale development projects in Westport. Catherine Walsh, the P&Z's chairwoman, voted against the 2011 text amendment that established the zoning framework for the development of senior housing at Baron's South.

Issuing a new RFP would also push back the timetable for gaining approval from town boards and beginning construction of a senior complex -- a delay that would appear to grow in importance as Joseloff nears the end of his current term in office. His second term will expire in November 2013, when the next election for the town's first selectman post will be held. Joseloff has not announced yet whether he will run for a third term.

Earlier this month, former Board of Education Vice Chairman Jim Marpe, a Republican, announced his candidacy for the first selectmanship. Marpe has not yet publicly taken a position on the future of the Baron's South property.

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