P&Z focuses on taller height of buildings proposed in Riverwalk plan
The height allowed for new buildings was the focus of Planning and Zoning Commission deliberations Thursday as the panel again reviewed a proposal designed to set the stage for a large development on the site that once was the Save the Children headquarters.
The P&Z, for a third time in recent weeks, discussed the proposal to create a “Riverwalk District” for the property at 54 Wilton Road, where the owners want to build a residential/commercial complex on the west bank of the Saugatuck River.
Developer David Waldman and his team were back before the commission to discuss their proposed zoning amendment. A proviso in the Riverwalk Walk district would allow more intensive use of the property than under its existing zone classification, including a 47-foot height for a three-story luxury apartment house.
The P&Z did not vote on the application, and continued the public hearing to next Thursday.
As part of the overall plan, the developers they would purchase and move the historic house at 1 Wilton Road to allow widening of the Post/Wilton road intersection so a westbound turning lane could be created.
“The amenity package that we’re offering the town of Westport … satisfies what we need to do as developer and hits the buttons … that are important to the town of Westport,” Waldman said.
“We do believe we’re hitting buttons that the town wants to be hit,” he said. “We do believe we’re putting a building in an area where the town can take that height.”
“As a text amendment this opens the door from the Saugatuck River on the bridge, all the way down to the new village of Saugatuck,” P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said if the panel were to adopt the proposed amendment, which could not be applied exclusively to the former Save the Children site. The amendment would potentially allow taller buildings to be constructed on other sites along the river’s banks, he indicated.
“Height, height, height,” said Connie Greenfield, a former P&Z commissioner who spoke against the text amendment. “Every recent poll, every survey, has shown us that people in Westport do not want high buildings … They want the buildings kept low.”
“A 47-foot-tall building is an abomination, especially in that area,” Greenfield said, and likened traveling along Wilton Road to becoming “like a tunnel” if the development plan were approved.
“I don’t think people want the height,” she added, noting an outcry followed construction of taller buildings in the 1980s. “So why are we bringing them back now? I don’t think we should do that. I think that would be a big mistake.”
Waldman disputed her statements, saying that last year’s municipal election as an indication that Westporters want to see projects such as his moving forward. “We think we’re giving a public benefit package that will justify it in this location,” he said of the amendment’s allowance for more site coverage and greater heights.
Waldman and his lawyer also presented a second revision to the text amendment, which they were asked to tweak again before returning next week. Many of the P&Z members’ centered on their ability to still deny to a taller buildings if the amendment were approved.
“The Riverwalk District is not designed to be a straitjacket,” said Waldman’s lawyer, William Fitzpatrick.
“The text amendment would, if approved, be followed by a change of zone application,” he said, followed by a site plan special permit application at which time the commission could reject the project.
The most recent change to the proposed Riverwalk amendment, which lowered the height allowed from 48 to 47 feet, specifies that the additional 12 feet above the now-allowed 35 feet “may” be granted by the commission “provided the applicant demonstrates the opportunity for public benefits and public safety improvements.”
“We’ve really tried to hold the line on height in our downtown area,” commission member Jack Whittle said, noting that he feels he was re-elected based on his commitment to prioritize height as a key consideration in development.
“Here we’ve got potential for 47 feet,” he said. “That’s kind of a big jump.”
Waldman noted that in order to complete his project he couldn’t go lower, as he wants to have a level of parking below three stories of apartments. He said it would be cost prohibitive to build an underground parking garage on the site.
“Again, I’m having a hard time,” Stephens said. “I like the project. I don’t like the size.”
“My true fear is a wall, a Donald Trump-type wall, from the Post Road down to Saugatuck … if you open up the door.”
“The only would get the opportunity to do any of that if they created a public benefit that you felt was of benefit to the town,” Waldman said.
“Based on how we wrote the text amendment, we were very specific,” he added, noting he believes only one other property potentially could qualify for the same designation.
“This is about as close as you can get to being spot zoning,” said Michael Calise, a commercial property owner, who asked the P&Z to consider expanding the proposed amendment to include Post Road West up to the Norwalk line.
“It would just literally enhance Post Road West, which by the way is an area that’s not that strong in business use,” he said, noting that there are four large parcels of property “ripe for development.”
“There’s a lot of vacant office space,” he said of that area. “It hasn’t proven itself as a good retail area and it hasn’t done tremendously well as an office location.”
“It’s a good potential development area and I would ask the commission … to expand this proposal … so more sites could be brought into play,” Calise said.