Plans for senior project at Baron's South questioned
The senior-living development proposal endorsed by the town's Baron's South Committee appears to face a long and potentially contentious path to approval after a skeptical review Wednesday night by the Board of Finance.
In their first public evaluation of Jonathan Rose Co.s' plan to build a 99-unit senior residential campus at the town-owned Baron's South property, Finance Board members pondered whether the Baron's South Committee had picked the most viable development proposal, and even surmised that the Baron's South panel may have to revise its parameters for potential use of the 23-acre site.
"Would you be willing to hit, in effect within the vernacular, the reset button?" asked Helen Garten, the board's vice chairwoman. "That is, go back, consider alternative models, evaluate the pros and cons, weigh these different factors? ... I think we all agree that we want to have the maximum benefit for Westporters on this land."
Garten's board colleague, Tom Lasersohn, also advocated a comprehensive assessment of the optimal use of Baron's South.
"Resources aren't unlimited, and things that we spend here will mean that we're not spending them somewhere else," he said. "That makes it important to hit the reset button, as Helen said ... and consider whether or not we've really thought of have we used the resources that we have in Westport to help the most people, most effectively. I'm just not convinced that we've done that here."
The Finance Board's backing of the Jonathan Rose proposal recommended by the Baron's South Committee is not required for First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to accept the committee's endorsement and move ahead with drafting proposed leasing terms for a senior residential complex at Baron's South. But the board's position will probably be an important gauge of public support for the project.
Assuming that Joseloff does formulate a proposed lease, that plan would also be scrutinized by the Board of Finance.
All leases of town-owned real estate have to be submitted to the board for its review and recommendation, according to the Town Charter.
Between April and September, the Baron's South Committee studied the three development proposals submitted on a near-weekly basis in closed-door "executive sessions." The evaluation of the plans followed a request for proposals to develop senior housing issued by the town in December 2011, which was written by the Baron's South Committee. The nine-person committee was appointed by Joseloff in March 2011.
Two adjacent buildings would house 99 one- and two-bedroom units on three floors, according to the Jonathan Rose plan. About 60 percent of the units would be "affordable," or rented below the market rate, at about $1,100 per month. The other 40 units would be rented at market rates -- $2,200 monthly for one-bedroom units and $2,800 for two bedrooms.
The proposed complex would stand in what is now a meadow between the Westport Center for Senior Activities and a house once occupied by the late "baron," who formerly owned Baron's South. The center would cover four to seven acres of Baron's South, but most of the site would be maintained as open space, according to an Oct. 1 report by the Baron's South Committee.
Past Jonathan Rose projects include the development of several affordable-housing projects, such as the 50-unit Metro-Green Apartments in Stamford, a 121-unit complex in Albuquerque, N.M., and a 27-unit site in Aspen, Colo. Its current work includes helping the Meriden Housing Authority with the redevelopment of Chamberlain Heights, a 124-unit public-housing complex.
Following the Baron's South Committee's unanimous endorsement last month of the Jonathan Rose proposal, the committee's co-chairmen, Marty Hauhuth and Steve Daniels, reiterated that support Wednesday to the Finance Board.
"What became clear in talking with (Jonathan Rose) is that he has a commitment to community, not just a building," Daniels said. "I'm concerned not only about the dollar amount that they have, but what they contribute to this community, because this is a phenomenal town."
Daniels also cited Jonathan Rose's "outstanding staff" and its status as a developer "highly respected by the state."
The development proposal by the Affirmative Hillspoint group was ruled out because it proposed to use all of the Baron's South land, Daniels said. The other bid, submitted by Becker and Becker, was over-reliant on state and federal funding, Daniels added.
A senior residential campus at Baron's South would cost $29.65 million, according to the Jonathan Rose proposal, which identifies five prospective funding sources. A permanent lender such as bank or insurance company would provide a $11.4 million loan; the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority would allocate $12 million in low-income housing tax credits and a $500,000 housing tax credit; the state Department of Economic and Community Development would offer a $2 million loan; and Jonathan Rose Companies would contribute $2 million.
Jonathan Rose proposes that it would pay a $500,000 "acquisition" fee to build the senior residential complex and then make yearly $250,000 payments in lieu of taxes, also known as PILOT. Disbursement of the payments in lieu of taxes would be expected to start in 2016, according to the development plan. Jonathan Rose is a for-profit firm.
Perkins Eastman, the Stamford-based firm that designed the Westport Center for Senior Activities, would be Jonathan Rose's architect for the project. The Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield would act as the complex's senior-services provider.
"I'm building this project for my grandchildren," said Jonathan Rose, the eponymous founder and president of the firm. "Our projects are extremely high-quality. We win national awards for the quality of our work."
Development of a senior residential complex at Baron's South is considered among the most significant initiatives of Joseloff's tenure, which began in 2005. But the proposal has frequently been the topic of public debate. In recent weeks, the project has attracted criticism from a number of town officials and private citizens expressing concerns that the closed-door "executive sessions" the Baron's South Committee during the spring and summer to study the development proposals for Baron's South compromised the transparency and integrity of the project's public review process. In response, Baron's South Committee members have countered that those private meetings were needed to ensure a fair and competitive appraisal of the developers' plans.
But doubts about the credibility of the committee's appraisal of the development proposals again surfaced Wednesday.
"It turns out the group who I was told two years ago was going to win it, won it," said John McCarthy, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 9, a vocal critic of the Baron's South Committee. "We're trying to showing that we have open government. If you're a very casual observer of Westport politics and town government, and you see that and you're basically told that the fix is in two years before the actual bid is opened and won, what do you think?"
McCarthy's comments prompted a sharp rebuke by Ken Bernhard, a Baron's South committee member and former Republican state representative for Westport.
"You did not apologize, Mr. McCarthy," Bernhard said.
"For what?" McCarthy asked from his seat.
"For the infusion that there was somehow corruption," Bernhard responded. "You know what, I predicted that the Yankees were going to win their division. You know why? Because they were the best. The fact that they won doesn't mean that the system was corrupt. You've infused that suggestion into this debate and I say, `shame.' "
Other speakers also sided with McCarthy.
"It seems ... that this is being jammed through," said Tom Leyden. "It seems to me that they were restricted in their choice by the narrow RFP."
Lynn Goldberg, chairwoman of the town's Human Services Commission, expressed support for the Baron's South Committee's recommendation.
"It would take an under-utilized piece of land and create a new resource, which will allow many of our seniors to remain in Westport, using a reliable builder," she said.
The Board of Finance did not take any votes Wednesday on the proposed senior residential complex.
Jonathan Rose Co.'s senior-living development plan for Baron's South will face another public review at a special RTM meeting scheduled Oct. 29 in the Town Hall auditorium.
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