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To the Editor:
As many readers know, West Hartford 1 LLC announced a preliminary plan to develop the former UConn property at Asylum Avenue and Trout Brook Drive in October 2022. Town staff comments and concerns led the developer to withdraw the plan and submit a revised plan on June 30, 2023 (https://we-ha.com/oakwood-park-developer-submits-revised-plans-for-former-uconn-west-hartford-campus/). The current plans include: 14 new buildings (commercial/mixed-use and residential), a new road, parking lots, and landscaping at 1800 Asylum Avenue (west side of Trout Brook); and 4 multi-story residential buildings, landscaping, and parking at 1700 Asylum Avenue (east side of Trout Brook).
These sites are environmentally very important and have an important place in West Hartford. The development can and should be interesting, attractive, and environmentally sound, and should contribute needed housing for the community. For such an important development site, West Hartford residents need public information sessions with full presentations about both the east and west parcels and opportunities to address the central question about whether these proposals meet West Hartford’s stated plans and vision of what it wants the town to do and be in the future.
Some questions raised by the current plans are:
What is best for the wetlands areas (mostly in the west parcel)? How much commercial use does West Hartford want in the west residential neighborhood that’s so close to Bishop’s Corner? Do we want several large buildings and lots of hard surface on floodplains (east parcel), considering that “100-year floods” are now occurring more and more often?
All of these questions and more relate to how well or how poorly the plans fit with the town’s vision for 2020 to 2030, as found in the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) (https://www.westhartfordct.gov/town-departments/planning-zoning/plan-of-conservation-development. The POCD is a very important but not widely known document that’s intended to guide West Hartford and is a key resource for residents to review with the proposed development in mind. A few of the key concerns in the POCD that are important for this development are wetlands (mentioned 39 times); commercial property in residential areas; and housing types.
Regarding wetlands, POCD information includes: “Wetlands provide habitat that is critical to a variety of plant and animal species, including threatened and endangered species; Wetlands often function like natural sponges, storing water (floodwater or surface water) and slowly releasing it to groundwater and surface waters, thereby reducing the likelihood of flooding and flood damage to personal property; Wetlands help improve water quality by interception of surface runoff and removing or retaining its nutrients, processing organic wastes and reducing sediment before it reaches open water.” These are only some of the reasons that wetlands are important (see page 65 of the POCD).
As far as commercial concerns in residential neighborhoods, residents’ input into the POCD noted that a weakness in West Hartford was “commercial creep into certain neighborhoods from adjacent commercial areas.” The proposed development on the west parcel is not “commercial creep,” it’s an insertion of commercial concerns into a residential neighborhood. Moreover, POCD data show that West Hartford already has a surplus of health and personal care businesses, restaurants, and grocery stores.
Regarding housing, the POCD shows that only 4% of housing types are 3- or 4-family residences. Most of the recent and upcoming residential construction is multi-family buildings, so it’s not clear that multi-family buildings are the most needed. Plans for the west area include some 3- and 4-family residences, but more of those would be possible if the commercial structures and their parking areas were removed. More housing would be good for diversity of housing types, would have more green space, and would retain the residential quality of these sites. Three- and 4-family residences with more green space should also be considered on the east parcel.
Many more questions need to be addressed: How will the floodplains be dealt with? Will buildings be energy efficient, and will they have rooftop solar wherever possible? If large parking lots remain in the plans, will they have solar canopies to reduce energy load on the utility grid, minimize heat islands, add battery storage, provide EV charging, and direct the course of rainwater runoff? West Hartford residents will surely have more questions.
Public hearings are scheduled for Sept. 6 for required wetlands considerations (all 4 topics plus public comment to be completed in one evening); however, public hearings include only a short description of the specific agenda item and are not designed for general information or general questions. Those limitations point to a critical need for public information sessions before the public hearings. Then West Hartford residents can give informed comments about how this development can contribute to the future life of the town.
Available information about the current plans are at https://www.westhartfordct.gov/town-departments/planning-zoning/current-land-use-applications.