Several hundred people attended forums Wednesday night at West Hartford Town Hall to provide input about future development of the former UConn campus.
By Ronni Newton
The Town of West Hartford hosted three forums Wednesday night to provide the public with an opportunity to engage in the process of creating a vision for future use of the former UConn Greater Hartford campus on Asylum Avenue.
In total close to 300 people attended the identical sessions, which included presentations as well as opportunities to engage in smaller groups, Town Planner Todd Dumais said.
Consulting firm Milone & MacBroom, which has been hired by the town to assist in the community engagement process, presented a variety of development concepts and their impact assessments, conducted an interactive survey, and facilitated discussion during the breakout sessions.
“Your input and feedback will help the Town Council prepare a vision for the site,” Town Manager Matt Hart said in his introduction to the forum.
The hope is that the town can use that vision to collaborate with UConn, which still owns the property, to attract development partners, Hart said. The town terminated a purchase and sale agreement in December 2017, and UConn has an active website advertising the property through which it has already received a few inquiries.
Although UConn has indicated it is “willing to consider a sale to any buyer for any use,” the site is zoned for residential use and UConn has “expressed an interest in working with the town despite the termination of the agreement,” Hart said.
At the advice of the town’s corporation counsel, members of the Town Council were not present at any of the forums to avoid any potential conflict of interest since they are town’s chief land use authority, Hart explained.
“Through this community process we hope to understand the sentiment and what concerns of the community are,” Dumais said. In addition to the three forums on Wednesday, more than 2,700 people had participated in the online survey was which conducted from Jan. 30-Feb. 16. An additional forum will be held with the Bishops Corner Neighborhood Association in March.
The site, which is appraised at $34.8 million and assessed at just over $24 million (a valuation which is being appealed by UConn), includes five buildings on about 34 acres on the west side of Trout Brook Drive, and about 24 acres that houses ball fields, a playground, and a parking area on the east side. It’s estimated that the total cost to abate and demolish the existing buildings would be $5,536,000, but that does not include remediation of site contaminants or removal of site improvements like sidewalks.
The total cost of remediation of PCBs that have been found on the site has not been fully quantified, Hart said, and he could not even provide an estimate.
“It is the opinion of town management that some grand list growth exists on the campus,” Dumais said, but there are multiple constraints to what could be built. A large portion of the campus is subject to flooding, with some impossible for development and other areas that are regulated wetlands.
The site’s R-10 zone would allow for single-family residential development, and certain other uses – like a school library, museum, veterinary center, child care center, or park – could be approved for the site with a special use permit obtained through the Town Planning and Zoning Commission. Other uses would require rezoning and a vote of the Town Council.
Certified Planner Patrick Gallagher from Milone & MacBroom outlined numerous development concepts that would be possibilities in the current marketplace, some of which would require zoning change. Parking, traffic, and the fiscal impact of each broad option were specified.
Scenarios for the east and west sides were presented separately, all taking into account the constraints created by the flood zones.
Creating a park on the east side could cost $2-$3 million, not including remediation or maintenance, Gallagher said, but would not bring in any revenue to the town. The east side could also accommodate 18 single-family homes, or 30 townhouses, or 120 apartments, or a 120-bed assisted living facility, or a 130-room hotel, or an 80,000 square foot office, or 45,000 square feet of retail space, or a 113,000 square foot indoor athletic facility. The traffic and parking impact of each of those possibilities varies widely, as does the potential fiscal impact to the town.
The same scenarios were explored for the west side of the property, although because there is more land the size of the development could be greater.
There is no need to have the same type of development on both sides of Trout Brook Drive, Gallagher said, and it might also be possible to split up the parcel on the west side.
“These don’t represent the range of options,” Gallaher said. “These are all hypothetical – meant to be conversation starters.”
As the audience engaged through the interactive survey during the first session, which was the most well-attended, there was general agreement that the property presents an opportunity to grow the town’s tax base.
The audience strongly agreed that the existing ballfields on the east side of the property need to remain, and a large majority also agreed that if the property is developed a green-space buffer should remain between that development and existing residences in the area.
A large majority of the audience was also in favor of demolishing the existing buildings on the west side of the property, rather than repurposing them.
Dumais said Thursday that the results were consistent in the other two sessions.
The breakout groups included the opportunity to ask questions of town and Milone & MacBroom staff. Participants could also indicate their opinion about each of the development concepts that had been outlined by placing a sticker on a chart indicating whether or not they thought it would be a good fit for the site, or whether they were neutral.
Despite the negative fiscal impact, a town park received overwhelming support. Commercial recreation received many favorable votes, while retail, hotel, and office development received the majority of “no” votes. There was not much support for housing of any type.
There were exceptions, however.
“I chose office building, as long as it’s not too commercial looking. We need taxes,” said Michelle Macko, who lives on Asylum Avenue right across from the existing ballfields on the property.
“We have enough retail and assisted living in town. We don’t need any more,” said Laura Noble, a real estate agent who lives on Ridgewood Road.
Noble said she would like to see multifamily housing on the east side of the property to attract younger people. “They can’t afford to live near Blue Back,” she said. Macko agreed.
“Who is going to pay for this?” Noble said when she looked at all of the votes for a park. “That’s $10 or $20 million we don’t have.”
David Silver, who lives nearby on Clifford Drive, said he would love to see an art museum or science center on the property. “You need to preserve the open feeling with the ponds. I don’t want to see it become like a little city,” he said.
Mike Michaud, the executive director of the Miracle League of Connecticut, lives near the property and is concerned about preserving the ballfields, which were built with hundreds of thousands of dollars of state grant money as well as donor support.
“The Miracle League field draws kids from all over the state,” Michaud said. If anything happened to those fields, the town would be in uproar. “I was heartened to see the survey results,” he said, that showed strong support for maintaining the fields.
The Children’s Museum was not listed as one of the options, but representatives from the organization attended each of the forum sessions, touting the idea of moving the Museum, which needs to leave its current space, to the east side of the property.
Dumais said that the Museum, as well as a dog park, were two of the most popular write-in choices in the online survey.
Survey results, which will be published on the town’s website shortly, indicated that respondents like the trees and green space on the campus. Dumais said that “cultural institution, educational institution, and general recreation” were the uses that received the most favorable votes by respondents.
Multifamily housing, professional/medical offices were the least favorite choices, closely followed by single-family housing.
Dumais said he thought the forums went well. “I liked the ability to break out and address concerns,” he said.
“We’ve got to accurately reflect what folks tell us,” Hart said of the process. However, he noted that it would be difficult to see the return on investment from some of the favored options. “There’s always a balance you strive to achieve,” he said.
The power point presentation presented at each of the forums is published on the project page of the town’s website and in addition to the online survey results, the “votes” posted on the boards will be quantified and posted as well. Anyone is also welcome to continue to email their thoughts, Dumais said. He can be reached at [email protected] or comments can also be mailed to: Town of West Hartford, Attn: Town Planner, 50 South Main St., Room 214, West Hartford, CT 06107.
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