Residents from the neighborhood near the former UConn West Hartford campus, as well as others from throughout town, attended a presentation by the West Hartford 1 LLC team Tuesday night at the University of Saint Joseph. [Updated, Oct. 2, 2023]
By Ronni Newton
The plans for Oakwood Park, which West Hartford 1 LLC is proposing to build on the former UConn campus property, are continuing to evolve and as part of the process the development team held what ended up being a standing-room-only neighborhood meeting Tuesday night on the campus of the University of Saint Joseph.
“This is an important presentation to get feedback from the community,” said Brooks Fischer, managing principal with Newman Architects. Fischer outlined the current proposal and fielded most of the questions from attendees at the meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes.
Fischer described the evolution of the project, which has already been the subject of six informal study sessions with West Hartford’s Design Review Advisory Committee (DRAC), most recently on Sept. 7.
He said about 20 acres of the overall 57-plus-acre development will be available for public use, including paved and grass trails, and an extension of the town’s Trout Brook Trail. Many of the changes that have been made since the first DRAC study session have been in response to community input, he said, including adding the townhomes along Asylum and Lawler as a buffer to the residential areas. Although not shown yet on the plans, the Asylum Avenue townhomes will be pushed farther back from the sidewalk.
“We have a landscape designer that worked through a variety of different ideas,” Fischer said, layering of the landscape to unite the development from “naturalistic landscape to refined landscape on the village street.” That village street will traverse the western portion of the development, and will include lots of traffic calming measures, sidewalks, and seating areas, he said.
“Our plans continue to evolve and improve,” West Hartford 1 LLC said in an official statement shared with We-Ha.com prior to the meeting on Tuesday. “For over a year, we have had conversations with West Hartford’s land use, planning and economic development staff and six sessions with the Design Review Advisory Committee. We have also received thoughtful comments from the town’s wetland consultant which we continue to address through plan changes.”
The West Hartford 1 LLC development group, which includes Domenic Carpionato, Garden Homes, Newman Architects, BL Companies, and Alter & Pearson LLC, emphasizes that the review process is just getting underway.
“Each conversation, especially the feedback we have received from our neighbors, has improved our village concept so that it looks quite different from where we began. We expect to undergo a public hearing before the Inland Wetland agency in October. Only after that review is complete will we be in a position to finalize development plans for submission to the West Hartford Town Council,” the statement reads.
The property is currently zoned for single family residential use.
There were an estimated 100 people who attended the meeting Tuesday night – some who were directly invited because they live within 500 feet of the property as part of the developer’s outreach, and many who live in Bishops Corner or elsewhere in West Hartford.
More than 30 speakers shared impassioned – and occasionally hostile – views of the proposal, and took the opportunity to ask questions of Fischer and others on the development team. Many raised significant concerns raised about the most recent set of plans, which were on display throughout the room on storyboards as well as projected on a screen.
Concerns raised by residents included the density of the project – which includes 14 buildings and an estimated 620 residential units in four apartments buildings of four or five stories on the east side of the property as well as in two mixed-use buildings above retail or restaurants on the west side, 34 townhomes, and a 158-unit assisted living facility that is proposed in lieu of a medical building that was on the first set of plans. The proposal also includes a premier restaurant (the developer is under discussion with a possible tenant), a destination spa, and an organic grocery store.
A speaker who said he has lived in West Hartford for 45 years, expressed concern with the development’s impact on wetlands due to the hardscape, among other issues. Forty-five years ago the area didn’t flood, he said. “Flooding concerns me, traffic concerns me, height concerns me,” he said, and so does retail. Offices would be okay, he said.
Trout Brook Drive is already identified as one of the areas that will be addressed through the town’s flood mitigation project – a long-term 20-year project with an estimated overall price tag in excess of $170 million.
Regarding the wetlands, the development team is currently working with town staff. Both the developer and the Town of West Hartford have hired soil scientists because of the level of complexity of the proposal.
Before any zoning changes are even considered, the wetlands applications must be reviewed and approved by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) in its capacity as the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourse Agency (IWWA). While TPZ did approve a change in the wetlands map at its Sept. 6 meeting, a decision on the wetlands permits was postponed until the Oct. 2 TPZ meeting. That review has again been postponed and town staff confirmed on Oct. 2 that it will be on the agenda for a special TPZ meeting on Oct. 23, beginning at 7 p.m. The status of current land use applications being considered by the Town of West Hartford can be found online on the planning and zoning webpage on the town’s website.
A traffic study is currently underway by OSTA (Office of the State Traffic Administration), Fischer said, and that will in part determine if additional traffic lights are needed and if the roadways can support the project. The light that was formerly at the driveway to the UConn campus parking area will likely be restored, he said. One speaker was indignant that Fischer did not have existing traffic counts on Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue.
The site has been confirmed to have PCBs and asbestos, and one speaker asked about the environmental remediation. Fischer responded that planning is underway for the clean-up of the site. “By state law [the hazardous material] has to be removed, it will be removed,” he said.
One resident asked about incorporating solar energy into the development. Fischer said the process is not at that stage yet, but he anticipates solar will be part of the plans.
“The drawings, while lovely, I think are misleading and deceiving,” said another speaker, who said he is an architect. He said it appeared the drawings are not to scale and over-exaggerate the open space. “None of these are taller than the existing buildings,” Fischer said of the proposed structures, and the heights of the buildings are about the same as those on USJ campus, he said.
While concerns were raised about the amount of impervious surface, several people noted that there doesn’t seem to be enough parking for the proposed uses. While the residents of the assisted living facility may not need parking, the employees will. One resident said that when the UConn campus was active, people parked on many of the neighboring streets, and said she feared that was going to happen again.
Resident Christine Feely said it needs to be determined the extent to which this development does or does not reflect the town’s most recent 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), which was published in 2020. “Residents were concerned about commercial creep,” she said, and on the west side there is “really a large incursion of commercial into a residential area,” she said. While the town needs housing, Feely said, “West Hartford does not need another grocery store, does not need a restaurant,” and does not need a spa. Feely said the plans don’t have any reference to green infrastructure, permeable surfaces, solar canopies, and EV charging.
Another speaker said the buildings are too tall, and the development doesn’t include any single-family ranch houses. Another suggested the development should be single-family homes.
Dr. Elizabeth Rocco, who also distributed her comments in print to attendees, suggested rather than assisted living it would be important to provide “age well” housing for seniors to age in place such as “an apartment with one bedroom plus a den or alcove. It needs to have 36-inch doorways for possible wheelchair use, and a zero-threshold shower and building entry.”
“Nothing has been submitted for a zoning approval with regard to this,” said Robin Pearson, an attorney with Alter & Pearson and part of the development team. The reason for the neighborhood meeting is because the team is interested in the comments, she said. “We have simply submitted for site impact on wetlands. The process for the things you care about, rightfully so, is just starting to happen right now. … We will stay in touch with you, you should stay in touch with us.”
When DRAC reviewed the submitted plans during a special meeting on Feb. 23, 2023 – the fifth informal review of the project – DRAC members voiced continued concerns about issues such as the homogeneity of the building design and façades and landscaping. Concerns were also raised about the project being compatible with the neighborhood, and its consistency with the vision statement adopted by the Town Council in April 2018, which followed a community engagement process and in part calls for the redevelopment to “strike a balance between grand list growth, the protection of natural resources, and the preservation of areas for community use.”
Fischer said that further updates have been made even since the the latest set of plans were submitted, noting that the density has been reduced and the proposed development devotes more attention to the wetlands which cover a significant portion of the site.
In addition to the feedback received at Tuesday’s neighborhood meeting, a petition was launched on change.org on Sept. 19 in opposition to the development plans. As of the afternoon of Sept. 27, it had received 720 signatures. As of Oct. 2, there were 918 signatures on the petition.
Oakwood Park has also updated its website with the most recent information, and additional renderings and details can be found there.
It’s closing in on two years since West Hartford 1 LLC finalized the purchase of the former UConn campus property, on an “as is” basis, from then-owner Ideanomics, for $2.75 million, on Dec. 29, 2021. With the exception of the Little League and Miracle League fields and playground on the southeast corner – which the developer has committed to preserving, along with the Champion White Oak tree – and roughly a year when St. Francis Hospital was given permission to use the roughly 1,100-space parking area for employee parking on an emergency basis because of a structural failure of their Collins Street garage – the property has been largely unoccupied since UConn relocated to its brand new campus in Hartford in August 2017.
The developer will be paying for the cost of remediation of environmental hazards on the site – which include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos. One of the five buildings on the former campus was demolished by Ideanomics’ contractor in 2019 as part of the remediation process, and some additional clean-up has also taken place. Demolition of all of the remaining buildings is contemplated in the plan, along with any required environmental remediation before construction can begin.
In November 2015, UConn officially decided it would sell the property, and in 2017 opened the Hartford campus. After the town opted not to buy the property, it was purchased by Ideanomics for $5.2 million in 2018 for the purpose of creating the Fintech Village global technology center – plans for which were unveiled with great fanfare in July 2019.
For information and additional background about West Hartford’s previous history with the campus, click here.
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