The West Hartford Town Council unanimously approved a proposal to reconstruct all but one of the buildings at a Bishops Corner housing development where affordable housing is currently provided for seniors and people with disabilities.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Fellowship Housing’s proposal to transform an existing Bishops Corner development – by demolishing 23 of the 24 existing buildings and expanding the occupancy from 213 to 300 units – was approved by the Town Council Tuesday night.
Members of the project team as well as others in the audience applauded after the project was approved through a unanimous roll call vote.
The Town Council held a lengthy public hearing on the proposal on Sept. 10, that included a presentation from the development team and comments from nine members of the public. Public comment was closed after that meeting, but the hearing was continued until this Tuesday night so a complete set of updated plans could be submitted.
West Hartford Fellowship Housing, a nonprofit community built on land leased from the town, is currently home to residents who are either age 65 or older, or have a disability.
The goal, West Hartford Fellowship Housing Development Board of Directors Chair Clare Kindall told the Town Council Sept. 10, is continue to meet the critical need for affordable housing for the existing residents, while expanding the development to 300 units that are larger and much more up-to-date than the current apartments, with better insulation, energy-efficient features, community gathering space, first-floor laundry facilities in each building, and plumbing for in-unit washers and dryers.
The project is currently a Special Development District, and the Town Council was required to approve the requested zoning amendments. Those amendments include: one building of four stories rather than three stories; exceeding the length, number of units in a structure, and distance between structures because the buildings will be interconnected; allowing the number of parking spaces to be below the town’s zoning requirement of 1.5 spaces per unit; allowing parking spaces to be 18 feet long rather than 20 feet long; and allowing the sign to be 10 feet from the road rather than the required 12 feet.
“I’m excited about this development,” said Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan, praising West Hartford Fellowship Housing for taking care of those who are the “most vulnerable and in need.”
“This is a fantastic development for the town,” said Democratic Council member Liam Sweeney. “Providing this type of housing is something we need to continue doing.”
Republican Chris Williams praised the project team for their work, and commended them for finding a way to restore the area without displacing residents.
According to the phasing plans presented at the Sept. 10 hearing, at most 21 existing residents – those who currently live in the first buildings to be demolished – will need to be relocated. If that does happen, any additional costs will be the responsibility of West Hartford Fellowship Housing.
Minority Leader Chris Barnes said it “looks like it’s a beautiful project,” and wished the team good luck with the next step – finding financing. He said he is glad that the capacity of West Hartford Fellowship Housing will be increased.
Democrat Ben Wenograd said he is also excited about this project, and plans to continue and expand West Hartford Fellowship Housing’s 50-year tradition of providing affordable housing. While there was some concern among residents about the change, he said, “Change can be scary … but what you have put together is another project that can be with us for 50 years.”
Republican Mary Fay said the project is “aesthetically pleasing,” and in a location that is very pedestrian friendly and safe. She added that she hopes all residents of the development can rally behind this project.
Mayor Shari Cantor also expressed excitement about the project.
“This is a very valuable piece of land for West Hartford,” Cantor said, located on the bus line, and is a very precious piece of town-owned land in a key commercial area of a fully developed town.
“This development was wonderful and forward-thinking at the time, but it has aged,” Cantor said of the 50-year-old West Hartford Fellowship Housing. The redevelopment was four years in the planning.
“This is an ambitious project, was an ambitious project,” said Cantor. While the redevelopment will take longer and be more expensive because people won’t be displaced, it makes sense to do it this way and that will alleviate some of the residents’ anxiety, she said.
Zoning alternate Kate Farrar voted in place of Council member Leon Davidoff who is on the board of West Hartford Fellowship Housing and recused himself.
The Town Council also voted unanimously Tuesday to waive $26,100 of the $26,735 required SDD application fees.
Kindall told the Council that she was “here to grovel,” and noted that every dime will be required to secure financing. “This is a long and highly expensive process … so I am begging you please waive the fee.”
There was concern among several Council members about setting a precedent in waiving the fee, and Democrat Dallas Dodge said in general he didn’t think the Council should just “rubber stamp fee waivers.”
Because West Hartford Fellowship Housing is a nonprofit and providing affordable housing on town-owned land, however, all Council members voted in favor of the waiver.
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