Following a lengthy public hearing with significant public input, the West Hartford Town Council voted 7-2 Wednesday night in favor of a proposal by Continental Properties to build 172 apartment units with luxury amenities on property formerly occupied by the Children’s Museum.
By Ronni Newton
One of the largest new residential developments the town has seen in years received approval Wednesday night, and Continental Properties will move forward with the purchase of property from Kingswood Oxford and construction of 172 new residential units at 950 Trout Brook Drive.
The West Hartford Town Council listened for three-and-a-half hours as representatives of Continental Properties delivered a comprehensive description of their plans to construct what they have termed a “best in class” development – a single “S”-shaped building with five above-grade stories and a basement garage that will include a mix of 172 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments all with high-end finishes, an extensive array of indoor and outdoor amenities, and 323 parking spaces of which 131 are in the garage – on 3.95 acres owned by Kingswood Oxford School and until very recently occupied primarily by the Children’s Museum and its preschool. A small triangle measuring roughly 0.6 acres of the property that will be developed is currently part of the KO athletic field complex.
The Council heard testimony from 19 speakers at the hearing in addition to more than 20 who had submitted their testimony via email, and the applicant responded to myriad questions and concerns before the hearing ended and the Council met and voted, 7-2, to approve the Special Development District application which includes rezoning the property from RM-2 and RM-3 (multifamily residential) to RM-MS (multifamily, multistory residential). Republicans Mary Fay and Alberto Cortes voted against the plan.
Mayor Shari Cantor said just before the roll call vote that she, and all of the Council members, listened to and heard all of the comments, but the town can’t stand stand still. “What is so great about West Hartford is we never said we’re good where we are, we always reinvented ourselves. … We have to keep moving our town forward, to be the best that we can be, and the only way we can do that is to keep changing.”
The developer’s team stated that the plan fits the site, mitigates the impact on neighbors, is in harmony with the existing neighborhood and properly aligns with the town’s stated goals in the most recent 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development for transitional development between residential and commercial areas.
Many of those who spoke against the application – largely residents of the single-family homes on Outlook Avenue directly east of the property, as well as residents of the seven-story Hampshire House condominium building which is on Farmington Avenue adjacent to the parcel – said the proposed development was too big, too close to neighboring properties, would add too much traffic, and would block sunlight. Outlook Avenue resident Marina Creed called it a “behemoth,” and Robin Road resident Dan Corjulo called it “economic exploitation.”
The final 172-unit proposal includes a commitment to nine workforce housing units, a mix of one- and two-bedrooms, deed-restricted for 20 years. In addition, 10 of the units will be handicapped accessible. In response to concerns about safety of the driveway’s proposed two-lane exit, during the course of the hearing the applicant agreed to amend it to just one exit lane.
What will the development include?
Howard Rappaport, principal of Continental Properties, said the name has not yet been chosen, but will be announced soon.
What is currently being referred to as 950 Trout Brook Drive will include a total of 172 apartment units, all with high-end finishes, on 3.95 acres.
The developer has planned for 323 parking spaces – a ratio of roughly 1.8 per unit, which they believe strikes the right balance of ample parking for residents and their guests without adding more pavement than is necessary – with 131 in the basement garage. The land has a 24-foot increase in grade from the frontage on Trout Brook Drive to the rear (east) of the property, and that change in grade will accommodate the garage and other amenities on the basement level.
The mix of units and estimated rents will be:
- Nine three-bedroom units, averaging 1,378 square feet, with rent estimated at $3,100
- 94 two- bedroom units, averaging 1,168 square feet, with rent estimated at $2,850
- 69 one-bedroom units, of which 16 will include a den, averaging 714 to 978 square feet, with rent estimated at $2,350
Rappaport said the development will be “heavily amenitized,” and will include a clubroom, fitness center, catering kitchen, game room, co-working space, and a pet-washing station. Outdoor amenities include a “resort-quality pool,” fire pit, lounge area with day beds, and barbecue in a courtyard that faces the KO soccer fields but will be separated by a fence. There will be a small deck on the south side of the roof as well. A patio with tables and benches for seating will face Trout Brook Drive, with access to the existing sidewalk.
“We are very excited to propose to redevelop this important property in your town,” Rappaport told the Council.
The development will also have a bike sharing program and bicycle storage, EV charging stations in the garage and parking lot, native landscaping, and will utilize dark sky-approved LED exterior lighting. Units will all have individual HVAC units located in concealed closets on their balconies.
All Council members expressed appreciation for the applicant, for the work of town staff, and for the opinions of those who provided feedback for and against the project.
“This is what my West Hartford looks like … this is exactly what I would like to see for the area,” Cortes said. But although he said it’s important to add to the town’s grand list, he cast one of the two votes in opposition to the application, citing a need to listen to the feedback from area residents.
“When I heard about this development I was very excited,” said Deputy Mayor Liam Sweeney, who grew up and currently lives not far from the area. “I think this is very much in harmony with the neighborhood,” he said, noting that Hampshire House was actually one of the town’s first Special Development Districts.
The town does not currently have a requirement that a certain percentage of new development include an affordable housing component, but Sweeney said he appreciates that this applicant decided to add the nine deed-restricted workforce units.
“We are so lucky in this town that we have people who want to develop it,” said Sweeney, as well as people who want to live here. While overall the need continues to be for even more affordable housing, “this is a piece of the puzzle,” he added.
Sweeney did say that public safety, and traffic, will continue to be examined.
“I am having some issues with the scale and the size, where it’s located .. it’s taking up every square inch of the property,” said Fay, the Council’s minority leader, who along with Cortes voted against the project.
“I wouldn’t want an apartment in my backyard,” said Fay, noting that while the project is beautiful and “aesthetically pleasing,” she said it’s “ginormous” and she prefers the town’s traditional colonial style.
Council member Carol Blanks said the input of those who support and oppose the project is very important, and while no application would be perfect, she believes this complements the neighborhood and the community.
Changes are difficult, she said, “but we’ve often said at this table that the decisions that we are making now [are] going to be felt far into the future … It’s not our West Hartford, it’s all of our West Hartford,” said Blanks, for our children, grandchildren, and elderly residents.
“We have a housing issue within West Hartford, we don’t have enough stock,” said Council member Adrienne Billings-Smith. As the town continues to evolve, bringing in more housing creates competition, and will also spur the creation of more affordable housing.
“These developers are coming … here because they see that we have the potential to be a great town,” said Billings-Smith.
Council member Mark Zydanowicz was the only Republican to vote in favor of the application.
“We can’t do the same old-same old, we’ve got to evolve,” he said. He said he recently learned that a restaurant [Rosa Mexicano, soon to open in Blue Back Square], which has locations only in big cities, choses West Hartford because they see opportunity. Embracing change is not going to ruin our character, he said.
“It’s got to be transformative,” said Zydanowicz, and this looks like the West Hartford of the future. The project will attract young professionals who will then plant roots in town, he said, “so it adds value in West Hartford, adds value to your homes,” and will also support our small business in our town.
“If not this then what? You want a dog park there and there’s no tax base?” Zydanowicz said. The neighborhood has the large Hampshire House buildings already, and other rental units. “This is walking distance to West Hartford. This is exactly what this town needs.”
“Transformative, but transition,” said Barry Walters, the zoning alternate standing in for Councilor Ben Wenograd, who was out of town.
While the town’s housing is very much traditional, Walters said, this is 2022. “This does not harm this area, it fits.”
Hampshire House is very large, and other than Outlook Avenue the adjoining area is multifamily. “No matter what we do and say tonight, the Children’s Museum is not going to be there tomorrow,” Walters added.
Council member Leon Davidoff was a member of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission before being elected to the Council, and has been considering zoning applications for 22 years. He said people in town really care, and it’s not about winners and losers.
“I found this application to be quite similar to the application for 243 Steele Road,” he said, an application that was replacing a nunnery that had broken windows and looked very distressed, and was the subject of a public hearing more than a decade ago that lasted until about 2:30 a.m. There were concerns raised about traffic, noise, college kids and young professionals. – but that development, which has comparable rental rates, has been a good neighbor and none of the possible problems materialized.
“In any of these proposals you have to look at alternatives, and I have to tell you that this applicant produced more alternatives than any other,” Davidoff said, with the chosen design accomplishing the goal of making 172 units not appear too massive.
Davidoff praised the applicant’s willingness to change the exit to one lane from two lanes, and the addition of the workforce housing even though it wasn’t required. “I think they understood that that is the socially right thing to do,” he said.
This is the second of several opportunities in the Center district that the Council is considering, with the first being the Byline, approved in January and now underway diagonally across the street. Local businesses have maxed out their economic potential, Davidoff said, “So what have they asked us to do? … Increase the number of people who reside in the Center.”
The Center is a great place to eat, it has a sense of community, but “in order for our Center to survive and to make it to the next generation, we need projects like this,” Davidoff said.
“We are very cognizant of the needs of our community, and we sometimes have to grasp the opportunities that present themselves,” he said, commending Kingswood for their choice of developer. “I think they will be a good neighbor.”
“I just want to say how proud I am of West Hartford,” Cantor said. She grew up in town, in a house that was built on farmland, and when West Hartford had the highest per capita spending on school system.
“That was a West Hartford, and that was part of our history,” said, and what’s great about the town is that it continues to reinvent itself, to support different living situations.
There really hasn’t been a development proposal of this scale since Blue Back Square, and that was about 20 years ago, and grand list growth is something the town needs to consider.
“When I go to meetings,” Cantor said, and meets mayors and leaders from other towns, “there is a recognition that we are doing a lot of things right.”
She believes this has evolved into the best project for that parcel, and while she said she heard and read all of the comments, “… if we don’t do something we’ll stand still.”
Among the 19 residents who spoke to the Town Council during the hearing, and the dozens who submitted comment via email, opposition to the project was from those who live nearby, primarily in single-family homes on Outlook Avenue, which abuts the parcel directly to the east, or in the Hampshire House condominiums, a seven-story building built in the 1960s which abuts it to the north.
Alexa Hoehne, a nurse at UConn Health, owns a two-family home on Outlook directly adjacent to the parcel, and rents out one of the floors. She said she is “concerned about how this will impact my livelihood.” She said she’s worried about the regulation of the construction, and the traffic impact of the completed project.
“Safety has got to be our No. 1 concern,” said Michael Cocca, who lives on Outlook directly behind the 950 Trout Brook Drive parcel, noting concerns with the two-lane exit from the parking lot – which the developer did commit to amending to one lane as a condition of approval.
Cocca also expressed concerns about noise, and what he considered the speed at which the proposal was brought to vote. “I urge you to reject for the sake of safety … the environment … for the neighbors who are going to have to deal with this giant parking lot.”
Jeanne Bonner, who is married to Cocca, said while their property is the most affected, the development “won’t be harmonious and it won’t integrate with that entire side of Outlook.” It will upend the neighborhood, she said, and while some might be excited about new residents, she asked, “But what about old residents?”
Many other area residents were in the audience, and applauded when she said the loss of the Children’s Museum was a loss for families, and said the only ones happy about this proposal would be KO, the developers, and Council members.
“We are West Hartford, they are an outside developer with no care for the community …” said Outlook Avenue resident Creed, who also called the project a “behemoth” and said the tax revenue of the “luxury building” appeared to have more value than the tax revenues of long-term residents. She asked for the development to be scaled down to three stories with a 100-foot buffer zone.
“Much of the support that you’ve heard from the proposal is a larger form of support from people who don’t have to live in close proximity,” said Katy Klarnet, who owns a unit at Hampshire House. She questioned the purpose of zoning if it could be “just changed.”
Hampshire House resident Mary Jo Andrews said the new development would completely obstruct the view from her own unit and overall “will be huge in relation to the rest of the neighborhood.” She also expressed concerns related to traffic and parking.
Connor Marshall, a recent college graduate and civil engineer who lives with his parents on Outlook, questioned whether young professionals would actually be able to live there. He said while he would love to move out, rent of $3,000 per month, “that’s well over half my monthly income.”
Resident Adrienne Roach also noted that dozens in the neighborhood had signed a change.org petition in opposition to the project. While the feedback would be noted, the document could not officially qualify as a petition to the town because original, not electronic, signatures are required.
Others, including some nearby residents and business owners, said the development is important for the town’s future.
It received a strong endorsement from the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee and the Executive Board, noting that housing “demand still lags behind supply,” this will be a very desirable option for young professionals and empty nesters, and will provide much needed support for local businesses. It will also provide an estimated $800,000 in annual property tax revenues, while minimally impacting town services.
Megan Oullette is an owner of video game developer Firefly Studios, which originated in London but recently moved to Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center from Canton. She said there is a great need for nearby housing for the type of employees their company needs to attract – young people who appreciate what the Center has to offer, but are missing the housing element within walking distance. “We have a ton of colleges in this area and the college students … are moving out of this area because they don’t have the facilities in the area,” she said.
Nikita Suponya, a professional engineer who moved to Hampshire House in West Hartford from Charlotte about four years ago said he welcomes more housing for other young professionals like him, noting it will add to commerce and give all the opportunity to improve their lifestyle.
Marc Shafer said his own young adult children prefer to live elsewhere because West Hartford doesn’t have the type of development where young professionals want to live, and said he is 100% in favor of the 950 Trout Brook Drive development and the amenities it will offer. “This is the kind of places that they live now,” he said. “This is where their world comes together.”
“I think of terms progress, opportunity, change. These are words that we have to embrace as we go forward with economic development,” for the future of the town, said Lee Gold, a former member of the Town Council.
“A project such as this on Trout Brook is another generational opportunity that we need to embrace as a town moving forward,” Gold said, noting that the property is currently stagnant in terms of taxes.
The application process
“From day one we have recognized the importance of the property we are talking about to West Hartford,” said Tim Hollister, an attorney with Hinckley Allen and the developer’s representative, who is also a decades-long West Hartford resident, of the applicant and the development team. The project had five sessions with the town’s Design Review and Advisory Commission (DRAC) – which ultimately gave it unanimous approval – and the team responded to the roughly 80 staff comments that had been made during the process.
Five different possible configurations were initially presented – what Council member Davidoff called “S, O, C, L, and E” based on the shape of the letters they resembled. When Davidoff asked why the chosen “S” shape was superior, architect Chris Lessard, CEO of Lessard Design in Vienna, VA, said it was determined that the other shapes created more negative impact on parking or massing, and the applicant worked with DRAC to determine the configuration that would be best suited for the parcel.
Traffic engineer Mark Vertucci, of Fuss & O’Neill, said the impact of the development would add just 64 trips during the morning peak hours of 8-9 a.m., and 67 during the afternoon peak time of 4:15-5:15 p.m. The development is not expected to reduce the level of service at the two nearby signaled intersections – Trout Brook Drive with Farmington Avenue to the north, and with Memorial Road to the South. He said according to data, in the last three years there had not been any reported crashes involving exiting or entering the Children’s Museum.
In addition, Vertucci said, the signal at Farmington Avenue and Trout Brook Drive has recently been upgraded.
Members of the public who spoke Wednesday, as well as several Council members, questioned the traffic analysis which was conducted during 2021, when school was not in session and a larger percentage of people continued to work from home due to the pandemic. Vertucci said that even if there is more traffic overall on Trout Brook Drive, the net impact of the development would not change.
The developer will be making several changes to Trout Brook Drive intended to increase safety, Vertucci said. A portion of what is now a northbound left-turn lane for traffic turning onto Farmington Avenue will become a southbound left-turn lane into the development. A flush but stamped-asphalt textured island will be added to Trout Brook Drive to “calm the traffic and provide safer operations for people turning into our site and the Hampshire House driveway,” Vertucci said. It will not interfere with snow removal operations, he said.
The existing crosswalk at the Kingswood Oxford driveway to Memorial Road will also be upgraded to a brick surface.
The applicant “took a lot of care to try to position this property to minimize impact to neighbors,” said Professional Engineer Jim Cassidy, of Hallisey, Pearson & Cassidy Engineering. He said it it as far away as possible from Outlook Avenue – 149.2 feet compared to 69.2 feet which is the current distance to the Children’s Museum building. It is 131 feet from the closest part of Hampshire House, which has two towers that are themselves 96.3 feet from each other.
In January 2022, Kingswood Oxford chose New York-based Continental Properties, which has a portfolio of more than 25,000 residential units, including about 1,200 in Connecticut, which through the entity West Hartford Partners, LLC will develop the site. The Children’s Museum had sold its property to KO in 2003, and discussed plans to move for more than a decade before the private school made the decision that selling the property would be the best move in support of its strategic long-term goals.
Kingswood Oxford Board Chair Mary Martin, who has three generations of family members who have attended the school, said she was on the Board back when the Children’s Museum first talked to KO about buying the property roughly two decades ago. When KO decided to sell the property, “Our broker cast a wide net for potential buyers and there was a lot of interest in this property,” she said Wednesday night.
The proposals were for a variety of occupancies, some mixed use, some office, but ultimately a buyer was selected that was determined to be the best neighbor for the school. “Continental understand that dynamic and will be a good neighbor,” she said. The development will put the property on the tax rolls, bring people to town, and KO will be able to reinvest the sale funds in the school.
The Children’s Museum closed last month, and is in the process of moving to temporary space in a building that is part of the Emanuel Synagogue property on Mohegan Drive. The museum’s preschool has already opened at the Mohegan Drive location.
The plight of Conny, the iconic giant sperm whale sculpture on the 950 Trout Brook Drive parcel, remains somewhat uncertain. While Cetacean Society International, which constructed the whale in the 1970s and has taken responsibility for it, would like to move it across Trout Brook Drive to land along the greenway, that has not been finalized. There is a question of ownership of the land, and less than $7,000 of the $250,000 goal has been raised via a GoFundMe campaign launched last month.
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