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West Hartford Town Council Approves Additional Apartment Building for 243 Steele Road

Rendering of Building no. 7 at 243 Steele Rd. Courtesy image

A seventh apartment building will be built at the 243 Steele Road development.

243 Steele Road, proposed building no. 7 shaded at top right. Town of West Hartford document

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council voted 8-1 Tuesday night in favor of Metro Realty Group’s request to add a seventh apartment building, with a total of 30 more units, to the Residences at Steele Road apartment complex.

The complex currently contains 160 units, spread among 6 three-story buildings on 15.554 acres. There is also a clubhouse, pool, and patio area area.

Building no. 7 is at the top right, shown on this schematic presented to the Town Council Tuesday night. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Building no. 7 will be constructed on the northwest corner of the property. There are no structures in that portion of the property now, and it is currently just hillside and a grassy area.

Metro Realty Group President Geoffrey Sager told Council members at a public hearing prior to the vote that the 160 homes in the complex are 100 percent occupied – and the leases were all signed before they were even completed, which is something he had never experienced before. Of the 242 total residents, the majority of the occupants (136) are adult females, the median age of the adults is 32, and there are five children. Excluding the empty nesters, who comprise 23 percent of the residents, the average age is 29.5. Sixty-two percent of the residents came from outside Hartford County and 42 percent are from out of state.

The residents work for the area’s major employers, and are a broad range of professionals including engineers and educators. “Contrary to the view of some pundits we do attract to this region a broad and diverse group of young professionals from all over the country and all over the world,” Sager said.

There was “limited concern expressed in 2014 that the community might be loud and might not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood,” Sager said, but that did not materialize.

The initial project approval followed a lengthy public hearing that lasted until 2 a.m. In August 2014, the Town Council approved a 150-unit development at 243 Steele Rd. by an 8-1 vote.

The project had originally been presented to the Town Council as a 200-unit complex of four- and five-story buildings, but at a public hearing on June 24, 2014, between 40 and 50 residents spoke and were nearly unanimous in their opposition. Concern about the size and scope of the complex, the architectural style of the buildings, and other issues including traffic raised by neighbors led to submission of Metro Realty’s revised plans which were approved on Aug. 27, 2014.

Metro Realty subsequently applied to the Town Council and received approval in January 2016 to amend the project to include 160 units, making some of the two-bedroom units into one-bedroom units within the same footprint.

Building no. 7 will be slightly larger than the existing buildings to allow for the construction of six two-bedroom/two-bath units with dens that are 1,638 square feet. Demand for those units has been high, especially among the empty nesters, and there are currently only six of those units in the entire complex, Attorney Robin Messier Pearson wrote in her letter accompanying the application to the Town Council.

Building no. 7 will also include four smaller two-bedroom apartments and 20 one-bedroom apartments, as well as 14 garages.

When the project, which is a Special Development District, was approved, Metro Realty committed to multiple offsite improvements at its expense to address concerns of neighbors, all of which have been completed.

Sager outlined those improvements, which included making Stratford Road a “hammerhead” dead end street to avoid it being used as a cut-through, adding a four-way pedestrian walk phase to the light at Steele Road and Asylum Avenue for safer crossing to Elizabeth Park, and installing a median with cobblestone pavers for traffic calming on Steele Road. Metro Realty also provides 24 parking spaces for staff at the School for Young Children, which is located directly across the street, to free up parking in the school’s lot for parents and avoiding queuing up on Steele Road at drop-off and pick-up times.

Sager said he met with the president and CFO of the University of Saint Joseph and representatives from The McAuley, which abut the property, about plans to construct the new building. “Until we had their acceptance of the proposal we did not even file our application,” Sager said.

A traffic study presented by Mark Bertucci of Fuss and O’Neill noted that there would not be a significant impact resulting from the additional units. He said that likely due to the traffic calming measures, speeds on Steele Road have been reduced by 2-3 mph, and as for traffic, the “existing fully occupied development is actually generating less than what we projected.” Projections in 2014 were for 82 extra vehicles during the morning peak and 100 in the afternoon, and a study shows 68 vehicles in the morning and 74 in the afternoon. “Additional traffic generated by the proposed additional units … will generate fewer trips than what we projected for 160 units back in 2014,” Bertucci said.

Pearson said that the proposed changes to the development are “in harmony with the overall objectives” of the town’s Comprehensive Plan of Development in the existing multifamily zone.

“In keeping with the goals of the Comprehensive Plan, the proposed new building, site improvements, and landscaping constitute an ongoing reinvestment in the property, allow for the orderly expansion of a successful residential community, add approximately $150,000 in tax revenue to the town’s Grand List, providing additional housing opportunities for persons who will ultimately support area businesses, and place no additional burdens on the municipality,” Pearson said. The additional building will be at the end of the property farthest from Steele Road, and there will “be no deleterious change in the character of the area,” she said.

Town Council member Leon Davidoff, a Democrat, questioned the change in circumstances that would prompt the need for another building. As first proposed the 200-unit project was deemed to dense, and it was scaled back to 150, then increased to 160. He asked why the developer thought 190 was now justified.

Sager said the empty nester connection with West Hartford was unexpected, and the project provides a significant housing solution for long-time residents as well as for people moving into the area, but he has had to turn people away because there are no vacancies.

“The economy is different … I believe right now in my business that this community is at an inflection point,” Sager said. A place like the Residences at Steele Road is necessary and critically important for businesses that are trying to attract talent to the area and West Hartford needs places for them to live. “This is a once in a lifetime location – I didn’t foresee the strength in this community,” Sager said. “I think it’s critically important.”

Two members of the public spoke at the hearing, only one of whom indicated opposition to the project. Kathleen Monnes, who lives on Steele Road at the intersection with Fern Street, said that since the project was built she has seen a major increase in traffic with eight to 10 cars queuing up to turn onto Fern, and her neighbors have the same concerns. The traffic study should have included that intersection, Monnes said, adding that she was offended by calling the impact “de minimis.”

Monnes said that the developer is “coming back to the well again without a legitimate change in circumstances,” just to make a profit.

Shawn Harrington, senior vice president of Finance and Strategy at the University of Saint Joseph, said the University sees the “impact as very positive” and supports the project.

One other resident emailed the Council Tuesday to indicate opposition to the project.

Republican Chris Williams cast the Council’s lone dissenting vote. While he said he appreciated Metro Realty’s investment in the town, he did not believe that the application was in harmony with the overall objectives. “In this particular case I think it’s too much density in this particular area,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan thanked Sager “for breathing some hope in terms of the economy to this town.” She said she appreciated Monnes’ traffic concerns, however, other residents of Steele Road “who are not shy” and spoke against the original proposal did not voice objection to the additional building.

Minority Leader Chris Barnes said he has voted on this project in each of his three terms and although he expressed concern with growing the development from what was originally proposed, it’s beautiful, doesn’t seem to create much traffic, and there are no noise complaints. “While I am torn I am inclined to support the application tonight,” he said.

Davidoff said that the development has been a good neighbor and that initial concerns did not pan out, although he said that Monnes’ traffic concerns, while not necessarily the result of the the Residences at Steele Road, nevertheless need to be looked at by the Council.

He said he is happy that the applicant was willing to accept the requirement that the rest of the property would be conserved.

“I’m going to support appreciate Mr. Sager’s honest and sincere opinion that people want to be in West Hartford and will even pay a premium rent to be in West Hartford,” Davidoff said. This project stands out as a model for others who want to do redevelopment in town. “You’re a quality developer who stands by your word … and sincerely believes in what you’re doing,” he said.

Mayor Shari Cantor thanked Sager for his investment, and his efforts to make offsite improvements.

“This development was transformational when you came to us in 2014. We weren’t used to rentals in residential areas,” Cantor said. Now there are thousands of apartments in the area online, and we want to attract those potential residents to West Hartford.

“I see what you see, I see a lot of interest in our area … and I’m grateful that we have this product to be able to answer that,” said Cantor.

While Cantor said she is sensitive to the potential traffic issues, “it’s not something to deny a million dollar investment in our community.”

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