The West Hartford Town Plan & Zoning Commission has postponed its plans to hold a hearing on the wetlands application submitted by the developers of Oakwood Park on the UConn campus in order to be able to properly review the materials.
By Ronni Newton
The development team from West Hartford 1 LLC, which is looking to build Oakwood Park on the former UConn campus at the intersection of Asylum Avenue and Trout Brook Drive, has made further changes to the design and wetlands application that has been submitted to West Hartford’s Town Plan & Zoning Commission (TPZ) for review, and a new hearing date of Nov. 29, 2023 has now been set.
The hearing had first been scheduled to take place during a special TPZ meeting on Oct. 23, but when it became apparent that more time was needed for review and response, it was continued and postponed until the regular TPZ meeting on Nov. 6. On Nov. 6, the hearing will be opened and continued to Nov. 29 without any public comment.
“The delays in conducting the public hearings associated with these applications are related to the complexity, size and scope of the proposals for both 1700 and 1800 Asylum Avenue,” Town Planner Todd Dumais told We-Ha.com. “Through regular consultation with town staff and the town’s outside wetlands consultant, the development team has been working diligently to address staff technical comments in an effort to reduce the proposals’ impacts to wetland and watercourse resources. Staff just received updated plans and materials from the applicant which are under technical review now.”
Those updated plans, which include staff comments and responses as of Oct. 24, have been posted on the town’s website.
“Our project team continues to refine our plans in response to comments from our neighbors and we’re working with West Hartford’s land use staff to provide them with the details they are looking for in their review,” Dominic Carpionato, principal of West Hartford 1 LLC, told We-Ha.com on Tuesday in an email.
Development on the former UConn campus is complicated by the fact that a significant portion of the roughly 58-acre parcel, which spans both sides of Trout Brook Drive just north of Asylum Avenue, is either wetlands or within the 150-foot upland review area where it would have direct wetlands and watercourses impact. TPZ, in addition to considering zoning applications, is also the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency (IWWA).
While the developer has submitted multiple iterations and renderings to West Hartford’s Design Review Advisory Commission (DRAC), the reviews have been informal study sessions. Only the wetlands applications have been officially submitted to the town for review at this point, and the TPZ hearing will focus only on those applications.
The changes to the wetlands applications and site plan, according to a spokesperson for West Hartford 1 LLC, were made in response to feedback from the community expressed at a Sept. 26 neighborhood meeting held at the University of Saint Joseph, as well as in response to input from town staff and SLR International Corporation, which the town hired as a professional consultant for technical review assistance due to the complexity of the project and the potential impact on the environment.
“We are happy to have met the people who attended our Neighborhood Meeting on September 26th,” states an Oct. 26 update on the Oakwood Park website. “This meeting gave our development team a great opportunity to talk with and involve our closest neighbors in our planning process. We appreciate everyone’s feedback and we look forward to continuing to shape and evolve our project based on the ideas and concerns we heard.” The latest changes, the developer stated, were made in response to that input as well as discussions with the town’s land use authorities, and are intended to provide more meaningful buffers for the neighborhood as well as from wetlands.
The most significant update to the proposal is that the total number of residential units has been reduced from 620 to 569.
While the number of units and footprint on the east side of the parcel has not changed in the latest set of plans – there are still 322 apartment units being proposed in four buildings of four or five stories – several buildings on the west side have been modified or eliminated.
The new plans shrink the assisted living facility by 50,000 square feet, reducing the number of units to 117 from the earlier plan for 158 units. The building’s location has also been shifted slightly.
“We have repositioned and reduced the size of the assisted living facility envisioned for the western side of campus, drawing it further away from wetlands and reducing the number of parking spaces needed,” the Oakwood Park website states.
In addition, the total number of townhomes planned for the development has been reduced from 34 to 24, and the buildings along Asylum Avenue have been moved farther back from the sidewalk.
The total number of residential units being proposed for the west side of the property is now 247, which includes the 117 assisted living units, 24 townhomes, and 106 apartments in two mixed-use buildings above retail or restaurants. The proposal still includes a premier restaurant (the developer is under discussion with a possible tenant), a destination spa, and an organic grocery store.
“The inclusion of a small neighborhood grocery store is incredibly important to our village concept,” according to updates on the developer’s website. “People living within the development and in the surrounding neighborhood will be able to walk from their homes to the store for fresh meats, fruits, vegetables and other food items. The same goal – providing people with accessible, walkable and welcoming places to visit – is behind our plans for a coffee shop, restaurant and other commercial uses right in their neighborhood.”
West Hartford 1 LLC states that they remain committed to enhancing the natural landscape for new residents as well as for the community, and Oakwood Park will include “public walking trails designed to invite people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods to utilize the park-like campus.”
Stormwater and flooding were high on the list of concerns raised by those who attended the Sept. 26 meeting – and throughout West Hartford flooding has been a major topic of discussion since there have been numerous incidences of torrential rain over the past several months.
The developer has stated that they will “provide a comprehensive stormwater management system that will mitigate peak stormwater flows offsite and maintain the flood-holding capacity of 1700 and 1800 Asylum Ave. We are also working with West Hartford on a town-led project for culvert replacement in the neighborhood to improve the historic flooding issues.”
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.
Parking and traffic were also among the major concerns raised by the community at the neighborhood meeting, and the developer said a traffic study is underway.
Although some have expressed concern about the environmental impact of too much impervious pavement being added to the site, at the Sept. 26 neighborhood meeting other area residents had voiced concerns about the number of parking spaces that will be available being inadequate for the uses of the property. While the residents of the assisted living facility may not need parking, the employees will, and 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.
“We plan to have sufficient parking on site so neighbors are not bothered by people parking on their streets as we were told was the case when the UConn campus was open,” the updated Oakwood Park website states. “It is our priority to properly address that – and all traffic concerns that might arise – in conjunction with an OSTA (Office of the State Traffic Administration) review and approval.”
Additional background and history of the property
A petition was launched on change.org on Sept. 19 in opposition to the development plans. An online petition does not have any official weight in the consideration of the proposal – which is still only in the official stage of a wetlands application – but it has garnered significant engagement and as of Oct. 31 there were 1,116 signatures on the petition.
Members of the community have also set up the Facebook page “West Hartford New Developments” where they are posting updates related to this project as well as other information related to development in town and environmental issues, and there are also lawn signs in opposition for the development being sold.
Discussions about the future of the former UConn campus have been underway for more than a decade, since UConn announced in 2012 that it would be eventually be relocating from the West Hartford campus. Below is a brief summary of that history, which We-Ha.com has been covering since the beginning. Included are links to many of the previous articles that have been written about the issue.
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 parkingon 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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