P.C. again tables four-story senior housing complex

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From left, Essex Planning Commission vice-chairman John Alden and chairman David Nistico chat with developer Gabe Handy following a meeting back in May. The PC will host a design session with Handy on Thursday after deciding to table a vote on his four-story senior housing proposal for the second time. (File photo by Colin Flanders)

The Essex Jct. Planning Commission is scheduled to host a design session with developer Gabe Handy on Thursday in a compromise spurred by members who again tabled a vote on his four-story senior housing proposal.

When commissioners first saw Handy’s proposal five months ago, they sent the complex back for revisions due to concerns over how the building meshes with the surrounding neighborhood.

On October 19, Handy’s team shared some of the modifications. Window projections extend a bit further from the building to break up its length; the exterior paneling changed from olive green to dark red; and a section of the previously contiguous sidewalk was removed for a fence and more shrubbery.

Despite the changes, commissioners echoed their concerns and said Handy failed to adequately address them in a timely manner. Certain aspects of the plan arrived on the day of the meeting.

“This is too important. It’s the village center. It’s a building that’s going to be around for a long, long time. We want this to happen,” PC chairman David Nistico said. “I just feel like it needs to be tweaked a little bit. It needs to be better.”

Nistico explained that while the village’s comprehensive plan and land development code call for this type of growth, he didn’t believe the proposal’s design passed design review standards, which aim to protect the village’s “unique historic qualities.”

The standards add an extra layer of protection against unsightly development by compelling commissioners to review a proposed building’s relationship to the village center.

“With five minutes of review time, I don’t possibly have enough time to make a full decision on that,” vice-chairman John Alden said.

Handy’s team noted it did consider a gabled roof, another change proposed in May, but it made the building even taller and didn’t match some of the other new developments in the area. Reactions from nearby property owners matched those shared six months ago, with concerns over the building’s size and lot coverage reigning supreme.

School Street’s Anne Whyte called it an “oversized” building and questioned the decision to remove some of the sidewalk, which creates an “incredibly un-pedestrian” environment for seniors, she said, especially during the winter months. Instead, Handy could shrink the building and fit both the fence and sidewalk, Whyte said.

“I’m really happy that you guys are not so quick to sign off on this,” she told the commission. “We do need senior housing, but we need smart senior housing.”

Those favoring the proposal focused less on the building’s design and more on those it will serve.

“We’re going to save our elderly or we’re going to worry about a pitch on the roof to match our school,” said resident Mary Lefcourt, who reported spending the last two years looking for a place for her elderly parents to live.

She wants the village to offer a place where she can know they’re safe without having to drive miles in a snow storm.

Ed Von Sitas, a longtime resident in his 70s, said he’d like to move in to the building once it’s built.

“By delaying this, a lot of the seniors are looking forward to moving in here aren’t going to be able to afford it by the time it gets around to building it,” he said.

Both Alden and Nistico stressed their contention is separate from the need for affordable senior housing.

“We have a large responsibility that we make sure in addition to providing a service that our residents need, we also provide a living environment and an aesthetic value that people want to see,” Nistico, the chairman, said.

Handy, who waited to speak until after the public comments, said the building’s size is vital to the project. He said he needs 43 units to build single-bedroom residences. Otherwise, he will need to likely move to two-bedroom units or a rental model.

“Then it’s going to be families with kids — noise factors,” he said.

Handy believed his team returned to the planning commission with all its concerns addressed. He removed the sidewalk to fix a fence that will help block headlights from spilling into nearby properties, and they moved the entire building four feet from the school to adhere to setback requirements.

And, at the commission’s request, Handy ordered a three-dimensional model of the proposal to help show how it fits into the surrounding landscape.

“That was $2,000, and now you’re telling me you don’t even like it?” he said. “If I’m sounding upset, I have the right.”

Handy also took issue with the PC’s approach. He said the commissioners haven’t told him what they want to see; instead, they keep asking him to come back. He offered an ultimatum: Either approve or deny the proposal, but unless the commission is willing to say what it’s looking for, he’d take his chances elsewhere.

“I do a lot for this village,” he continued. “I never, ever burnt anybody. I’ve never upset any neighbors in anything I have built. This is the first time around that I find negative stuff.”

Nistico responded that while he believes Handy has done what he can to address residents’ comments, he questioned whom the burden should be on.

“Is it our job to tell you what we want?” Nistico asked. “Or is it your job to come here with something we can all agree on?”

The Nov. 2 work session is planned for 6 p.m. at 2 Lincoln St.