The Essex Jct. Planning Commission approved two site plans last week, including Gabe Handy’s controversial senior housing proposal, in a pair of decisions ushering further change in the village center.
Last Thursday’s meeting closed with a unanimous vote on Hinesdale Properties’ proposal to build a three-story apartment building in place of the current Verizon building.
The first hour of the meeting, however, covered Handy’s proposal for 9 and 11 Park St., which has created outrage among neighbors who say his project gives no deference to the surrounding neighborhood.
– Handy and Hinesdale projects will bring a combined seven stories, 71 apartments to Essex Jct. village center
– Both aim to start construction this March
Handy has made several changes to his project since receiving master plan approval in February 2016.
He pushed the building closer to the Park Street School parking lot and added landscaping to better screen adjacent neighbors. His architect also altered the design to visually break up the building’s length. And while permitted full lot coverage, the proposal lessened its coverage from 85 to 73 percent.
Handy’s team unveiled the changes over the course of eight months to address repeated questions from neighbors over whether the four-story building fits in with the neighborhood. Commissioners shared similar concerns, tabling the proposal twice and hosting a November design session.
But they referenced the changes and the project’s conformity to the village center district, which calls for density-driven development, prior to their unanimous approval.
“When you measure what the village center is looking to the future to provide, it’s all the things that this project delivers,” commissioner John Alden said.
Public comments at last week’s meeting echoed a theme that’s surfaced at each of the five meetings detailing Handy’s site plans.
Supporters said the project addresses a dire need for senior housing in the area. Mary Lefcourt says the building will give her a chance to move her elderly parents closer to her home. John Reynolds called the project a “tremendous positive change” and an integral part of the community moving forward.
Neighbors, meanwhile, stress they understand the need for elderly housing and say they’re not trying to stop Handy’s project.
“We know that piece of property has a value on it,” resident Frank Naef said. “You have to put a building there – you just have to; you can’t let it sit there – but we’re looking for something that’s complementary to the rest of the neighborhood.”
School Street resident Meredith Connolly called her neighborhood a “little hidden enclave” that’s now being exposed by Handy’s project. She feels like she’s been subject to the worst aspects of the proposal.
“I just feel like I’m giving so much to this project, and I’m just so frustrated. Why am I the butt of all these problems?” she asked. “I know it’s not personal, it’s business, but for me it’s personal.”
Janet Wilson, responding to Lefcourt’s comments, said she’s a senior, too, and her life savings are in her home, which could lose value due to the new building.
“It affects all of us,” she said.
Handy said he hoped to shorten the project’s construction by prefabricating some of the building offsite and assembling it with a crane, cutting the exterior work in half. He also offered to pay for a fence — that is, if neighbors want to seek approval from the zoning board.
“Just to make it clear: I want to be a good neighbor,” he said.
Handy’s construction will overlap with the Hinesdale project, which will build a three-story apartment complex in place of the current Verizon building.
In total, the two projects will bring 71 new apartments to the village center by 2019. For Handy, it’s just the start. Phase II of his Park Street master plan involves demolishing two buildings on his property, one of which is the Pho Dang restaurant, before constructing another four-story building for mixed use.
The Hinesdale plan, which doesn’t directly abut any homeowners, has proceeded with much less fanfare. One resident thanked the developers for reviewing the proposal with neighbors prior to an October meeting, and a staff report claims the building’s proposed façade “raises the bar for all future architectural design in the village center.”
The three-story building will house 28 one-bedroom market-rate apartments, including two studios, and offer retail and commercial spaces on the first floor. Site plans show a 10-foot buffer from the property line along Park Street, which the developers say will allow for street- and landscaping.
Parking remained the key issue during public comment for the proposal. The initial design included underground parking, though a high water table there prohibits it.
The complex will offer 34 parking spaces: 28 for residents and five for visitors or shoppers, 2.5 spaces short of the required number for commercial businesses.
Don Stewart, president of Stewart Construction representing the Hinsdale family, said he counted 25- 30 spaces of street parking within 200 yards of the building. And the village has offered an easement for eight spaces of public parking at the entrance of Park Street School.
Citing this, the PC waived the parking requirement, but Stewart said parking remains a legitimate concern.
“If this plan is going to work to revitalize the downtown, the village has to address parking as a whole,” he said. “That’s where we will pick up some of the benefit.”