Next week’s meeting will mark the fourth time this year the planning commission has entertained Gabe Handy’s senior housing proposal to construct a four-story building in the village center.
Though commissioners have yet to greenlight the project’s site plan — twice tabling the discussion and even hosting a design session — some residents say prior experience in the planning process offers little confidence the PC will address their concerns.
School Street’s Anne Whyte and Linda McKenna say the project bucks a section of the village’s land development code that requires developments to enhance pedestrian connectivity and streetscapes while adding aesthetic, economic and social value.
Neighbors say the building is being shoehorned with no deference to its effect on them. It’s a large box, they say, out of place in a historic village — a stone’s throw from Vermont’s first brick schoolhouse and shadowing houses over a century old.
Many have called on the PC to request Handy provide a three-dimensional model of the plan, as allowed by code, but they’ve yet to see one.
The proposed four-story building wouldn’t be the first of its height around the Five Corners, but the lead up to 4 Pearl St. left neighbors with a sour taste and a lingering distrust with the planning process.
Whyte and McKenna said that’s because what they feared about that building — mainly its impact on traffic — have since come to fruition despite claims it wouldn’t.
“We are already living with 51 apartments and a very busy sports bar,” McKenna said. “And the concerns we had about how that’s logistically going to work were dismissed.”
“Dismissed out of hand with a sneer,” Whyte added.
It’s a conflict the two say has been present for a while now: What is the village of Essex Jct., and what should it be?
Towns and villages across the country are wrestling with similar questions as populations rise and affordable housing becomes an increasingly rare commodity.
The land development code is supposed to guide those decisions, designating growth areas like the village center and detailing what that looks like. While some of the code is clear-cut, other parts allow for subjectivity.
“[The PC] is supposed to read this and apply it,” said Whyte, pointing to the code, which she’s saved on her tablet.
“It’s not a number; it’s not a metric that you can measure,” she continued. “But that’s [commis
sioners’] job: to interpret the code when it is a little fuzzy. You can’t be so black and white.”
To be fair, commissioners were initially unwilling to approve Handy’s site plans in May over concerns with how the building meshes with the neighborhood.
Their hesitancy extended into October, when they balked at Handy’s failure to provide them with new material to review until the night of the meeting and made clear if it came to a vote then, it would likely fail.
Even though the Village District Center promotes projects like Handy’s— density-driven with expansive lot coverage — chairman David Nistico thought the proposal failed to meet design review standards. Those compel a review of a building’s relationship to the village center’s “unique historic qualities.”
Growing frustrated, Handy called for guidance. Otherwise, he’d try his luck elsewhere.
A design session earlier this month was supposed to do just that. While commissioners threw out a few suggestions on how to soften the façade and improve landscaping, concerns over the building’s scale and its effect on neighbors eventually regained custody of the conversation.
Choking back tears, abutter Meredith Connolly said the building would rip away her family’s privacy. She said her property value is falling, and she’s questioned whether to sell her house now and regain what she can.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Commissioner Joe Weith said while he sympathizes with Connolly’s concerns, the PC can only make decisions based on zoning regulations. Commissioners can’t consider “those types of emotional issues,” he said.
“So I’m a casualty,” Connolly responded.
The PC hasn’t offered an official stance, but some commissioners have praised aspects of the project. They’ve stressed the need for affordable senior housing, and chairman Nistico called it and an important step toward making the Village Center District more complete.
He also believes Handy is doing all he can to address all concerns. Plus, the building could cover more of the lot than it does now.
“It is a tight spot, but this is the kind of thing that we want to see,” Nistico said. “It’s a good project.”
Handy seemed somewhat relaxed after the session. He told his designer to have a glass of wine when she got home and moments later received a T-shirt from a supportive resident. It read: “I don’t give a” above a rat walking a donkey.
“I’ll wear it to the next meeting,” Handy said with a laugh.
“Well, you can’t wear that because you have to give a rat’s ass,” the man responded. “But with some whiny tenant …”
For now, Handy must focus on earning approval for the project. His next chance is December 7.
Located on 9 and 11 Park St. behind the Verizon building, his proposal boasts 43 one-bedroom units and features 23 underground parking spaces. An additional eight spaces are sited at the rear, making a total of 31, almost 10 more than required by code for senior housing.
It’s part of his master plan to construct two multi-story buildings on his 1.3 acres on Park Street. Phase II involves demolishing two buildings on his property, one of which is the Pho Dang restaurant, before constructing another four-story building for mixed use, like 4 Pearl St.
He currently plans to rent out the one-bedroom units at $950. Shrinking the building would force him to add bedrooms and open the units to families. That means louder neighbors and pricier units, he said.
“Some things going to get built in their backyard,” he said. “Before I bought it, it was a 95-room hotel back there. So how would they have felt about having [that] versus having senior housing? I mean, the choices are — come on.”
He’s quick to note he’s requested no waivers, and some of residents’ biggest sticking points, like limited parking and the plan’s lot coverage, still conform to code. He also said he could foresee filling the building before it’s even completed; in May, he said his office had already fielded dozens of calls from seniors.
He’s no stranger to the pushback that comes with development, but even Handy is surprised at the confrontation thus far. Senior housing wasn’t even his idea, he said: The village asked for it.
“I’m very confident that I’ll win eventually, but I want to work with the village. I have a lot of lots left to develop,” he said. “I’m giving them everything they’re asking for.”
Neighbors don’t agree. Handy’s no philanthropist, Whyte said, he’s a businessman. He makes money. He pays taxes.
“At the end of the day he’s not doing this out of the goodness of his heart,” she said.
She and McKenna know they’re easy to dismiss as naysayers, and sometimes their urgings may even seem anti-growth. After participating in the Act 250 process for 4 Pearl St., the two have since become active voices in the village planning process. Last year, they fought for a four-story cap on building height in the land development code.
As residents in the village center, they understand density is the only way to combat sprawl, but it must be deliberate, they said.
“We have something unique. We don’t have Winooski. We don’t have Taft Corners,” Whyte said. “Let’s not ruin it.”
But her experience with the PC has shown her commissioners seem to favor developers over residents who have lived here for decades, she said. And allowed only a few minutes to speak at each meeting, it’s easy to leave feeling like she wasn’t heard.
Whyte even admits she doesn’t blame Handy for his proposal. In fact, she expects nothing less. Why wouldn’t he present the “biggest box” he can put down that will make the most revenue?
“It’s like asking for dates at last call,” she said. “If you ask enough, maybe you’ll get it.”