Proposal for mixed-use development in Ridgefield leaves planners ‘a little disappointed’

RIDGEFIELD — Affordability, sustainability and parking have each presented as lingering issues for residents and Planning and Zoning Commission members on the mixed-use development proposed on 34 Bailey Ave.

The proposed four-story complex would retain the same building envelope as the existing structures, and house 25 market-rate dwelling units and roughly 3,600 gross square feet of commercial space on the first floor. The project includes 44 parking spaces on the north and east sides of the building.

Commissioner John Katz was critical that there aren’t any affordable housing units for the Bailey Ave project.

“I’m a little disappointed with the project,” he said during a public hearing on the meeting Tuesday night. “There isn’t even a nod to affordable housing in the proposal.”

Katz said the commission shouldn’t expect anything less than inclusion of a few affordable units.

The comment, after brief applause, set off a back and forth between commission members and attorney Robert Jewell, who represents the property owner, Bailey Rail and Granary, about whether there is an honest objection to the development and on what grounds.

“We’re being asked to accept the building without any consideration for affordable housing or anything particularly sustainable and we’re just asking for that to be considered if we are going to consider this,” another commissioner said.

Jewell said the town is getting a lot out of the development his client has proposed, including a modest scale and environmental remediation that hasn’t been cleaned up for decades. The project is at the site of the old S.D. Keeler grain elevator building.

“Nobody has developed on this site because they didn’t want to clean it up,” Jewell said. “He (the applicant) didn’t create the pollution. It came from adjoining properties and other uptown. He’s cleaning it up on his own dime.”

Jewell added that instead of building a much cheaper building the applicant is striving to create a historical restoration building, which will be much more expensive for him than what most other developers would attempt.

“On the affordable housing standpoint, if you’ve ever owned a home, an apartment whether it is income or rent restricted or rent controlled is a much more affordable option than a single family home. If you compare the housing budget of people living in a home to living in an apartment the only conclusion you can draw is an apartment is a more affordable place to live. So he is providing affordable housing,” Jewell said.

Katz called the comment “an absurd argument.”

The state defines affordable housing as a unit that costs no more than 30 percent of a person’s income if that person isn’t earning more than 80 percent of the area median income.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Hendrick said he agreed with the points of the other commissioners on the need for affordable housing.

The special permit application, which is being sought here, requires the commission to make a finding that a project supports its Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, Hendrick said.

“With respect to the POCD and affordable housing being a major component, it would give a lot of extra weight to this application if there was an affordable component,” Hendrick said. “A few affordable units shouldn’t be that much of a stretch.”

Jewell noted the commission can’t make affordable units a requirement of their approval, but said he would talk to the applicant about the possibility.

In addition to revisiting affordable units, Jewell said they would look at the roof plan and the potential to add solar panels to make it more energy friendly, and the building would also likely include electric vehicle charging stations and other questions posed by the Energy Task Force.

They’ll also revisit parking questions brought up during the public hearing before the next meeting June 14, Jewell said.

The current application shows a total of 44 spaces, which had residents and the Parking Authority uneasy.

“We remain concerned about the adequacy of parking,” said Ellen Burns, representing the Parking Authority.

Developments in Central Business District are required to provide just 60 percent of the normal parking requirements “due to the high level of pedestrian activity and the multi-purpose nature of trips in the CBD zone,” according to the Ridgefield Parking Authority.

For the mixed-use proposal at 34 Bailey Ave., the parking requirement would be a range of just 37 spaces to 60 spaces since it’s in the Central Business District, the authority said.

In September, the Inland Wetlands Board unanimously approved the conditions of the plan, noting it would not have a detrimental effect on wetlands or watercourses on- or off-site. But that approval included a condition on no more than 44 parking spaces.

The Ridgefield Parking Authority advised that reduced parking would negatively impact the area with more cars and traffic in that area based on what the authority said it has seen as issues parking downtown.

A few other residents testified they were also worried about the capacity of the parking lot since most of the units are two-bedrooms and would likely have two cars, they said.

But an updated traffic and parking study provided by John Canning of Kimley and Moore determined there is sufficient parking in the 44 parking spaces to accommodate the project’s parking needs, even at a time when many people are working from home.

“It checks all the boxes for sustainable development and it’s not a major development — there are some issues you have to look at — but from a traffic perspective it’s not that significant,” Canning said. “We also looked at the parking, and the requirements, because we did our analysis on parking today. It reflects the stay- at- home COVID issue mentioned by the commission members.”

Jewell said their concern was not whether they’d have enough spaces for their residents, but whether non residents would try to park there.