Catoonah Street apartments to include office space

The former Tigers' Den storefront at 23 1/2 Catoonah Street is becoming apartments.
The former Tigers' Den storefront at 23 1/2 Catoonah Street is becoming apartments.

More apartments and one less restaurant.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted to approve a special permit for renovations to 23 ½ Catoonah Street, the former location of Tigers’ Den Sports Bar and Grill, at its Dec. 4 meeting.

Attorney Bob Jewell, who represents Sturges Properties, said the former Tigers’ Den building will be converted into five residential units and one rentable office space of about 200 square feet.

“There seems to be a trend recently for small business spaces,” said Jewell.

Sturges Properties purchased the property in August.

The developers plan to build two, one-bedroom units on the top floor and two one-bedroom units and one studio apartment on the bottom floor. The bottom floor will also include a rentable office.

Converting a former business space to apartments in the downtown business area seemed to give commissioners pause.

Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli said having only one 200 square-foot office would be a “stretch of what [the commission] intended” when it first drew up plans to allow mixed-use buildings with first-floor businesses and residential apartments.

“I think you need to question whether you want to create a building that is essentially an apartment building from floor to ceiling within the Central Business District,” Baldelli told the commission.

‘Spotty history’

Commissioner John Katz argued the commission does not have a “prohibition” against residential apartments in the zone, and that shops and businesses in the Main Street business area would benefit by having more residents within walking distance.

“Our downtown benefits from the people that live there,” Katz said.

Jewell said the one-bedroom apartments will fill a need for that type of housing in town, and that restaurants had struggled to survive in the location.

“There’s been such spotty history of restaurants through there,” he said, “I’ve gotten at least six phone calls asking me about this since the first article appeared in the paper.”

Commissioner Bob Cascella agreed the location away from the street has been difficult for restaurants.

But he also noted that other businesses could suffer if the commission continues to allow the zone to switch from businesses to residential apartments.

Tighter language

Vice Chairman Joe Fossi agreed to support the application, but said the commission should revise the regulations around mixed residential and business developments.

“This does meet the regulation whether we intended it to or not,” he said. “I think we need to tighten up the language.”

Baldelli indicated that approving the Catoonah Street project doesn’t give future developers carte blanche to ditch business zoning for residential use.

“The fact that you approve one over here doesn’t mean that you have to approve one over there ... you have that discretion with a special permit,’ said Baldelli.

“You have the opportunity if someone waves that in your face to say ‘nice try but go away.’”

A river runs through it

Part of renovating the property involves dealing with the Ridgefield Brook, which runs down the property line that separates the Sturges property from Colonial Cleaners.

Jewell said the creek is eroding the foundations of both the Tigers’ Den building and Colonial Cleaners on the opposite bank.

Sturges plans to use the winter to do interior renovation work, Jewell explained, and then return to the Inland Wetlands Board in the spring with a plan to pipe the brook to prevent it from eroding the building foundations.

“That channel is eroding the foundations of the building, so the applicant will definitely be coming back,” he said.

Owner Don Sturges, who was in the audience that evening, said that while the creek is eroding the foundation of Colonial Cleaners across the stream, the piers that support the former Tigers’ Den building “are stable, surprisingly enough.”

The brook will also need to be cleaned out.

“My main concern is the stream or the ditch or whatever you want to call it has eroded and is filled with debris and trash,” said Bryan Nesteriak of B&B Engineering, an expert hired by the commission to review the application.

Craig Studer of Studer Design Associates said there is a plan to clean out trash that has piled up in the brook as part of the application.

“I think there was a grocery cart, or portion thereof [in the stream],” he said.

The commission voted to approve the renovations on the conditions that Sturges include additional plantings on the Tigers’ Den side of the stream, a sump in the plan’s stormwater catch basin, and that native plants be used rather than exotic species.

Cleaning garbage out of the stream was also included as a condition.

Commissioner Mark Zeck was the only member to vote against the plan, after he voiced concern that the plan does not contain enough business space.

“I agree that space has not worked for a restaurant space … at the same time, could it work as something else?” he said.

Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti asked Beth Peyser, the town wetlands enforcement officer, to make sure that no work was being done on the foundation of the building before Sturges comes back with a new application for the work.

“Additional driving by might be prudent,” she told Peyser.