Selectmen Hear Deeper Details About FFH Master Plan Revisions
Committee Chair Deborra Zukowski had an opportunity to review high points of her panel’s findings and justifications for unanimously recommending limited mixed-use development of various sustainable buildings on the campus that should include a residential component.
The Board of Selectmen spent about 40 minutes hearing a presentation from the Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee leader August 19.
Committee Chair Deborra Zukowski had an opportunity to review high points of the panel’s findings and justifications for unanimously recommending limited mixed-use development of various sustainable buildings on the campus that should include a residential component.
She opened the conversation reminding selectmen of the various volunteers who served the committee and spent the better part of a year thoughtfully reviewing and refining the master plan update as presented. They included Chandravir Ahuja, Bob Bowen, Vice Chair Neil Chaudhary, Jeffrey Jorgenson, Gary MacRae, Robert Rau, Bryan Roth, Rob Sherwood, and Doug Smith.
Ms Zukowski said community members would be well-served by the thorough minutes she asked be maintained on each of the seven often lengthy meetings and public forum the committee held. In addition, she clarified that a townwide online survey that was available for about one month earlier this year received 1,825 valid responses out of the approximately 2,200 that were submitted.
The review committee chair explained that certain criteria regarding residency and the age of responders were among the guidelines employed to cull out more than 300 unusable surveys.
Ms Zukowski said the first aspect the committee tackled was coming to fully understand the history, current status, and needs at the town-owned former state hospital campus.
She reviewed what the group learned about safety and security issues and mentioned escalating concerns among her colleagues about individuals entering what she repeatedly referred to as blighted or near blighted buildings, either out of curiosity, or for more nefarious purposes like stealing fixtures and other items remaining inside.
There is further concern for residents using the campus and passersby because of occasional falling debris from the most compromised buildings.
Hurdles And The Survey
Next was a brief discussion about what the committee came to understand about significant hurdles to implementing the revised master plan. Those challenges involved the scope and costs related to demolishing at least the remaining unusable and most compromised buildings, along with detailing the various impediments to developers who might have an eye on limited reuse opportunities.
Ms Zukowski said obtaining any type of financing to redevelop one or more salvageable buildings would be dependent on creating mixed-use scenarios that included limited housing. While retail/professional tenants may come and go, she said the more reliable revenue from residential tenants would likely be a qualifying criteria for anyone seeking development financing.
Turning to the subject of the April online survey, Ms Zukowski made note of the most impactful findings.
She said a majority of respondents liked the direction they saw the campus moving, although a number of residents wanted to see more food options, resting areas, and bathrooms, along with more emphasis on developing outdoor entertainment.
The survey results showed that while 63 to 78 percent disapproved of developing residential uses, depending on type of housing, only 26 percent approved of using taxpayer money to demolish buildings. Slightly more — 36 percent — approval of tapping taxpayers to assist with any renovation expenses.
At the same time, the survey showed more than two-thirds (63 percent) of those responding felt a “sense of urgency to further develop” the campus, while one-quarter (25 percent) said they wanted to see no further development.
“This puts us between a rock and a hard place,” Ms Zukowski told selectmen. “If a roof collapses [on a vacant building] we’ll have a pile of debris and the release of pollutants. Then there will be no option but for taxpayers to support demolition.”
At that point, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal asserted that the town is not aware of any buildings remaining at Fairfield Hills that are “structurally compromised,” but he said they would all eventually get to that condition “sooner than later,” if something was not done to preserve them.
Ms Zukowski noted a 2005 master plan recommended waiting five years to see if development would occur, and if not, remaining buildings should be scheduled for demolition. Then, she said, a 2010 master plan review recommended that demolition of remaining buildings should commence.
Position And Recommendations
Before turning to recommendations, the review committee chair restated the official position of her panel: “The Committee recommends that the plan be modified to allow commercial proposals that include a housing component provided that the proposal is for no more than two existing buildings and that the commercial component is consistent with the vision of the property.”
She said the pros of that scenario included cost avoidance regarding wholesale demolition of all buildings by reserving several that were still usable and proceeding forward with the recommended mixed-use plans. Ms Zukowski said that by preserving at least two salvageable structures, it would better preserve the character of the campus, noting that while architectural accommodations had been made, newer campus buildings do not visually compare.
She reiterated concerns about safety and said that revenue from developing mixed-use centers in existing campus buildings would also bring in revenue that could offset demo costs for unusable buildings. And she said the committee believed that by bringing residents to live in two buildings on campus, it would ensure the long-term sustainability of the new Community and Senior Centers that just opened there.
Ms Zukowski said the disadvantages the review committee found to developing mixed-use included increases on campus traffic and parking demands; a shift in focus away from original plans to build passive recreation and multiple ball fields; the advent of Newtown becoming a residential/commercial landlord by proxy; and the aging water, sewer, and utility infrastructure on the campus required to sustain successful mixed-use development.
Speaking to her own suggestion involving vision, Ms Zukowski briefly but passionately explained her thoughts regarding a recommendation to create an assisted living component as part of an overall mixed-use scenario.
“We are a compassionate community and want everybody to enjoy the property,” Ms Zukowski said. She said residents who could no longer sustain themselves at home still deserved the opportunity to live out their remaining time in Newtown “looking out at the beauty of Fairfield Hills.”
She added that by developing at least one of the two mixed-use components as assisted living facilities would also bring much less traffic than apartments or other residential applications. Ms Zukowski also observed that many residents of local “over 55 communities” would be aging to the point where an assisted living opportunity in town would be needed and/or valued.
Moving to the final five review committee recommendations, Ms Zukowski projected the punch list as follows:
*The committee recommends that the Fairfield Hills master plan review be repeated in five or fewer years until the vision is more fully implemented;
*The Committee recommends that Cochran [House] move from the fields table to the private development table;
*The Committee recommends that a site-use overlay plan should be developed that provides better guidance for potential development of existing buildings;
*The Committee recommends that buildings with no potential re-use be razed as soon as possible;
*The Committee recommends that there must be dedicated outdoor space that could include a future structure such as a band shell or gazebo.
Ms Zukowski closed by reviewing committee’s final conclusions, saying the panel found Fairfield Hills has begun to realize its potential as a community destination.
However, the committee believes deteriorating buildings are posing a challenge to continuing the realization of the vision because of safety, impact on the campus’ character, and the pending taxpayer burden for remediation and demolition. Earlier, Ms Zukowski suggested that price tag could quickly top $20 million, with roughly two-thirds being tied to hazardous material remediation.
Finally, the committee chair said her panel’s recommendations “are intended to allow for community conversations about what else could happen on the campus that may offer new avenues to fulfill the vision for every Newtown resident.”
She said having more community input is critical and was pleased to hear about planned community forums that will commence on September 23 and culminate in an official public vote as part of next April’s local budget referendum.
“It’s important for people to understand the details,” Ms Zukowski said, adding that Newtown cannot plan on a Field of Dreams build-it-and-they-will-come situation where a rich donor appears to alleviate any or all of the taxpayer burdens related to remaining buildings.
That point was refocused during public remarks offered later in the meeting by resident Kaia Fahrenholz. She believes if presented appropriately, a successful appeal to “donors who may want to develop open space and pay to raze a building,” could be successful.
“Newtown has some generous people with open hearts who may want to step up,” she told selectmen.
Residents and interested parties are invited to review Master Plan Review Committee minutes, presentations, and documents at newtown-ct.gov/fairfield-hills-master-plan-review-committee-0.