NORWALK, Conn. – Members of a Norwalk neighborhood sat in the packed council chambers for five hours Wednesday night, there to argue against a plan to put a “gargantuan” assisted living center in their midst on New Canaan Avenue. About 10 minutes after they left, Zoning Commissioner Joe Santo helped to inform the surprised developers of the plan of the results with a quip: “OK, go build it, guys.”
The decision to approve the plans for Brightview at Norwalk was unanimous.
The Brightview at Norwalk assisted living center plan calls for 90 living units in a building that is built into a hill, it’s 2½ stories visible from the front, but only 1½ stories visible in the back. It will exist primarily at 162 New Canaan Ave., the Sons of Italy property, with a sliver of the property on land currently occupied by a home at 9 Woodacre Road. Developer The Shelter Group, which has built 27 assisted living centers in nine states, intends to deed the rest of the Woodacre Road property to conservation.
The winning sales pitch for the development, led by Attorney Steven Grushkin, included this thought: Approve the plan and you have control over what happens to the property.
A further advantage – the development, though commercial, would be residential. At night, the lights would go off and the noise level would be less, because, hey, people live there.
Those thoughts were echoed by Howard Kesten, whose bedroom at 46 Birchside Drive is “really close to the catering hall” at the Sons of Italy, and who has been disturbed by drunken voices on occasion.
“I would say there must have been a few dozen times when we thought someone was in our back yard. It’s pretty freaky,” he said. “… If they (the troubled Sons of Italy) go out of business and their property goes up for auction, we’re sure that somebody else that runs a catering business will buy the place and they’ll probably know what they’re doing. At that point, we will have to move. Because we can’t live like that seven days a week.”
Kesten was in the minority. While neighbor Ashley McCormack agreed that Brightview was better than possible alternatives, 11 other neighbors spoke against it. And they waited through a nearly two hour-long presentation that one called “a filibuster” to do it.
Patricia Conlin, a 70-year resident of Glen Avenue, wins the NancyOnNorwalk colorful language prize for the evening.
“Brightview’s size can best be described as a monstrosity of sorts, only suited to a business zone, not a double a residential zone,” she said. “It is hideous both in bulk and use. … We are not speaking here of a pimple on an elephant’s derriere, but rather an elephant’s derriere on a pimple.”
Kathryn Petroccione, a New Canaan Avenue resident, kept it short.
“This thing is gargantuan and I really don’t want it by my home,” she said.
Jacqueline Cook said she and her husband bought their first home, on Birchside Drive, in January 2011 because they liked the “feeling of the natural landscape,” as opposed to Stamford homes they looked at. Brightview would not be just a residence, but a business, she said.
As a commercial photographer, she photographs special events at long-term assisted living facilities and she sees what happens, she said, calling the planned 45 parking spaces inadequate.
“All of the facilities I work for have significant parking issues even with double the available parking that is proposed for Brightview,” she said.
Virginia Awn, a Woodacre Road resident, doubted that Norwalk needs an assisted living facility.
The new Maplewood at Strawberry Hill senior living facility is “presently at 40 percent occupancy,” she said. The Village at Waveny in New Canaan has 10 vacancies with no waiting list, she said. Brookdale in Wilton has a 90 to 95 percent occupancy rate, and Maplewood at Darien is at 35 percent occupancy, according to Awn.
Broad River Homes, a low-income facility, is doing well in terms of occupancy, she said.
Units at Brightview will go for $3,000 to $6,000 a month, Andrew Teeters of The Shelter Group said.
Attorney Peter Olson was hired by neighbors to attack the proposal. He presented a petition with 138 signatures against the center and said it was five times the median bulk of the surrounding buildings.
He threw an ace, comparing the application to the proposal for a mosque at 127 Fillow St., which was denied.
“We’re asking you to apply the same criteria,” he said.
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) also was among those who compared the senior living center to the mosque. Councilman Fred Bondi (R-At Large), on the other hand, said that the traffic at the center would be much lower than that of the Sons of Italy, of which he is a past president.
Teeters said The Shelter Group has plenty of experience dealing with traffic. A shuttle bus would take people back and forth from a church for special occasions, he said, although he hadn’t reached out to any churches yet.
Grushkin said he understood the neighbor’s feelings, but the mosque issue is “totally irrelevant.”
“Fillow Street is not (Route) 123, it’s a neighborhood road,” he said. “Type of parking that may or may not be required, entirely, totally different type. What was existing there prior to the application is entirely different from what was existing on ours. We have a commercial use on ours, and a really intense use.”
After the unanimous vote in favor, Zoning Commission Chairwoman Emily Wilson said she understood the neighbors’ concerns but the proposal fit within the regulations and is a “good project.”
“I think its a great use for the piece of property and it’s one of the things the city needs more than anything else. We’ve got a real lack of assisted living in this city,” she said.
What of the statistics cited by Awn?
“I happen to know that Maplewood, they went up about 20 percent in the last month and a half,” she said. “They are anticipating full occupation for Norwalk the end of this year and they’re anticipating full occupation for Darien at the end of next year. So there really is a lack and a need for it, and it’s going to be an improvement on the property, so all good.”
Correction made, 10:38 a.m.: “Go build it” comment had been attributed to Mike Mushak, but Joe Santo said it. 9:16 p.m., “Less than 20 minutes” changed to “about 10 minutes.”