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P&Z Cool on Bigger Community Building at The Heights

The Darien Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday decided to postpone a vote on whether to approve a slightly larger community building at The Heights affordable housing complex

The Planning & Zoning Commission has postponed a decision on whether to approve a proposal to enlarge the Community Center building at The Heights, which is replacing the former Allen O'Neill affordable housing development.

Developers of The Heights want to increase the size of the building by 1,100 square feet, expanding an office which could be a new headquarters for the Darien Housing Authority.

The expansion would add a 200-square-foot laundry facility, add 400 square feet to the planned fitness center and create an "enhanced sitting area and upgraded Club Room" in the building, according to a letter sent to town officials.

A room for several computers would be used by students doing homework, by residents and for computer classes and job-hunting seminars for any residents out of work, said Arthur T. Anderson of Imagineers, one of the two companies developing the affordable housing project.

All of the amenities in the Community Center would be available only to residents of The Heights and their guests, aside from the office which would be used by the leasing agent and a site manager, Anderson said.

Since a Darien Housing Authority employee would be the site manager using the office, that office could easily double as a new headquarters for the authority, freeing up space in the Town Hall basement where the current office is located, he said.

"The site manager is essentially going to be the executive director of the Housing Authority anyway," Anderson said.

Although the Community Center would be somewhat larger than previously planned, it will look about the same as it does in the current plans, he said.

John H. McLutchy Jr., president of JHM Group of Stamford, the primary developer of the project, said the proposal to increase the size of the Community Center was driven by a need for a new computer room.

The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority insists on computer rooms in affordable housing developments such as The Heights, McLutchy said, and that agency, which has helped with the financing of the project, recently brought the lack of a computer room to his attention, he said.

McLutchy said he and his company made a mistake in not originally including a computer room in the Community Center building.

"I blew it," he said.

P&Z Chairman Fred Conze said he supported the proposal because it would increase the building size minimally and enhance the services provided to future tenants.

Board member Joseph Spain moved that the proposal be approved, but no other member of the board seconded the idea, so Conze postponed a vote until the next meeting of the commission on Oct. 16. The delay would allow board members to discuss the matter further among themselves.

Board members made statements indicating they were reluctant to approve the idea for various reasons. Susan Cameron indicated she was fed up in general with developers wanting to increase the size of buildings after projects were initially approved.

Kevin Cunningham indicated he was disturbed about The Heights not modifying various other aspects of the development, such as the use of a chain link fence, about which neighbors have objected. After other commission members reminded him that any P&Z decision on the current proposal must be limited to consideration of the proposal itself, he said he would comply with that.

"I would really like to hear some public input" on the idea, Cunningham said. He suggested a public hearing for the proposal, but Conze said there had already been plenty of public hearings, and the enlargement of the building was so slight that it wouldn't have any effect on the project's neighbors.

Reese Hutchison said he thought the proposal would enhance the project, but he favored a postponement.

"I guess I'm feeling empathetic to a neighborhood that has a lot of raw earth, now," he said, referring to the disruption of the project on the neighbors.

Jeremy Ginsberg, director of the town Planning & Zoning Department, said that if the Darien Housing Authority decides to move its offices to The Heights, a special permit would be required from the Planning & Zoning Commission. The authority has not made a decision to move, McClutchy said.

Jean D. October 05, 2012 at 11:55 AM
I am so glad our State and town can afford this. Makes me happy to think these are such good times. Computer rooms and fitness centers? Isnt AMERICA great? And the Presidents wife has to go on a campaign because our poor people are fat. Imagine!
Darien Resident October 05, 2012 at 01:03 PM
One of the benefits of living in Darien is all the amentities it has. We have a huge library that has tech classes, computers for use, etc. We have many fields and beaches. McGuane is in walking distance of The Heights. The newly expanded Y has tons of programs. The schools offer several free athletic programs. I'm not sure why these residents need their own community center. The buildings are huge and seem to offer common living areas (living rooms) in their units, so I'm not sure why they need a "club room." These residents should join the "rest" of the community in our activities.
Chris October 05, 2012 at 01:10 PM
A state mandated minor change can't get voted on and reluctant commssion members cite reasons than range from the irrelevant to the spiteful. Not P&Z's finest hour
David Gurliacci (Editor) October 05, 2012 at 02:00 PM
The most frequent example that developers have given for the usefulness of the community room is for a larger gathering, such as a christening party. Homes at The Heights might be too small for all the guests that might come, they said.
jane doe October 05, 2012 at 05:04 PM
The chain link fence does not make sense when all of Fairfield Avenue has a beautiful vinyl stockade privacy fence. Don't all neighbors deserve the same courtesy? Btw definitely safe to say there is a major flooding problem from the looks of West Avenue & Fairfield and West Avenue & Herman Avenue. Hope this gets resolved in the building phase so that it does not become a problem of the TOWN.

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