Thursday, November 29, 2012
By James Lomuscio
Though Wednesday night’s Board of Finance public hearing was a record five-and-a-half hours, board members say it was time well spent on how to proceed with the planned senior housing facility on Baron’s South.
“It was a conversation I think the public needed to have,” board member Michael Rea said about the presentations made by three bidders on the project. “The Baron’s South Committee did a lot of good work, but a lot of it was sub rosa, and there were a lot of answers the public needed.”
It was the second time the three bidders, including the Jonathan Rose Companies, the developer favored by the Baron’s South Committee, and Affirmative Hillspoint LLC and Becker & Becker came before the finance board, having tweaked their initial presentations.
“I think all of us on the board learned a lot more about what was going on listening to the bidders that had bid,” said Rea, adding that the Representative Town Meeting will examine the topic Tuesday evening. “I think we changed the parameters of the conversation.”
“We’ve taken the view we’re in favor of senior housing, but we want to make sure that it primarily services Westporters and that it brings a financial return to the town that makes sense,” he added.
At issue for the Board of Finance is the fact that the first RFP (request for proposal) was for a 99-unit senior, rental housing facility with 56 units deemed affordable, about 60 percent, with no guarantee most units would be occupied by Westport residents.
The planned housing facility on the town-owned 22-acre parcel is a key objective of First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Second Selectwoman Shelly Kassen. They say such housing would give townspeople who have contributed much to Westport throughout the years an opportunity to age in place.
Finance board members agree, but argue that the 60 percent affordable unit provision—required by a Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) text amendment— limits the project and thus, the amount of money the developer and the town would make.
The Rose proposal, for example, was for a 75-year lease paying the town $250,000 a year after a $500,000 initial payment. Finance board members say that amount is too low a return considering the property is now assessed about $13 million.
“The town risked $7.5 million when we bought the estate, we’ve made a little bit on that, but we put our money at risk, and it’s still at risk because we’re leasing the land for 75 years,’ said finance board member Brian Stern.
“So, we have a large stake in this,” Stern added. “We’ve got to make sure the developer makes a reasonable return and so should the town; $250,000 a year on a large investment is a very low rate of return, and the best way to get a better rate of return is to make the total development more profitable.”
That, he stressed, can be achieved by reducing the number of affordable units.
Finance board member John Pincavage agreed, saying that the RFP with the 60 percent provision, would not encourage a lot of developers to bid on the project.
“It does not make any economic sense,” he said.
Avi Kaner, finance board chairman, pointed out that the original RFP should have included Phase II of the project that the Baron’s South Committee had initially discussed, a skilled nursing facility.
At the meeting Kaner questioned what would become of seniors, who after a number of years in the proposed complex, required routine medical care and services. He wondered if they then would be forced to leave.
“I think they (the Baron’s South Committee) were rushing into Phase I of the project because it was easier to do, and as a result we were missing the bigger picture in assessing the true needs of the community,” Kaner said. “We want to see a more holistic approach. We want to see the vision in totality.”
Kaner said that of the three bidders, only Affirmative Hillspoint addressed this concern through its proposal of a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). However, a CCRC is not a development town officials seem eager to embrace.
In a memo to Kaner last week, Joseloff stated that he is willing to rebid and ask for fewer affordable units but dismissed the idea of a CCRC . Joseloff argued it would encourage big business using town-owned property, and “utilize the entire parcel, except for the Center for Senior Activities,” as opposed to only six acres
Affirmative Hillspoint had initially proposed 220 housing units and 48 skilled nursing beds. Wednesday night, they dropped the number of units to 192.
“While we are not mandating that the developer of Baron’s South be a nonprofit, it’s a far different model to have a CCRC benefiting in a huge way a handful of owners—and using town property to do so,” Joseloff wriote in his memo. “We cannot support it.”
Following the meeting, Joseloff said he thought the discussion was “very useful” and that he looked forward to the Board of Finance’s response to his Nov. 20 memo.
Posted 11/29/12 at 06:34 PM
Westport needs to be very careful as it moves forward with this project. Remember, there are a million ways to break a contract (do you really think any of the bidders will be around in 75 years?). Those of you who remember the Nyala Farms “deal.” One where the town was going to get all sorts of benefits by allowing the development of the property & once it was developed the company merged and the town was left holding empty promises.
Why in God’s name can’t the Town bond the costs of the project and then contract with someone we control.