GROTON — The Town Council on April 7 approved a purchase agreement with a North Haven developer, laying out a plan to eventually sell the town-owned William Seely School. The school is one of several unused, publicly-owned properties in Groton that town leadership have sought in recent years to redevelop and return to the tax rolls.
DonMar Development Corporation, based in North Haven, has presented plans to construct about 280 apartment units with added community amenities at the property on 55 Seely School Drive. Once completed, the development — called Triton Square — would generate an estimated $750,000 in annual tax revenue to the town, according to Groton Director of Planning and Development Services Jonathan Reiner.
Under the agreement, DonMar will need to take a series of additional steps before the town closes on the sale, including a further environmental study of the site, a detailed site plan review by the Town Council, and applications to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Agency.
The sale is for $1, while the developer would be left to cover the costs of demolition of the existing building, estimated at more than $2 million.
Councilor Conrad Heede, one of the Town Council’s two representatives on the town task force to interview potential developers, said the DonMar development and similar efforts to add new housing in the town “will let Groton both grow its grand list and become a better place to live and to visit.”
Planning officials describe need for new housing
Groton hosts facilities for several of southeastern Connecticut’s major employers, including General Dynamics Electric Boat and Pfizer, but the majority of those workers choose to commute rather than live in the town, Reiner said.
“In the town of Groton, we have a population of 40,000, and we have over 26,000 people that work in Groton, but 80 percent of those people commute in,” Reiner said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Groton is an amazing community. It has a lot to offer. We’ve been trying to do things through our economic development and planning and zoning to improve our sense of place and, in order to do that, add more high-quality housing options that are amenity rich. We’ve been trying to do that for the last five years and now some of these are finally coming to fruition.”
Paige Bronk, the town’s economic and community development manager, said similarly, “While we can generate those jobs, we haven’t yet found a loop to recycle the income generated in Groton back into the community. In some ways, we have a monetary leak in that the money flows out of Groton and is spent elsewhere rather than being recirculated into shopping, dining, entertainment and more.”
Bronk said that the town has recently made progress toward redevelopment agreements for several publicly-owned properties which have stood vacant for years, including the Mystic Education Center, the Groton Heights School, and the Colonel Ledyard School.
He said these new developments offer opportunities to create new housing with amenities and open spaces that would be attractive to Groton’s workforce.
Other former schools eyed for housing, office spaces
The largest planned redevelopment of a former school in Groton will be at the Mystic Education Center, a publicly-owned property that functioned decades ago as a school for the deaf. The developer Respler Homes has signed a purchase and sale agreement with the state and a development agreement has been approved by the town council.
The planned $250 million development on 80 acres of land — called Mystic River Bluffs — would create between 700 and 800 apartments and could include additional commercial and office spaces. An existing indoor recreational facility on the parcel could potentially be renovated and reverted back to the town, said Bronk.
Groundbreaking is anticipated in 2021, with much of 2020 spent on environmental analysis and remediation as well as architectural design and engineering.
Once that project is completed, Bronk said that it would be contribute an estimated $3 million in tax revenues to the town each year.
The project still depends on the town and Respler negotiating an agreement for tax credits.
For the Groton Heights School, Bronk said that the town has entered into a purchase and sale agreement with ThayerMahan, a Groton-based manufacturer of autonomous maritime surveillance equipment. Bronk said the company would use the school for offices. An attorney for ThayerMahan is now reviewing the agreement.
For the Colonel Ledyard School, Bronk said that the interview task force has identified a preferred candidate, but that they have yet to brief the town council.
Bronk said that these agreements take longer to finalize than smaller-scale real estate sales because the stakes are that much higher for the town, which will likely have to live with the consequences of each of these deals for decades or longer.
“We don’t treat these projects like a real estate transaction where a broker finds a buyer, does a transaction, and then in 30 days they’re done,” Bronk said. “We handle it as a redevelopment project. That’s why we have to get it right.”
Seely agreement criticized by some residents
Several residents emailed comments and called into the town council’s April 7 teleconferenced public hearing regarding the Seely property, with roughly equal numbers supporting and opposing the project.
In comments to the council, Lynn Gaul, of Bliven Street, said that she was concerned that the project would bring added traffic — both cars and foot traffic — into the surrounding neighborhood.
Gretchen Chipperini, of Phoenix Drive, said that apartments have contributed to the deterioration of the town and that single bedroom apartments in particular would become “loaded with children cramped into small spaces to save money for their parents who are going to be pressured by the difficult times that we have ahead of us.”
Cindy Fortner, a Representative Town Meeting member for District 6, said in written comments that she supported the town’s efforts to add additional affordable housing.
Groton’s Conservation Commission also endorsed the purchase agreement, which sets aside portions of the existing open space.
Chipperini and other commenters criticized the decision to approve a purchase agreement while the town is coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
“Why don’t we have a normal public meeting at a time when citizens are not under extreme stress about catching a deadly virus, being stuck in a house with a bunch of irritating kids, and worrying about paying bills and for food with money we may not have next week?” Chipperini said.
Heede said in a Wednesday interview that the council had sought to make the process “as public as possible,” but that the town couldn’t halt economic development for the uncertain period of time that the virus crisis lingers.
Reiner also noted that the purchase agreement is only one of several steps toward closing on the sale of the property. Residents will again be able to comment on the development when the project goes before the town’s Inland Wetland Agency and Planning and Zoning Commission
“Nothing has been determined other than right now we’ve essentially picked a dance partner with DonMar,” Reiner said Wednesday. “The song hasn’t started playing yet. They still have a lot more to go through.”
Councilor Aundre Bumgardner, the only councilor to vote against the DonMar purchase agreement for the William Seely School, said in a Wednesday interview that his opposition to the project was based on what he felt was a lack of walkability, mixed-use development and connection with surrounding neighborhood in the planning. Bumgardner said that development could worsen traffic in the area.
“In my eye, any project that we approve must fit the mold of a compact, walkable, and self-contained development that mitigates auto-centric suburban sprawl,” Bumgardner said. “When you review the conceptual site plan of the property, it only exacerbates auto-centric suburban sprawl.”
Bumgardner added that he hopes any development in the area places a priority on preserving open space and publicly-available recreation areas.
A previous version of this story quoted Bumgardner as saying “exaggerates.” The story has been corrected to “exacerbates.”