Redevelopment in Groton Picks up Speed

GROTON — For years, plans to redevelop five vacant school buildings in Groton have inched ahead, but with the first project — a 280-unit apartment complex — set to break ground as soon as next year, town officials say they hope that new developments will attract many of the thousands of people who work in Groton, but live elsewhere.

The Town of Groton owns five vacant school properties it would like to sell to developers.

To date, developers have proposed converting two schools into apartments, one into office space and to demolish another to make way for a new mixed-use community with apartments.

The town has received applications for the fifth, Pleasant Valley Elementary, after soliciting bids earlier this year, but the town has not yet selected a preferred developer.

It will be another year at least before work begins at Colonel Ledyard Elementary School. In October, developer Bill Bellock presented plans to build about 80 new apartment units on the site, which has been empty since the school closed in 2008.

At the William Seely School, DonMar Development plans to clear the site to build a 280-unit apartment complex in spring or summer of 2021, if the plans are approved by the town’s land use boards.

In an interview with CT Examiner, Town of Groton Director of Planning and Development Jon Reiner and Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk said there is momentum for development in Groton, especially for multifamily housing as developers share the town’s hope that they can get people to live and work in Groton, rather than commuting in to Pfizer or Electric Boat. 

Reiner and Bronk spoke with the Examiner about the need for housing in Groton, how the request for proposals process brings in fresh ideas town officials wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, and what is driving development in Groton.

“Capturing” the commuters

Bill Bellock of Bellsite Development, the preferred developer for the former Colonel Ledyard Elementary School who focuses on redeveloping small buildings for residential use, presented initial plans in October for developing the vacant single-story building and surrounding land into a 70 to 80-unit multifamily housing complex. 

If approved, the school building would contain about 12 units, depending on how Bellock is able to convert the gymnasium and offices.

Bronk said new apartments are one of the most important economic drivers in town because Groton generates jobs for the region, but most of the people who work in Groton commute from somewhere else. 

“We have a concern that most of our employees are commuters, so we try to capture the workforce and convert them into residents,” Bronk said.

Reiner said the rapid growth of the Electric Boat workforce is what’s driving the market for the redevelopment of city-owned school buildings into apartments. That’s especially true for Colonel Ledyard, which is just a half-mile from the Electric Boat campus, where parking is already a major concern, he said.

“We’ve already heard concerns from people about, ‘Well, what about the traffic?’ Well, there’s also the potential for a lot of walking or biking to the campus,” Reiner said. “If many of those people end up being [Electric Boat] employees, parking is so difficult around EB that to have something where you’re a half-mile from the campus, that’s very attractive.”

Reiner and Bronk said they didn’t seek out apartment developers for the Colonel Ledyard or any other school property, but that’s what most of the projects have been – aside from Fitch Middle School, which is now a community center, and the former Groton Heights School where homegrown maritime surveillance technology startup ThayerMahan plans to develop office space.

“No doubt, we are seeing in Groton tremendous demand for multi-family housing and developers looking to fill that,” Bronk said.

That demand for housing is reflected in preferred proposals for other vacant school buildings in Groton. At the Seely School, DonMar Development is currently seeking approval from the Town of Groton’s Inland Wetlands Agency and will need planning and zoning approval before it can start clearing the property to build about 280 new “amenity-rich” apartments, Reiner said.

Pending land use approval, that construction would probably begin in the spring or summer of 2021, he said.

North of I-95, the Seely School is two miles away from Electric Boat and doesn’t provide the walkable access for its employees like Colonel Ledyard does, but Reiner said DonMar has been in contact with the company about setting up shuttle service from the complex to the campus. Current designs for the complex set aside space for shuttles for pick up and drop off, he said.

“If a significant amount of EB employees do end up renting there, I would think they’re going to have some more thorough conversations with Electric Boat about some of the commuting patterns,” he said.

RFPs yield new ideas

While in many cases, Paige and Bronk have been on the same page with developers looking to develop multifamily housing catered to the town’s growing workforce, the point of the request for proposal process is for town officials to benefit from new ideas the “market” is generating, Bronk said.

The plans to redevelop Groton Heights, which opened to bids in 2018, are evidence that the RFP process can bring in new ideas that town planners haven’t thought of to redevelop vacant buildings, Bronk said. Less than a mile from Electric Boat, the roughly 30,000 square foot building atop a hill overlooking downtown New London from across the Thames River could have been another good option to build new housing. 

Instead, it will be “Phase One” of the world headquarters for ThayerMahan, a local company that has grown from three to 60 employees in about four years with an average salary of $85,000, Bronk said.

“We’re always looking for creative ideas and business demands that we can try to partner with,” Bronk said. “If we had prescribed a certain use, I can certainly attest that it would not have been an undersea robotics company.”

Like all the proposals, the ThayerMahan headquarters is still in the planning and approval phase. The town does have a signed letter of intent with ThayerMahan, but the company hasn’t received any approval to start work. The Groton Town Council having just held a public hearing on the proposal on Dec. 1, and the City of Groton’s planning and zoning approval process still to come, Reiner said.

Even with the first phase of the project still pending approval, the company is already looking at phase two – another 30,000 square foot building that will look similar to the vacant school building, Bronk said.

“We would have two roughly 30,000-square-foot buildings to deal with research and development for undersea technology operating right here in Groton,” he said.

Reiner said each property the town sells goes through a multi-step process that takes years from start to finish.

For the vacant Pleasant Valley Elementary school building, the town issued an RFP this year and received proposals in October. A review committee has done some screening of those proposals and interviewed a short list of candidates, and the town should have a preferred developer some time in early 2021, who will then propose a plan for land use approval, he said.

“We’re not just trying to sell this so someone can sit on it and land bank it, we’re trying to see these properties redeveloped into something that’s going to be unique and beneficial to the town,” Reiner said.

Selling a piece of town-owned property to a developer is more complicated than a typical real estate transaction, because the town is looking at the proposals for development in addition to the price a developer is willing to pay for it, Bronk said.

“We deal with RFPs because we’re more interested in the overall quality of the development in terms of what’s the proposed use, the developer, the time frame,” Bronk said. “The financial offering is of concern to us, but we’re looking at other variables.”

What’s driving development in Groton

Electric Boat has grown rapidly as it has secured multi-billion contracts to build a new class of submarine for the U.S. Navy, but Reiner and Bronk say that isn’t the whole story.

“There’s a surge of redevelopment pressure because of the activity happening at General Dynamics Electric Boat, so we’re seeing developers wanting to move these projects forward, but it’s something we’ve been setting the stage on for over five years,” Reiner said.

While it’s great to have a strong employment base with Electric Boat and Pfizer, Reiner said the diversity of small businesses also drives development because those businesses make Groton a better place to live. Downtown Mystic has become a “foodie destination,” also driving development in Groton, he said. 

Mystic is home to a planned school redevelopment as well. Respler Homes was selected from a 2017 proposal to redevelop the former Mystic Oral School into a mixed-use development featuring shops, working spaces, a public recreation center in the Pratt Building and about 750 apartment units.

A zoning change to allow the development was presented to the town Planning and Zoning Commission in November, and the project will also require tax increment financing, Reiner said.

Along with people moving in to fill the new jobs at Electric Boat, Bronk said Groton has seen an uptick in residents who have fled big cities like New York and Boston during the pandemic to work remotely. The sale prices of homes in Mystic in particular have risen significantly during the pandemic, though it’s not clear what the long-term effect will be, he said.

“We’ve been trying to attract more people to live here, not just work here, but live here and invest their finances here,” Bronk said. “My gut tells me next year, we’re probably going to see a real positive benefit of that, and our retail should benefit. Hopefully we get through this winter with our restaurants, but the restaurant industry long term should benefit as well.”

Bronk and Reiner said they’ve been working towards redevelopment of the school properties since they started working with the town about six years ago. 

Reiner said that the groundwork of developing an infrastructure for economic development takes time.

But now, with several projects taking shape, Bronk said that developers who passed on earlier RFPs are placing bids for more recent projects like Pleasant Valley.

“Success breeds success,” Bronk said. “We’re getting more responses to RFPs, and higher quality. So the development community sees momentum in Groton. Maybe they pass on submitting a proposal for one, but once they’re following Groton, they’re aware of the next RFP, or maybe private developments in the area, and I think that we got on the map.”

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