NIANTIC — A proposal to tear down a beloved neighborhood café and two adjacent buildings for the construction of a 3-story mixed use building has raised objections from neighbors about the losing the village character of Niantic.
“Café SoL is the heart and soul of our community. Everyone meets there, everyone, from the mucky mucks to the everyday people, all ages, families. It’s in the heart where it belongs on Main Street, not up the hill somewhere not somewhere else that they’re calling downtown Main Street,” said Joyce Beauvais, who lives on Main St. in Niantic.
She compared the scale of the proposed building at 338 – 348 Main St. to The Norton, a mixed-use, yellow 3-story building, at 185 Main St. at the April 13 Zoning Commission public hearing for the project.
“This building is ugly, just like that awful, yellow thing… This building belongs in a suburb somewhere and these people don’t know the town by a couple of different surveys, this village, its charm, its beauty, the Liberty green will be dwarfed by it. I couldn’t be more against it and I speak for a lot of friends and a lot of neighbors.”
But Norm Thibeault, of Killingly Engineering Associates, who represented developer David Preka of Advanced Group LLC, applying as ZDM Properties LLC, said he believed it would be a “landmark building” and that other developers would follow suit.
Peter Springsteel, of Mystic who is the architect on the project, said the building was designed for longevity and included New England details like pitched gables, dormers, porches and double-hung windows, with siding that imitates the natural look of surrounding seaside buildings.
“My mission here is to provide a building that’s going to fit into the neighborhood and to serve the needs of the developer, and he wants to build a building that’s going to last a long time and serve this community for a long time,” Springsteel said at the April 6 opening of the public hearing.
The project will contain 3,750 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 18 residential units on the upper two floors. A take-out restaurant was initially proposed but was withdrawn from the application.
The building will have 34 parking spaces, with 26 located in the back of the building and eight on the street. The building height will be 30 feet, the maximum allowed, with approximately 6-foot high fencing on the roof to hide the mechanicals. The project requires 24,000 square feet and would sit on a 24,150-square-foot lot. The setback would be 16 feet.
Three buildings would be demolished for the project: a commercial building constructed in 1953 at 338 Main St; an 1894 Victorian house at 344 Main Street that houses four residential apartments; and, café SoL at 348 Main St., a commercial building constructed in 1960.
The project has been proposed while Niantic Main Street, a group that promotes downtown revitalization, is again working with the Yale Urban Design Workshop from the Yale School of Architecture to develop a plan for the area. In 1997, the Yale workshop created the East Lyme Charrette Report, which provided a model for development in Niantic.
During public comment on April 6, no one spoke in favor of the project.
At the April 13 continued hearing, one resident sent a letter stating he was “100 percent a proponent of the project” and in favor of mixed use buildings where he could walk into businesses on the ground floor.
“It is this type of land use that drew my wife and I to this neighborhood. A 3-story building is not a monstrosity. If anything I believe a 4-story limit would allow for the economics to sway more favorably and entice more developers,” he wrote.
But most of the public comment both meetings opposed the project.
Resident Robert VanCour said a member of his family lived in one of the apartments in the Victorian house and the rent had been reasonable. He said he had to relocate his relative to an apartment out of town because nothing was affordable in Niantic.
“It is one of the few affordable places to live downtown,” said VanCour, an 18-year resident. “The town will not be enhanced by another behemoth building. It is too much on too little space.”
Mary Louise Reardon, 70, who said she had lived in Niantic since she was three, called the 3-story building a “monstrosity.”
“I think about all of the businesses that have closed on Main Street, the theater, restaurants, retail shops that have come and gone. And I think about what I call the yellow monster that you have to look at going towards Waterford now,” said Reardon, adding that rents are “astronomical” and young people cannot afford to live in Niantic.
Resident Richard Steele said he was concerned about the town’s sewer capacity for the project.
He also objected to the removal of four affordable rental units and asked if the Victorian house could be moved instead of torn down.
Resident John Vilcheck, said that this would be the third “behemoth” on Main St, including Crescent Point at Niantic senior residences and the Norton building. “Please don’t do it,” he said.
Resident Joanne Bretton, who said she had mixed emotions for and against the proposal, suggested that a scaled-back version of the building would be more appropriate for the neighborhood.
Jessica Dunican and Virginia Brennan, who live next door to café Sol, said the developer had not called them back to answer their questions about how construction and demolition would affect their property, and the proximity of the building’s dumpster to their property line, especially if a restaurant is approved later.
Tabatha Miranda, co-owner of café SoL, gave no comment to questions from CT Examiner concerning the project, but posted on Facebook on April 14:
“I can assure you that café SoL will do everything in its power to stay for the summer. And as soon as we know what’s happening, everyone will know what’s happening. It’s been an absolute pleasure to serve you all for the last 12 years. My daughter’s, I and amazing staff thank you for your continued support.”
A number of residents expressed concerns that 34 parking spaces would be insufficient for 18 residential units. Many also pointed out that the neighborhood is much more crowded in the summer with tourists visiting the beach. One resident said, “When the beach is full, people park on the grass.”
Residents also said congestion on Baptist Lane, which runs along one side of the building, and leads to the Hole in the Wall parking area used for the beach and the boardwalk, was already heavy and that the “very narrow” road was unsafe for pedestrians and could not handle additional commercial vehicles and traffic.
The developer had initially asked for a sidewalk waiver, but at the April 13 meeting, Thibeault said the developer had agreed to add a sidewalk along the Baptist Lane on the same side of the road as the building to address pedestrian safety.
Questions and an unsigned application
At the April 13 hearing, commission member Terence Donovan asked why there were no signed letters from town staff, the town engineer, and fire marshal in the packet for the Zoning Commission.
“People’s words are just words. If you have it in writing, it is part of the documents presented in the application to the commission stating that they have met with the applicant and that they find that it is applicable to the application or to the use.”
William Mulholland, zoning official for the town, responded that the letters were not a requirement and that the town staff had looked at the application and signed off, according to their area of expertise.
Donovan also questioned whether a Coastal Area Management review had been done and said the building across the street had required a one. Mulholland answered that the new building would have no adverse impact on the shoreline.
When Donovan asked whether the building could be designed on a smaller scale, Steelspring responded that the existing buildings are nonconforming and that the new design will make the parcels conforming.
Donovan held up a copy of the application and asked why it was not signed. He said the take-out restaurant was still included on the application. Mulholland responded that the take-out restaurant had been removed from the application.
Commission member Deborah Jett-Harris said she was not comfortable with an unsigned application.
“I am not comfortable with it not being signed and then moving forward with it. When we do something like this, we need to know exactly what it is, all of our t’s need to be crossed, our i’s need to be dotted,” she said.
Donovan reiterated that without the letters from town staff, he could not proceed.
Mulholland said he could introduce those documents and that he could get the applicant to sign the application.
The commission voted to continue the public hearing to April 20.