MIDDLETOWN – The Planning and Zoning Commission halted the Middletown Housing Authority’s plans to build a mixed-use, partially affordable housing development next to Sbona Towers.
The commission voted 4-2 Wednesday against splitting Housing Authority’s Sbona Towers property into two – which would have been the first step in the development of a new housing complex next to the towers – saying they were concerned about losing Spear Park, a rare green space along Main Street.
Housing Authority Director Bill Vasiliou said the plan was to split the 2.2-acre lot into two – one including Sbona Towers on William and Broad streets, and another fronting on Main Street that would include Spear Park, which would then be developed.
“In the last few years there have been many approvals of housing, and there was not an affordable housing component in those proposals,” Vasiliou said. “It’s very much the housing authority’s desire to make sure that our core mission, no matter what we design on that building, addresses that issue, that there will be some component of affordable housing in that location.”
Jesse Nasta, director of the Middlesex County Historical Society, which is headquartered in the General Mansfield House next to Spear Park, said Vasiliou had shown the society concepts of a three- or six-story apartment building, with a commercial space fronting Main Street and a parking garage in the back.
Vice President Alain Munkittrick said the plans the society saw were close, if not exactly the same, as plans on the Middletown website from 2010, which shows drawings for a four-level complex of one-bedroom apartments, with two retail spaces fronting Main Street.
Munkittrick said the plans raised alarm bells among historical society members because of the impact the development would have on the General Mansfield House. Nasta said it’s remarkable the 1810 home still exists given how much of Main Street was demolished to build parking lots from the 1950s to 1970s.
“The parking garage part of these plans, directly abutting our south boundary, will forever change the perception of the grounds as a welcome oasis in our urban downtown,” Munkittrick said. “Intense construction on Spear Park will likely alter the underground water table, where literally an underground river runs through the land, with potential negative consequences for our property.”
The General Mansfield House already has a sump pump pulling water out of the basement “around the clock,” and altering the water table could have devastating consequences for the house, he said. Members of the historical society said the building would also cut off access to its property.
“In my personal opinion, this is a great building that Bill has planned,” Munkittrick said. “It’s the right building, but it’s in the wrong place.”
Commissioner Kellin Atherton told the historical society that many of their concerns may fall outside the Planning and Zoning Commission’s purview, like the structural integrity of the General Mansfield House or a deed restriction requiring open space for the residents of Sbona Towers.
But he said the impact a development would have on Spear Park and “the extraordinary benefit that green space and open space provides the residents of Middletown” is a major concern. Losing that space doesn’t align with the Plan of Conservation and Development, he said.
“I feel often that people forget the word ‘conservation,’” Atherton said. “It is within our mission and aligns with many of the goals outlined in both the POCD and on a local and regional level, that we preserve historical spaces. That we do not burden them, that we do not overwhelm them, and that they are conserved and preserved.”
Commissioners Shanay Fulton and Kelly Sweeney agreed it was crucial for Middletown to preserve that piece of open space in its downtown center. Sweeney said “ruining one more” park isn’t helping the city.
Commissioner Sebastian Giuliano, one of the two votes in favor of the subdivision, said those concerns were outside the bounds of this application. The subdivision, he said, was just lines on a map. Any proposal for a development would come after that, and then the commission could oppose it over their concerns for Spear Park or concerns of the historical society, he said.
“The two parcels will not be non-conforming in any way, so for that reason, I can’t see a reason to vote against it,” Giuliano said. “While I’m concerned with everything I heard, I’m not in a position to pass on an application that isn’t in front of me right now. That would be totally speculative.”
Atherton disagreed, saying the commission should consider that the intent of the subdivision is to develop Spear Park, which he believes violates the Plan of Conservation and Development.