Photo: Beyer Blindell Belle / Ashforth
GREENWICH — Members of the public got a chance to speak out about the proposed $45 million project proposed for the downtown train station and the surrounding Greenwich Plaza.
And the reactions were largely positive as the Planning and Zoning Commission began to consider the privately financed project, which was proposed by the property owners, the Ashforth Group.
“We are a very distinctive town,” resident Jean Pierre Gagne said at the Tuesday night meeting. “We deserve to really have a distinctive element and piece of architecture that we can be proud of for years to come.”
The design features a new transportation center as well as new train stations on both sides of the tracks. Additionally, a new park would replace the movie theater, and a new luxury multiplex would be built over the current parking lot. There would also be a new pickup and drop-off area designed to improve traffic flow as well as improved pedestrian access and other retail improvements.
Downtown resident Dan Quigley called the design “drop-dead awesome” and said the long-overdue project would show off Greenwich as the gateway to Connecticut.
“We are presented with an opportunity here that we’ve really got to make sure we don’t mess up,” Quigley said. “We have the Ashforth Group here willing to put in the risk on behalf of their own interests but also in the interests of the town. We’re being given an opportunity to have something other towns do not have the resources to have and that our town would not be able to do if it was a public project.”
Several residents offered suggestions for improvements, including Gagne, who called for adding escalators in the new transportation center.
Others focused on the size of the proposed train station and the movie theater. Some wondered whether the proposed park could be moved from the corner of Railroad Avenue to another location, and others wanted the heavy use of glass windows in the proposed new transportation center scaled down, saying it wouldn’t fit in with the town.
“We can design better,” town resident Karen Fassuliotis said. “We can design a structure that will speak to us. It will not be a New York City type of building, but a Greenwich type of building.”
Town resident Dean Gamonos said the mix of retail and transportation “needed more unity and balance” and should have “more connection to the town.”
At one point during the meeting, the crowd numbered more than 70 and included First Selectman Peter Tesei, state Rep. Stephen Meskers, D-150, and several members of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation and Representative Town Meeting.
Tesei has been a supporter of the project and has entered into a public private partnership with Ashforth over the town’s air rights at the property. He called the train station, the Metro-North rail line and the accompanying buildings “the engine that pumps life into the community from a business and commerce point of view.”
The current facility has met its useful life after 50 years, Tesei said. Greenwich residents with deep ties to the community over generations are behind the new project, he said.
Town resident Joan Stewart Pratt, who has been commuting since 1983, said she loved the design but wanted to keep the existing trees on Railroad Avenue. She also called for more greenery on the sidewalks and less concrete as well as more greenery in the proposed park.
“We will work on the trees for you,” Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Margarita Alban told Pratt.
Two high-profile users of the movie theater offered enthusiastic endorsements. Ginger Stickel, executive director of the Greenwich International Film Festival, and Renee Ketchem, president of the Alliance Francaise of Greenwich and an organizer of the Focus on French Film Festival, said the new modern movie theater would benefit their annual events and would boost the town’s arts and culture scene.
“I am thrilled with this incredible effort, and I am embracing and celebrating what the Ashforths have come up with in terms of this design,” Ketchem said.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of several that will be held by the Planning and Zoning Commission before any approvals are considered. The developers are seeking preliminary coastal site plans and special permits. Ashforth expects that if all approvals are granted, construction would begin in the fall of 2020 with a 2022 completion date.
Although there were positive reactions, commission members made suggestions for changes. Several voiced concerns about the height of the train station and the movie theater.
The project must fit with the goals of Greenwich’s Plan of Conservation and Development, Alban said after hearing reactions from community members.
“We want to build something the town’s going to love and be glad they got done,” she said. “I think we’re here in that case to respond to what the community wants the most… We have to explore it before we really give feedback. We have to figure out what the town is looking for.”
Mary Hull, director of Greenwich Green and Clean, as well as other speakers brought up the size of the building. Hull, who has worked on the downtown portions of the POCD with the town, speculated that “probably 90 percent” of the town’s residents would ask for the station’s height to be lowered.
Hull said she was “thrilled to pieces” by the inclusion of the park in the plan, which she said it connect the project to the waterfront, the downtown and the Bruce Museum. That sentiment was echoed by Suzanne Lio, the Bruce Museum’s managing director, who also noted the museum’s own $45 million expansion and renovation project.
“This is an opportunity to develop downtown Greenwich as sort of a cultural center,” Lio said, pointing out that the transportation center would help visitors connect with downtown.
The commission agreed to refer the project to the town’s Architectural Review Committee for further consideration. ARC’s recommendations are nonbinding, but they can influence the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decisions.
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