Groton's unused properties generating interest
Groton — Groton is having what Economic and Community Developer Paige Bronk describes as "a convergence" of three redevelopment projects that could become public as soon as early 2019, if all goes as anticipated.
Discussions are underway with a preferred developer, selected through a request for proposals process, for each of three properties — Mystic Education Center, 517/529 Gold Star Highway and the former Groton Heights School — though no contractual obligations have been made yet, Planning Director Jonathan Reiner said.
Reiner and Bronk said the projects come amid the town's strategy to market the excess properties as redevelopment opportunities, where the developer proposes a use for the property that fits the community's needs, rather than real-estate transactions, where the property is simply purchased.
They looked outside the state for potential developers, some of whom are interested because of the growth at Electric Boat and what the town has to offer.
Once an agreement is in place that selects a preferred developer and outlines benchmarks, the developer's application also would have to meet a public approval process, such as for zoning changes, and planning and wetlands approvals, Reiner said.
Mystic Education Center
The town has been helping to market the state-owned Mystic Education Center property — the former Mystic Oral School — under an agreement with the state, and the state has worked with the town at every stage of the process, Town Manager John Burt said. The state has the ultimate approval on the redevelopment of the Mystic Education Center, he said.
The redevelopment efforts focus on the upper 40 acres of the 77-acre property on Oral School Road in Mystic, according to a request for proposals issued in December 2017. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection manages the lower portion.
According to the request for proposals, The Whipple School for the Deaf — later named the Mystic Oral School — located to the site in 1872, with the state taking over and running the school from 1921 until 1980. The property then was used "for a wide range of activities by various organizations including the Groton Parks and Recreation Department, Special Olympics, a dance program, a computer business, a day care center, and firefighter training programs" until the state in 2011 deemed the site "surplus property for sale."
Senior housing, high-end residential housing, lodging or recreational use or a site for an institutional organization are among potential uses for the site outlined in the request for proposals. The property also could be home to a mix of complementary uses, such as market-rate and senior housing with recreation and a medical office, the document states.
Developers are aware of the link between the property and downtown Mystic, Bronk said. "The future development of the Mystic Education Center is very much a part of the Mystic market," he said.
David Kooris, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said a review panel, comprising several state agencies and representatives from the town, assessed multiple responses to the request for proposals. The panel narrowed the proposals down to two and then interviewed and engaged those respondents before selecting the preferred developer.
"That recommendation was discussed in executive session in Town Council a couple of weeks ago, and based on that discussion and the recommendation of the panel, the town in coordination with the Department of Economic and Community Development of the state are negotiating with that developer on a land disposition agreement,” he said.
Kooris said a proposal could be brought to the public in early 2019 but no details can be divulged yet. He added that the redevelopment proposal would be subject to local zoning regulations.
"This has been a very collaborative process between the state and the municipality, and there was a lot of consensus," Kooris said. "It's state property, and so we control the process, but we're doing it in a very inclusive and participatory way, which I think will be to the benefit of whatever happens and maximize its likelihood of success."
Groton Heights School and 517/529 Gold Star Highway
Similar to the Mystic Education Center, Bronk and Reiner said the town had a successful response after issuing requests for proposals for 517/529 Gold Star Highway, two land parcels with 11.75 acres in total located in “a busy commercial section of the highway with easy access to State Route 12,” and the former Groton Heights School, an approximately 2-acre property at 244 Monument St. in the City of Groton, the site of a school that closed in 2007, according to the requests for proposals.
Dennis G. Goderre, planner for the City of Groton, said the city has been advising the town on land use and compliance with zoning regulations and the Plan of Conservation and Development for the Groton Heights School property, along with the former Colonel Ledyard School, which are both owned by the town but located within the city.
The city also worked with the town to change the zoning for the Groton Heights School property.
"The city is committed to working with the town to put current properties that are off the tax rolls back on the tax rolls and onto the grand list," Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick said.
Putting 'Groton on the map'
Reiner said the town's economic development infrastructure, including a website and marketing materials, and marketing strategy that reaches beyond the town and region — along with other developments in the area — are "helping to put Groton on the map."
The town has developed a marketing strategy that includes crafting a brochure for each property, advertising in publications to notify developers beyond Connecticut, showing and marketing the property for about six months before issuing a request for proposals, and changing regulations or rezoning the property, if needed, according to a 2016 memorandum on the disposition of town-owned excess property. The town focuses on a priority list of properties at a time due to the “time-intensive nature of this type of marketing.”
For each property, the town looks for the right use and for a developer that will positively add to the community and help grow the tax base, Bronk said. In addition, some of the properties need more attention, as they might require certain infrastructure or brownfield cleanup.
"These endeavors, they take time as a result of their complexity, and we’re looking for the right partner and the right fit," Bronk said.
He said the town is seeing those efforts starting to bear fruit.
"Our Economic Development staff has come up with a great process to obtain the highest quality proposals," Burt said. "That process involves a lot of lead time on marketing and outreach prior to the request for proposals being issued."
For the former William Seely School, one of the properties on the priority list, the town has hired Connecticut-based real estate firm Goman + York to help with marketing, Reiner said. He anticipates the firm will bring forward in February a short list, and ideally a single preferred recommended developer, along with redevelopment options for the site.
Staff from the town's Economic and Community Development Division attended a conference in New York City earlier this month to promote properties in Groton. They were slated to bring with them initial promotional sheets for the former Colonel Ledyard School at 120 West St., and the former Pleasant Valley Elementary School, which closed in June 2017, and marketing sheets for the Seely School, Bronk said.
Reiner said the staff "met with many developers from around the region that are incredibly interested in what Groton has to offer in terms of job growth at Electric Boat/General Dynamics as well as other business growth and the opportunities for development based upon that growth."
An economic upturn, with Electric Boat discussing hiring thousands of employees in the future, also doesn't hurt, Reiner added.
As many people today don’t want to commute, or prefer to live in housing where they can bike or walk to work, Reiner also sees a demand for more housing and a newer type of housing. Only 20 percent of the more than 26,000 jobs in Groton are held by residents, Reiner said.
He added that Groton has assets that include a gorgeous shoreline, fantastic parks and programs, and new school facilities planned to come online with the rebuilding of Ella T. Grasso Technical High School and the building of two new elementary schools and a new consolidated middle school.
"The quality of life and sense of place is high here, and we’ve really been trying to showcase that over the past few years," Reiner said.
Groton properties up for redevelopment
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