Developer outlines plan for Smiler's Wharf project
Mystic — More than 300 people filled the Stonington High School auditorium Monday night for the start of a public hearing on the controversial Smiler’s Wharf project proposed for the Seaport Marine site .
With about half of the 90 people who signed up to speak about the project still waiting their turn late Monday night, Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman David Rathbun ended the hearing at 11 p.m. It will resume July 8 at 7 p.m. at the high school.
The beginning of the hearing was taken up by experts for Noank Shipyard, the owner and developer, who detailed the plans with architectural renderings and other documents.
Noank Shipyard is seeking to rezone a 7.5-acre portion of Seaport Marine’s 11-acre site off Washington Street from marine commercial to Neighborhood Development District and obtain approval for the master plan for the site.
The plan calls for the demolition of all buildings on the site except for the popular Red 36 restaurant and construction of a five-story, 45-unit hotel; a 16,590-square-foot, three-story marine service and community event space; a three-story, 200-seat restaurant; a six-story, 25-unit apartment building; 16 townhouses; six units of multifamily housing; a kayak rental building; an open-air plaza; a park; 120 boat slips; a 200-foot public boardwalk extension; 130 feet of new coastal access; a new boat basin that will require the removal of 13,000 square feet of land and a new bulkhead to protect against storm surge.
The developer’s attorney, Bill Sweeney, pointed out the long ties that owner John Holstein and his family have to the town, and called the plan “a reimagined vision” for the Seaport Marine site, turning a derelict and underutilized site into a vibrant neighborhood.
He said the project is being driven by the economc realities that the heavy boatyard uses now employed on the site are not economically viable over the long term and need to be consolidated at Noank Shipyard. He said this has created an opportunity to provide public access to the river and to develop a project that fits in with the character and fabric of the greater Mystic area.
Sweeney said the developers considered two dozen iterations of the plan before coming up with a “modest proposal” with new buildings that cover far less of the site than the current boatsheds do.
After pointing out the project has received unanimous support from five town agencies, he submitted 200 letters of support to the commission. He said the project design does not need to match the design of other buidings in the village but only be compatable with it.
Project architect Meg Lyons showed photos of downtown buildings and how aspects of their design have been incorporated into the Smiler’s Wharf buildings.
She referred to numerous renderings and three-dimensional models that show how the boardwalk would allow the public to access sections of the Mystic River and offer views of the river that do not exist now. She said that the 318 on-site parking spots and 106 off-site would accommodate all the need parking at peak times on Saturday night.
“Smiler’s Wharf will not burden existing street parking. I’ll say that again. Smiler’s Wharf will not burden existing street parking,” she said, addressing the concerns of many neighbors.
In addition, she said that the site will offer free public parking in a downtown area short of parking. As for the height of some of the buildings, which are 63 and 78 feet, considering mechanical structures on top, she said the height is in keeping with other downtown buildings in the 60-foot range such as the Main Block.
“This project will turn a private property into a public asset,” she said.
The developers spent two hours outlining various aspects of the project such as traffic, parking, economic impact and coastal management issues.
Part of the Smiler’s team is Jane Stahl, the former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
That agency has recommended the PZC not rezone the property and that it is appropriately zoned for a boatyard use. It added that rezoning the site will result in the loss of water-dependent uses and place residences in a flood zone which would expose more people and property to risk.
But Stahl told the commission the project provides water dependent uses in meaningful and substantive ways such as new dockage and transient docks. She said any adverse coastal impacts are acceptable.
Don Poland, who created the economic impact study for the project, presented revised figures that show the project would have a net tax revenue impact of $325,000 compared to the initial estimate of $120,000.
In his conclusion, Sweeney, the project attorney said the project would certainly create change.
“But change is not a bad thing in itself. Communities that want to keep things the same must continue to change,” he said, adding the site is far too important to be left as an empty boatyard.
Public comment then began with 32 people signed up to speak in a favor of the project, 45 against and six others wanting to make general comments.
Peggy Roberts, the president of the Mystic Chamber of Commerce, told the commission her organization supports the project for many reasons including that it will stimulate tourism and increase consumer spending in Mystic while providing much needed public green space in Mystic.
Al Valente, the chairman of the chamber’s board of trustees, added that the project will have a multiplier effect for local businesses and its boat basin would attract mega yachts.
Resident Phil Biondo called it a “positive and well thought out project” while Linda Camelio said it would provide needed housing for retirees and young professionals.”
Others, including a few neighbors, supported the project for a host of reasons.
Former PZC Chairman Rob Marseglia said the goals of the Neighborhood Development District is to promote appropriate redevelopment and reduce blight.
“This is a project that should be built and I hope will be built,” he said.
Steve Coan, the president of Mystic Aquarium, said the project would increase access to the water, help restore the beauty of the coastline and improve coastal resiliency.
After more than three hours, opponents of the project got the opportunity to speak.
Resident Bill Sternberg told the commission that it has to make findings that the project won’t adversely the neighborhood and is in compliance with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and the state’s Coastal Area Management Act.
“You can listen to the hired hands of the developer or the DEEP that this thing clearly doesn’t conform with the coastal management act and your own town engineer who says it will create parking and traffic problems,” he said. “My advice is to listen to public servants who are looking out for the public interest.”
Joan Durant, who lives on nearby Jackson Avenue, called the project a “total affront to the neighborhood.”
“The presentation was lovely but it does not belong here,” she said, adding the project would damage the neighborhood, does not conform to the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and will hurt property values.
Other opponents charged it would worsen traffic, parking and existing flooding problems in the neighborhood while damaging wetlands.
Ben Tamsky from the Mystic River Park Commission said the commission has considerable concerns about the impact the project would have on the park.
“It’s not compatible in any way with the surrounding neighborhood,” he said, adding it lacks adequate buffers, would produce shadows on the playground and create additional wear and tear on the park.
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