Mystic Education Center proposed as mixed-use village for young professionals
Groton — The former Mystic Education Center, at 240 Oral School Road, is proposed to be redeveloped as a mixed-use village designed for young professionals to "live, work and play," according to conceptual plans announced Thursday.
Respler Homes LLC is proposing to turn the former Mystic Oral School building into the village's "commercial hub," with co-working and high-tech R&D spaces and amenities such as an organic market, coffeehouse and restaurant, and constructing about 750 market-rate apartments on site.
The proposal for the redevelopment of the site, which the state listed in 2011 as "surplus property," was unveiled during a public meeting Thursday at the Town Hall Annex. The plans also were outlined to The Day in an interview.
The town and the state, which both have an interest in seeing the site redeveloped, have been co-marketing the site and a request for proposals was issued in 2017, Groton Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk said. Respler Homes recently was chosen as the "preferred developer" for the site, where the Whipple School for the Deaf was once located and which had been used for "the Groton Parks and Recreation Department, Special Olympics, a dance program, a business, a day care center and firefighting training programs," according to a town document.
Developer Jeff Respler said the proposed development would provide needed housing for young professionals, particularly as major employers, such as Electric Boat, expand and increase hiring.
"It’s market-rate apartments geared towards the Gen Z-ers and millennials that are looking for a community with life," Respler said. "The biggest problem that Electric Boat and Pfizer mentioned is housing."
Bronk pointed out that 80 percent of the jobs in Groton are held by commuters.
"We are in a unique position," Bronk said. "A lot of communities are trying to create jobs. We have job growth, but really the largest economic driver for us, and need, is to try to provide the housing product to satisfy our workforce who leave every day. We have to close that loop."
Respler said the co-working and R&D spaces within the main 100,000-square-foot building will address the needs of local business enterprises.
The proposed development is intended to provide a "live, work and play" environment. Planned amenities, like the coffeehouse, restaurant, a village green and a recreational center, will offer spaces for people to gather or meet up with friends after work, Respler said.
The development also may be attractive to some empty-nesters, Bronk said.
The redevelopment is slated for 44 acres of the site, while another 33 acres will be deeded to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Respler said. The development team is proposing to install a walking trail to connect the complex with the waterfront and improve the boat launch.
In addition to underground parking in the apartment buildings, the developer is proposing a parking garage on site.
"We want to keep this as green as possible," Respler said.
The proposal calls for historically preserving the former Oral School, while rebuilding its interior and replacing all the windows within the original architectural style, Respler said. Bronk pointed out that though the property had been used for a long time in the past, it is degrading and has been subject to vandalism, so it's important to repurpose the historical building in time to prevent damage and minimize the developer's rehabilitation costs.
Respler said the plan is also to renovate the Pratt Building, a former recreational facility with a pool and a gymnasium, into a recreational center to be used by residents in the village as well as for public use, though the logistics are still under discussion.
The town is considering funding $116,500 for a community needs assessment, a feasibility study and an engineering study for the building to understand the community's recreational needs, the building's condition and needed upgrades, and how it could best be adapted, according to Bronk.
There will be efforts to deter traffic from going through neighborhoods, Bronk said. The developer's proposal calls for upgrading Oral School Road and potentially building a new road.
The development team said it is looking at the feasibility of providing a connection from the property to Cow Hill Road, through a 17-acre parcel to the west that it plans to purchase. That way, drivers could quickly access the highway and bypass residences in the area.
Respler said the redevelopment of the property is anticipated to cost the development team approximately $250 million.
A public-private partnership for the property's redevelopment entails the state giving the land to the developer for a dollar, if certain conditions are met, he said.
David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said that given the redevelopment and environmental cleanup costs, the state was willing to do that to facilitate the property being repurposed into a development "well-suited for Groton's needs in the 21st century."
"Overall, it’s a great example of a community like Groton thinking creatively about how to reinvent itself to meet the changing demands of the population and local employers, and we’re happy that state property was available to enable the realization of that vision," Kooris said.
Ray Kehrhahn, real estate financial economist with the development team, said the development will bring multiple economic benefits. He said employers will be able to recruit the workers they need, as housing has been a stumbling block in recruiting talent. The development also will put fallow state property back on the tax rolls.
According to the development team, the project will bring in an estimated $3.5 million in annual property taxes. The payroll associated with the expected 320 jobs in the commercial hub is estimated at about $25 million.
During the three-year construction period, an estimated 880 construction jobs are projected, the development team said.
Kehrhahn also anticipates $80 million in increased retail spending annually in the area.
The development team said the numbers are based on the plans, which are only conceptual, and the project still would need a number of approvals to move forward. Respler anticipates the approval process will take about a year.
Bronk said the process calls for multiple steps. State approvals needed include a purchase and sale agreement, which is essentially finalized; a master lease agreement; and approval from the state traffic commission. Locally, the process would include steps such as rezoning the property, wetlands review, a development plan review, a special permit hearing on the property and a local land development agreement that the Town Council would need to endorse.
"It's really a multimonth process and the public will be able to receive notices, and understand that process as it's unfolding," Bronk said.
If approved, the proposed development would proceed in phases, with full build-out expected to take three years, Respler said.
Fuss & O'Neill will be the site engineering firm and also will work to finish the remaining environmental cleanup of the site with Martin Brogie, a licensed environmental professional, Respler said. He said the cleanup already has been 80 to 85 percent completed by the state.
Crosskey Architects will be designing the apartment buildings to have a New England feel, he said. Coursey & Company will be conducting community outreach.