Developer presents new draft plan for 931-unit, mixed-use development at Mystic Education Center
Groton — Following concerned and critical comments from several residents of Boulder Court and Hancock Drive at a special meeting of the Groton Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night, developer Jeff Respler laid out his latest vision for Mystic River Bluffs, a luxury 931-unit, mixed-use development at the Mystic Education Center property, site of the former Mystic Oral School.
Jonathan Reiner, director of planning and development for the town, stressed that presentation of the draft master plan was "very preliminary" and there's no application yet.
He said the commission is working on regulations that will lay out a permitting path for an application, which would then be heard at a public hearing. Deb Jones, assistant director of planning and development, said the presentation was so the commission could visualize what might happen based on the regulations it's developing.
Respler first saw the 240 Oral School Road property in December 2016, and after the town issued a request for proposals in December 2017, he submitted a proposal. Respler Homes was selected as the preferred developer, with Respler saying it was because it "hit the needs of the community" and "handled a lot of problems with local labor."
Respler noted that most Electric Boat and Pfizer employees don't live in Groton, so the town misses out on the economic benefits of having workers live there. He also said people from EB and Pfizer have expressed that they struggle to recruit top talent because there's nowhere nearby that young workers — who seek amenities and entertainment — want to live.
Respler Homes announced conceptual plans in November 2019, and Respler said the team did public outreach from last December until the pandemic hit.
The number of planned units has since increased to 931 — including 798 in multifamily housing, 51 low-density townhouses, 72 garden-style flats, and 10 low-density duplexes. This includes 462 one-bedroom units, 408 two-bedroom units and 61 three-bedroom units.
The townhouses, which Respler said are to handle executive housing needs, are a new addition. They're situated on the 16.3-acre former Firgeleski property at 221 Oral School Road, which Respler purchased in September, town records show. That property extends to Cow Hill Road, allowing for a second entrance to the development.
That entrance would be the beginning of a road that loops around the property and connects with Oral School Road to north.
Respler said the new plan also has wider roads, with sidewalks and bike lanes on each side. The state has agreed to an easement that would create a trail to River Road.
Potential uses for the Oral School building include a market, restaurant, event space, day care and commercial space, and the plan calls for indoor recreation, available to the public, in the 44,645-foot Pratt Building.
The new plan has the public parking garage closer to the Pratt Building. Ray Kehrhahn, a member of the development team, said the topography change means the garage, with apartments planned on top, now sits lower.
Respler said the project will be done in phases, with a site plan per phase, and the first phase would have a minimum of 272 units and a maximum of 332.
Residents share concerns
Prior to Respler's presentation, based on the drawings and information in the agenda packet for the meeting, Boulder Court resident Scott Westervelt said the project "has morphed into something so much larger than it started." He referenced the parking garage, a high-rise with four floors for parking and four for residences, and a five-story building.
Regarding the new perimeter road, Westervelt asked about considerations for runoff and about how the road impacts a buffer for Boulder Court residents.
Matthew Richardson, also of Boulder Court, said he hasn't heard back regarding questions on environmental and traffic impacts, inquired about how much blasting will be needed and asked to see the study showing there would be enough people who wanted to live there in the planned price range.
Harold Robb of Hancock Drive said he didn't think two roads could take all of the traffic coming in and out, if many cars with EB and Pfizer workers are leaving around the same time, and also voiced concern about building heights.
Respler noted he doesn't have accurate information on building heights yet, saying the pictures are representative but not 100% accurate. Kehrhahn said the parking garage would be a little taller than the Pratt Building, which is about 40 feet.
Mystic resident Mike Whitney asked how many school-aged children will be living in the development, saying it "would be well-advised to have estimates early so the school system could plan ahead," and asked if the existing landmark cupola could still be seen from the Mystic River when the project is complete.
He and Hancock Drive resident Penelope Miller asked about the existing RU-20 zoning, which "is designed to encourage one- and two-unit dwellings in more traditional suburban settings," according to the town's zoning website. Whitney said any proposed changes should be scrutinized and strongly justified, while Miller "strenuously" objected to changing the zoning of the former Firgeleski property.
Becca Welt said she shares her neighbors' concerns and asked about sewer capacity, noting there's already a bad smell coming off Oral School onto Cow Hill in the summer.
In response to a question from commission member Hal Zod about whether the developers have talked about having shuttle service, Respler said yes and that EB is interested because it has "a tremendous parking problem; they don't want more cars going down there."
Commission member Michael Kane said he has a lot of questions, noting, "Maybe I'll submit them to staff, and as we proceed, we can go a little further into the weeds." The commission didn't take any action at its meeting.