Regulation Change Could Clear Way for Up To 75 Affordable-Housing Units

October 5, 2023, by Nick Sambides, staff writer, CT Post / Hearst Media - The city's top taxpayer could be transformed into a major residential center under a change to Milford's zoning codes approved this week.  The Planning and Zoning Board cleared the way on Tuesday for Centennial Real Estate to apply for a permit to transform the Connecticut Post Mall into a 21st Century mix of retail and housing.

With Vice Chairman Robert Satti abstaining, the board voted 7-0 to approve city zoning codes altered to allow the mall owner to replace the former Sears store and substantially alter the mall with greenspace and with as many as 750 dwellings, including up to 75 affordable-housing units, over the next decade. The approval allows the company to build mixed residential-retail or commercial buildings and means that Centennial will drop a lawsuit appealing a 2021 rejection of an earlier zoning-change proposal, said attorney John Knuff, who represents Centennial.

Centennial plans to apply "as soon as possible" to the board for approval of a finished mall redesign, said Michael Platt, senior vice president of development with Austin, Texas-based Centennial. The 750 dwellings — 250 each across three phases of construction — are merely an upper limit and not necessarily the number the plan will feature, he said.

No price tag has been stated for Centennial's latest effort to rebuild the mall, but $70 million was the figure the company named in 2021.

Much of Milford's economic prosperity is tied to the mall. A recent economic development study, the city's Plan of Conservation and Development and affordable-housing advocates have called for the mall to become a mix of housing and retail.

Centennial is an eager partner with Milford in changing the mall, Knuff told the board during Centennial's presentation.

"This is a concrete example of our desire to work with the city," Knuff said. "We want to do our part to make this the most visible sight in the city. When was the last time people got excited to go to the mall? It's a fortress that was built in the 1970s. None of us are doing that anymore. Our families are different. The world is changing dramatically."

Board member John Mortimer pushed Centennial to expand the mall's affordable-housing allowance beyond the company's proposed 10 percent allotment, and Knuff pushed back.

"There is a lot to like here. I think that this is an opportunity to get more than 10 percent," Mortimer said. "If we can increase the affordable housing, this would be much more attractive."

"We can do 10 percent but we literally cannot do more," Knuff said before listing several architectural issues that would make an increase unfeasible. "I know your (request) comes from a good place, but there are constraints."

"I am just speaking out here," Mortimer responded.

Board member Etan Hirsch spoke up in favor of Centennial.

"They have shown a willingness to work with us and they listen to us. That mutual trust is very important. I think you have done a great job," Hirsch said.

Mortimer clarified that he was not opposed to the proposal.

"I have been in favor of this project since day one," Mortimer said.

The regulation changes Centennial proposed for the mall, which is so unique to Milford that it is in its own zone, the "Shopping Center Design District," establish "the development of multi-family dwelling units in three phases of no more than 250 units per phase." They outline a number of uses allowed in the zone, everything from manufacturing to daycare, and limit the size of the retail-housing buildings.

The former regulations permitted housing but only as large townhouse-style buildings that are waning in popularity, Knuff said.

The changes provide design objectives that Centennial hopes to achieve with its next proposal, Platt said.

According to the new regulation, the overall development should feature high quality design that creates a pedestrian, resident, and customer-friendly atmosphere throughout the SCDD.

"Buildings shall have a significant level of transparency along the ground floor fronting on any sidewalk or street," according to the regulation change. "In general, 50 percent or more of the ground floor facade should be comprised of windows, doors, or other transparent elements that are subdivided appropriately, where practical. Architecture must be designed in a manner that visually enlivens the area it faces and enhances the pedestrian flow around the building."

Affordable-housing advocates and Mayor Richard Smith urged the board to approve the language change. The advocates, who have said that Milford needs close to 2,000 apartments for people making $50,000 to eliminate its affordable-housing shortage, said that the mall would be helpful. Smith said hopes that some big business would come into the mall and revitalize it ignore that Centennial is the big business the city needs to work with to spare tax increases for homeowners.

"A knight in shining armor did gallop in, but it's not Amazon," Smith said.

"We need political courage now to stop with tax cuts and recognize that we need to step up with our balance sheet and be responsible," Smith said. "We need to raise revenue here in Milford and we may have to go to residential tax increases. We need to partner with the Centennials of the world, to put them back online so that we can realize the tax benefits."

Affordable housing, in Milford's case, mostly means working-class individuals making $50,000 or more, not the indigent, the advocates said.

"Lots of lifelong Milford residents have had to leave because they have been priced out," said Joseph Alling of Milford, president of Milford Land Trust and a candidate for the zoning board in the November election. "We need to confront the fact that one out of every two renters is cost burdened here. To me, this is a great opportunity to create some affordable home opportunities for people who sorely need it."

Centennial hopes to break ground in the spring, if its next step, the submission of building plans for board review, meets with approval, officials said.

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