Category Archives: Real estate

Chabad Grows Into Its New Home

Three years ago, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport bought the old, abandoned Three Bears Restaurant. An “06880” story — including neighbors’ complaints of renovation work done prior to the permitting process — drew a record 217 comments.

Three years later, Chabad is preparing a moderate expansion plan. All is going smoothly — so well, in fact, that neighbors are ready to toast “L’chaim!”

Chabad Lubavitch's home -- formerly the Three Bears, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Chabad Lubavitch’s home — the old Three Bears, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Though it’s called “Chabad of Westport,” the local branch of the international group serves Weston, Wilton and Norwalk too. The old Three Bears property — at the intersection of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike — is centrally located for all 4 towns.

It was Chabad’s 1st true local home. The organization — whose aim is to enhance Jewish life through programs, social services and worship — had rented a variety of sites for 18 years, including Ketchum Street, the Westport Woman’s Club and Camp Mahackeno.

Chabad has flourished. It runs a religious school, teen and adult programs, and a summer camp (at Coleytown Elementary School). Recently, they hosted a festive Purim party.

Another view of Chabad, looking toward Wilton Road.

Another view of Chabad, looking toward Wilton Road.

The new addition will enhance Chabad’s services — and the neighborhood — say Rabbi Yehudah Leib Kantor and Peter Greenberg (a Chabad member and partner in Able Construction, who is doing the project at cost). The architect is Robert Storm.

The historic nature of the building — including, importantly, its street-facing facade — will be protected. New construction will be in “the New England vernacular” — fieldstone and shingles — blending in with what’s already there.

The additions and renovations — enlarging the current 9,000 square feet by 4,000 more — will take place in the back. A new 300-person sanctuary will double as a function hall for holiday events, and bar and bat mitzvahs (right now, Chabad rents the Westport Woman’s Club.) The religious school will be housed in the lower level.

A rendering of the addition.

A rendering of the addition, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Also planned: a new lobby, kitchen and elevator. The interior of the existing building will be “freshened up,” Greenberg says.

The 100-car parking lot entrance closest to Wilton Road has been closed. That should ease traffic by the light.

The back of the parking lot, meanwhile, will be raised slightly, to protect nearby wetlands.

Another rendering -- parking lot view.

Another rendering — parking lot view.

Chabad has already presented plans to Westport’s Flood and Erosion Control Board. Ahead are more panels, including Conservation, and Planning & Zoning.

A variance for coverage will be needed from the Zoning Board of Appeals. This is routine, Greenberg says, for nearly every church, synagogue, school and commercial property.

“This is a community project,” the rabbi notes. Funding comes entirely from area residents. Feedback from neighbors has been very positive, he and Greenberg say.

Chabad hopes for approvals within 3 to 4 months, with construction completed by next spring.

From their lips to you-know-who’s ears.

A “Town Forest” Downtown?

On Thursday night, the Planning & Zoning Commission resoundingly affirmed that the Baron’s South property should remain open space.

By a 4-1 vote (1 abstention), the P&Z approved an amendment that seems to end plans to build a 165-unit senior housing facility on 3.3 acres of the 22-acre property. 60 percent of the units were to be considered “affordable.”

Town officials have fought for years to add senior housing to Westport’s stock. Baron’s South — located between South Compo and Imperial Avenue, and which includes the Senior Center — seemed to many to be a perfect location.

Others were just as adamant that it be retained entirely as open space.

The entrance to the Baron's South property.

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

One — who asked for anonymity, for personal (non-political) reasons — offers an argument that hasn’t been heard much in the debate.

She is “not a tree-hugger.” But after consulting with state officials (including the deputy director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) and scientists, she was told that “it would take 200 years to re-grow a true-practice urban forest like this.”

According to the Westporter, all those experts were “adamant that this parcel should be held as protected space in perpetuity as Westport’s town forest.” In fact, people familiar with the property “believe it can be enhanced to become a world-class arboretum.” Grant funding could help Westport “inspire other municipalities.”

The Westporter says, “we either act as responsible stewards of this municipal forest, or it will be lost forever to buildings, ancillary infrastructure, paved parking lots. Mature forests can never be replaced.”

She also fears unintended consequences from construction, such as soil erosion and rain runoff, along with the potential for more land being needed later for ancillary development.

Part of the Baron's South property.

Part of the woods on the Baron’s South property.

The RTM — by a 2/3 vote of its 36 members — can reverse the P&Z’s decision. There will be plenty of lobbying by town officials who have advocated for senior housing — as well as private citizens who believe that 3.3 acres downtown, adjacent to the Senior Center, is a perfect place to help keep older Westporters here.

What’s your opinion? Did the P&Z avoid a slippery slope that begins with construction on 3.3 acres out of the 22? Or is senior housing the right use for what is now open space downtown?

Click “Comments” to make your views known.

This Old House: #3

“This Old House” is a new series on “06880.” Every Wednesday we’ll show a Westport house, photographed in the 1930s for a WPA project. They’ll be featured in an upcoming Westport Historical Society exhibit on preservation in Westport — but we need readers’ help in identifying them.

The jury is still out on where the 1st house (posted last week) was located — or whether it’s even standing. It’s near the corner of North Avenue and Cross Highway, but we’re not sure exactly where. Click here, then scroll down to “Comments” to see the ongoing debate.

At least that had a relatively clear location. All we know about this one is a single word on the back: “Coleytown.”

This Old House - March 18, 2015

If you recognize it — or think you do — hit “Comments” below. As with all houses in this series, it may have already been demolished.

Saying Goodbye To The Bedford Estate

The Bedfords giveth.

And the Bedfords taketh away.

One of the town’s most philanthropic families — think the YMCA, schools, the Westport Woman’s Club and much, much more — has long owned property on Beachside Avenue.

But Ruth Bedford died last June, at 99. Now her estate, at 66 Beachside, is slated for demolition.

Bedford demo

The sign notes that 3 buildings are intended to be torn down. All are 114 years old.

The Bedford family also owns a 2-story house at 225 Green’s Farms Road, opposite the Nyala Farms office complex. It too was built in 1900.

And it too is slated for demolition.

Tearing Down A Teardown Sign

The stretch of Hillspoint Road from Hales Road to Old Mill is not an official historic district. But plenty of older, handsome homes line both sides of the street, as it dips gently from I-95 and the railroad down to Elvira’s.

For a long time, a “demolition” sign seemed to doom 158 Hillspoint Road. But the other day, Fred Cantor — who in addition to being an alert “06880” reader is also a very alert neighbor — noticed the sign was gone.

He spotted contractors’ trucks on site. So on one of his walks he talked to a next door neighbor, and a worker. Both confirmed that the home was sold, and will stay.

Score one for preservation!

158 Hillspoint Road is no longer a teardown. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

158 Hillspoint Road — built in 1803 — is no longer a teardown. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Fred is not content to just spread the good news. He also passes along the history he’s dug up.

According to tax assessor records, Fred says, the original portion of the home was built in 1803.

Fred found information from former owner Sue Braley on WestportNow in 2013, when it was first slated for demolition. Sue — who sold it in 1996 — said it was originally an outbuilding of the Sherwood House at 160 Hillspoint, then modified for human occupation in the early part of the 20th century, when artists and others began coming to Westport for the summer.

Sue writes:

Oral tradition claims that it was a tea room for the tourists, perhaps operated by Edith Very Sherwood, who lived at 160 and was the Westport librarian.  (A subsequent owner was) Richard Seyffert, a portrait and landscape painter who began construction of the studio toward the rear of the property.

Felice Holman Valen (the author of over 20 children’s books, including “Elisabeth and the Marsh Mystery” and others clearly inspired by the nearby mill pond) and Herbert Valen (who worked in advertising and later as a “gag” writer for the New Yorker) owned the property from 1955 to the late 1980s.

Westport’s old homes are disappearing at an alarming rate. How nice to read of at least one that escaped a very imminent wrecking ball.

Two doors away from 158 Hillspoint is #170. It bears a plaque, dating it from 1870. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Two doors away from 158 Hillspoint, this house bears a plaque dating it from 1870. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

 

This Old House: #2

Last Wednesday, “06880” inaugurated our “This Old House” series. Each week, we’ll run a photo of an old home that will be shown at an upcoming Westport Historical Society exhibit on preservation.

We began with a house the WHS had already identified. Several readers — not many! — knew it’s now the site of the Tavern on Main restaurant, downtown.

But the rest of the homes in this series — all taken in the 1930s by WPA photographers — have stumped even Historical Society experts. We’ll highlight the photos in the hopes that at least one alert “06880” reader knows something about the house.

Lost house - March 11, 2015

The inscription on the back reads (vaguely): “Warner; S. of NW Cor. Cross Hgwy. toward Coleytown.” Like all the photos we’ll run in this series, we don’t even know if it’s still standing.

Got info? Click “Comments” below.

Westport Inn: New Owners Revealed

So who exactly purchased the Westport Inn, saving it from possible demolition and Westport from the specter of a 200-unit, 5-story housing complex? And what did they pay?

The new owner is Building and Land Technology. The purchase price was $14.5 million.

Building and Land TechnologyBLT is described in a press release as “a leading real estate investor, developer and operator in Fairfield County and nationally.” It owns over 50 hotels across the US, and has developed numerous mixed-use projects, including Stamford’s Harbor Point.

Among its “premier commercial holdings”: the Nyala Farms complex, adjacent to I-95 Exit 18. Originally built for Stauffer Chemical, it now counts Bridgewater Associates as its anchor tenant.

“We’re pleased to add the Westport Inn to our local portfolio,” said Carl R. Kuehner III, CEO of BLT. “We believe that the Inn complements our office holdings here, and will continue to provide benefits for local corporations as well as residents of the Westport community.”

The Westport Inn began as The New Englander, in 1960. With BLT's purchase today for $14.5 million, it will remain a hotel.

The Westport Inn began as The New Englander, in 1960. With BLT’s purchase today for $14.5 million, it will remain a hotel.

First Selectman Jim Marpe — who with Planning and Zoning Commission chair Chip Stephens worked to find a purchaser for the Sheldon Stein-owned Inn — said that BLT has “an extraordinary local and national reputation as a real estate investor, and is an experienced hotel owner. It’s gratifying to achieve a result that forestalls previous plans to develop multifamily housing on the hotel site, which we determined was not an appropriate use here.”

Stephens noted that apartments would have resulted in “excessive densification,” as well as the loss of much-needed hotel rooms.

The  Westport Inn recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation. It includes 117 rooms, plus 6000 square feet of event space.

Breaking News — Westport Inn’s 200-Unit Housing Plan No Longer In Play

Westporters have a lot to worry about. But — as of today — the 5-story, 200-unit housing complex proposed for the site of the Westport Inn is not one of them.

The property has been sold. The new owners — an investment group — are presumed to want to continue operations as a hotel.

The sale did not simply fall from the sky. First Selectman Jim Marpe and Planning and Zoning Commission chair Chip Stephens have worked to find a buyer. They hoped to find someone local, who understood the need to maintain an inn — and not add massive new housing on a small-footprint, already-crowded part of the Post Road.

The Westport Inn will no longer be demolished, or replaced with 200 housing units.

The Westport Inn will no longer be demolished, or replaced with 200 housing units.

Part of the initial housing proposal — which was withdrawn, after P&Z commissioners raised concerns — included “affordable housing” units. Developers have cited a state statute — 8-30g — mandating that 10% of every community’s housing stock be “affordable.”

Officially, Westport is around the 3% level. But because of the way the regulation is worded — housing built before 1990 does not count, for example, toward points for a 4-year moratorium from the law — we actually do reach that threshold. may feel there is a sword hanging over us.

Other housing developments that involve 8-30g are in the works. One (temporarily withdrawn) is on Hiawatha Lane; another (flying under the radar so far) is on Post Road West, where several blighted buildings were recently torn down.

Those bear watching. But as of today, the Westport Inn no longer does.

Geiger’s Redevelopment: You Can Bank On It

Lost in last week’s hoopla over what Jon Stewart called  “Blizzardpocalypsegeddon” were positive reviews given by the Planning & Zoning Commission to plans to redevelop the 2-acre Geiger’s property.

Neighbors — who have worried about the future of the garden center, which looks handsome from the front but shabby in back — were also largely positive.

So what will go on the site, at the corner of the Post Road and Morningside North?

A commercial/residential complex. It includes 12 residential rental units — 2 of them classified as “affordable” — along with a retail building.

And a bank.

That last part is particularly good news. Because — as every Westporter knows — if there’s one thing this town needs, it’s banks.

Geigers

 

All You Ever Wanted To Know About Coleytown, But Never Knew To Ask

Mary Gai is many things: an alert “06880” reader. A realtor. A lover of Westport history.

Those 3 elements come together in her fascinating story about the Coleytown neighborhood:

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw 277 North Avenue in the early 1980s. But I immediately knew I was looking at history.

Standing hundreds of feet from any road, the dramatic lines of the 1740s saltbox — constructed to avoid taxes the King of England imposed on 2-story houses — had not changed since it was built.

Amazingly, it still exists today — along with a carriage house, barn and surrounding acreage. The fact that it does is due to a series of little miracles. The first was that James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser bought sizable chunks of Coleytown starting in 1914, including this property.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.

Westport would not be Westport if not for the Frasers.  They were the most famous residents of Westport ever (according to his 1953 obituary). The 1st polo games ever in Westport were held on their property. A year later they founded The Fairfield County Hunt Club.

They were also among the founders of the Westport Beach Club (now known as Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.

These politically active, internationally famous sculptors attracted to Westport a dizzying array of internationally famous visitors, including both Roosevelt first ladies, Edsel Ford, the Harvey Firestones, the Mayos, Averell Harriman, the George Patton family, famous poets, architects, writers, activists and philanthropists. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived with them in Westport for 15 years.

Public records reveal that the Frasers intentionally purchased property to keep their neighborhood quiet enough for their creativity. They then sold some land to other artists, effectively founding Westport’s famous artists colony.

Former Fraser student and famous sculptor Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar bought the old mill and barn on Coleytown Road in 1919. Kerr Eby, world-famous artist and pacifist, bought the Coley homestead from the Frasers in 1923, just a few hundred feet from the Fraser studios. The property that he named “Driftway” became the inspiration for many of his etchings (still sold today). He lived in his beloved old saltbox for the rest of this life.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.

Heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune Ward Thorne and his wife Judith bought Driftway from the Eby estate in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives as well. To insure that the property be taken seriously by historians, they donated it to the Antiquarian & Landmarks society.

The current sellers are true heroes of preservation. They stabilized and restored the magnificent saltbox, insuring that it will “live on” with its 5 working fireplaces, chestnut beams, floors and gorgeous woodwork. A family addition echoes the saltbox form, and adds functionality for today. They also purchased the old mill and barn to reunite the property and the main building components, which now includes 3 antique homes, 2 barns and 10.5 acres of the original farm homestead.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.

The area is called “Coleytown” because of the Coley family. They farmed their land for 200 years, and had quite a sophisticated operation. Fresh water from the Aspetuck River helped grow grapes, flax, corn, onions and other crops.

The Coley wharf was located on the Saugatuck River just south of Gorham Island. Produce — including grain processed at the Coley mill — was transported on the Coley’s sloop “Nancy” to New York and Boston on a regular basis.

The c.1760 gristmill — replaced by steam power — became a cotton mill by 1840. Batting produced from Southern cotton was sent to manufacturers to fill the need for textiles in Northeastern cities. A piece of cotton mill apparatus still hangs from the barn rafters, and an original millstone decorates the riverfront landscape. A footbridge and waterfall create a gorgeous, unspoiled landscape.

The original mill house.

The original mill house.

The Frasers and 4 other owners of this property not only preserved the antique buildings and land along the Aspetuck River. They also preserved the largely forgotten village center, first called “Coley Ville.”

The mill and converted barn on Coleytown Road were the center of the little village. It included a small green, schoolhouse, shoemaker, blacksmith, yarn manufacturer, horse stables, 5 Coley homesteads, and probably a couple of other shops.

The original Coley homestead.

The original Coley homestead. (All photos courtesy of Mary Gai)

Today, the former village gristmill, barn and the Coley homestead are looking for new stewards. Let’s hope they preserve the character of this special neighborhood — one that has endured even longer than our nation itself.

(For much more information on the property, click here; then follow the “Driftway” links on the left.)