Category Archives: Real estate

Minimalist Poolhouse Packs Maximum Punch

Beachside Avenue’s most famous sculpture — Claes Oldenburg’s 19-foot, 10,000-pound typewriter eraser — is gone. Its new home is the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Nearby, a new project looks like a new sculpture.

It’s not. It’s a poolhouse.

And you’re not even supposed to really see it.

This month Architecture Digest explores the structure, on the sloping lawn of Andrew Bentley and Fiona Garland’s home.

A broad view of the poolhouse. (Photo/Paul Rivera for Architectural Digest)

Designed by Roger Ferris, and “magnificently minimalist in form,” the poolhouse is built underneath “a verdant berm….Save for the skylight that runs the length of its green roof, the building is hardly visible as you approach it.”

But it certainly is something.

“Elegant concrete walls bookend a 75-foot long pool (and) a generous living-dining room with a Grayson Perry tapestry….While the northern side of the floor plan, tucked into the earth, contains the kitchen, bath, and changing areas, the south-facing window wall offers breathtaking views of the Long Island Sound.”

The pool is framed by window walls, Douglas fir paneling, and a tapestry by Grayson Perry. (Photo/Paul Rivera for Architectural Digest)

It seems like an amazing poolhouse. Andrew and Fiona have great taste; Roger Ferris does inspired work, and Becky Goss of The Flat consulted on the furnishings.

Now I really want to see their mudroom!

Septic Systems, 8-30g, And A New Westport Hotel

There’s a new 8-30g application coming down the pike Post Road.

From all indications though, this one will face smooth sailing.

On Thursday (June 6, 7 p.m., Town Hall), an entity called 1480 PRE Associates goes before the Planning & Zoning Commission. They’ll ask for a special permit and site plan approval to build 32 housing units at 148o Post Road East.

They’ll be 1- and 2-bedrooms. Thirty percent will be affordable housing, as defined by Connecticut’s 8-30g statute.

The property — between the Rio Bravo/Julian’s Pizza strip mall, and a gas station — is a throwback to the days before the Post Road was greened and cleaned. Roger’s was there for decades; before that, it was Bob’s Welding.

There’s a little bit of music history too: Donna Summer shot an early music video there.

Roger’s Septic Tanks. The flowers in the foreground belonged to the gas station next door.

Several years ago, a private agreement was reached between the owner of the commercial site and homeowners on Cottage Lane — which runs behind — stipulating that no housing could be built on the property. The agreement did not involve the town.

However, word on the street Post Road is that homeowners have been consulted, and are on board with this project.

Something will eventually go in there. Sounds like neighbors are happier to have residents nearby, rather than another retail or office complex.

Less far along the P&Z pipeline — but perhaps more intriguing — is a pre-application that will also be heard on Thursday.

The agenda item reads:

To discuss amending the RORD #1 to allow Hotel Use for future redevelopment of 1 Burr Rd from Westport Rehabilitation Complex to “The Westport Hotel,” presented by Leonard M. Braman.

Will the Mediplex nursing home on Post Road West — next to Kings Highway Elementary School — be transformed into a hotel?

Stay tuned.

Westport Rehabilitation Complex’s Burr Street entrance.

Pre-Applications Available For Affordable Westport Housing

Earlier today, the town sent out a terse email. Headlined “Local Housing Authorities Are Now Accepting Pre-Applications for Affordable Housing,” it read:

Preliminary applications will be accepted beginning on 06/03/2019 AND END with a postmark date of 06/28/2019. Pre-applications received after the end date as postmarked will be automatically rejected.

Please click on the following link for income-eligibility requirements and a download of the pre-applications: https://millennium-realty.com

It sounded a bit cryptic. Pre-applications for what affordable housing, exactly?

And who is Millennium Realty?

I clicked the link.

The Millennium Group — headquartered in New Britain — has a handsome website. At the top are photos of 4 beautiful residences. Two are homes that would not look out of place in Westport; 2 are gleaming new apartment buildings.

Turns out Millennium Realty (aka The Millennium Group) manages a wide array of properties — including 4 affordable housing facilities in Westport. They are:

  • Canal Park (50 units; elderly; studio and 1-bedroom)
  • Hales Court (78 units; 1, 2, 3 and 4-bedroom)
  • Hidden Brook (39 units; 1, 2 and 3-bedroom)
  • Sasco Creek (33 units; 2 and 3-bedroom).

That’s 200 units of affordable housing.

Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown.

But why “pre-applications”?

Turns out they occasionally open up wait lists, to fill when vacancies occur. “Pre-applications” are used to screen for initial program eligibility.

So for anyone interested in being screened for a possible eventual spot on a wait list for affordable Westport housing: Click on the link above. You can also pick up a copy at the Westport Housing Authority (5 Canal Street), or call 203-227-4672.

Hales Court also offers affordable housing in Westport.

Local Zoning Makes National News

ProPublica — the non-profit investigative news outlet — has published an in-depth look at the interrelated issues of affordable housing and zoning laws in Connecticut.

Much of the piece — produced in collaboration with the Connecticut Mirror, and headlined “How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” — focuses on Westport.

It does not paint a pretty picture.

The story begins with the example of the new houses being built on the former Daybreak property, near Merritt Parkway Exit 42:

A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.

But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.

After a lengthy description of the zoning battles that followed — without mentioning traffic and related issues — the piece notes:

Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.

This separation is by design.

In fact, the Daybreak project was never about affordable housing. It was planned as 55-and-over housing.

Construction fence at the Daybreak development.

It talks about Westport’s “affordable housing” stock (as defined by state regulation 8-30g), without mentioning that the statute does not include dwellings built before 1990.

In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.

The story implies several times that racism is a factor in local housing decisions.

“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.

It includes quotes from Planning & Zoning commissioners and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — though not always with context.

There are descriptions of zoning battles over developments like 1177 Post Road East (which is already built and occupied) and the Hiawatha Lane project (which has been battled over for years).

An artist’s rendering of the 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.

Particularly striking: A photo of the Community Gardens, next to Long Lots Elementary School. The caption implies that the town bought the land and turned it into gardens simply to prevent construction of “multifamily housing for low-income residents in (that) heavily residential single-family section of Westport.”

There’s much more. It’s a long piece — and it will get people talking.

Click here to read the entire story.

Bruce Becker: Zero Energy Home Is 100% Worth It

Bruce Becker’s 2 master’s degrees from Yale — one in architecture, the other an MBA — led to his career as a sustainable architect/developer.

He’s created LEED Platinum buildings at 360 State Street in New Haven (with 500 units, it’s the largest apartment in Connecticut, and Hartford (the redevelopment of the Bank of America tower into 285 units).

360 State Street, New Haven. The train station is at lower right.

The renovation of his 1917 Compo Beach saltbox into a solar paneled, VRF powered zero-energy home may be Becker’s smallest project.

But it has big implications, he believes, as a blueprint for where Westport can — or, really, must — go in the crucial (and very near) future.

“I’m idealistic but pragmatic,” says Becker. He knows the importance of placing housing near train stations — “that’s where the state and region have to go” — but he also knows that suburbs like Westport won’t change overnight.

Most carbon emissions, he says, comes from driving, not buildings. But he’s doing what he can in both areas to reduce his own carbon footprint.

He’s had electric vehicles since 2011. And when he bought his Quentin Road property, he wondered whether a solar roof and batteries could provide all the energy needed for his house and 2 cars. (He’s also president of the Westport Electric Car Club.)

He removed his oil furnace and oil tank, replacing them with new generation high-efficiency VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) electric air source heat pumps for heating and cooling the house, eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

“The key to combating the climate crisis is electrifying everything — and making electricity from renewable sources,” Becker says.

“The technology exists today. And it’s economically advantageous.”

Then he ripped off his poorly insulated dark cedar roof, and foamed the cavity. His new, attractive and highly reflective roof virtually eliminates the need for air conditioning. Immediately, Becker’s energy requirement dropped by 70%.

He installed 67 solar panels on the flat section of his roof. When the sun is at its peak, they create 21 kw.

Bruce Becker’s home. Solar panels are barely visible.

Becker describes the benefit of net metering. He exports electricity to the grid in the summer, when utilities need it most. In the winter, when demand is lower, he draws it back out. It all balances out, he says.

Becker’s Tesla powerwalls store excess energy (14 kwh each) for backup power and load management. They also kick in automatically when the power fails.

Bruce Becker’s Tesla powerwalls.

A home energy analysis before all the work produced a Home Energy Rating System score of 253. “That’s failing,” Becker says.

Older homes are usually around 140. A new house built to code is about 100. An Energy Star homes is 85 or so.

Becker’s current HERS score is 19.

“You can take an old home, recycle it and make it green, efficient and sustainable,” Becker says.

“It’s not the norm. It takes a bit of initiative. But I’m happy to be a resource.”

Bruce Becker, with a “Westport Green Building Award.” 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Green Task Force chair David Mann hailed Becker for  “meaningfully contributing to a sustainable Westport, and furthering the goal of being a net-zero community by 2050.”

Every homeowner can do something, he notes. If a furnace needs replacement, “ask about VRF pumps. They’re less expensive, and cost less to operate. People sell what they’re always sold, like oil furnaces, so they might not mention it to you. But if they realize they might lose the sale, they’ll sell you one.”

Is there any downside to what he’s done?

“None,” Becker insists. “It’s good for me, and for the environment. It’s a rare win-win.”

Now he wants to see many other Westporters win too.

A before-and-after comparison of Bruce Becker’s energy consumption and costs.

Post Road Real Estate: 2 Years Later

Alert “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:

In June 2017 I drove along the Post Road from the eastern border, near Bulkley Avenue, to the western end, near Whole Foods. I counted the number of buildings — including individual offices or retail space — for lease or sale. I spotted 50 signs, just on the Post Road.

These figures were the basis of an “06880” story: “This Space For Lease.” It drew 57 comments.

Because we have been told that the economy is “so strong,” I decided to drive the same route, and again count how many buildings or individual offices were for lease or sale.

This time I spotted over 65 for lease or sale. That does not include all the new residential construction on the Post Road, such as the 94 apartments at 1177 Post Road East, or the 2 mixed-use buildings with a total of 28 apartments (some in townhouses) at 793 Post Road East.

The former A&J’s Market on Post Road East is available …

While counting, I realized that this mix of for lease or sale buildings and offices was extremely different from 2017.

This time I spotted 2 bank buildings, a gas station, a farm market, a classic car dealer, and several large commercial buildings and retail outlets for lease or sale.

… as is the old Mobil Self-Serve near Barnes & Noble …

During the past 2 years many of the former for-lease buildings have been occupied. But it appears to me there is a larger inventory of space available now, with larger properties.

I have my own opinion as to the reasons — for example, higher rental rates or the economy — but other readers may have better knowledge.

… and the nearby bank, at the corner of Morningside Drive.

The 2017 Post Road story noted that there were “10 or so others on Main Street.” I just drove from the Post Road to Avery Place on Main Street, and counted 10 buildings or retail spaces for lease.

From Avery Place to Kings Highway North I saw an additional 3 more “for lease signs.”

The same questions posed in 2017 are still relevant today: “Is something wrong with Westport’s commercial real estate market? If so, are there solutions?”

Click “Comments” below to offer answers.

Or more questions.

[OPINION] Historic Importance Of South Morningside Is Huge

Between the ospreys and education issues, Westporters’ attention has recently been diverted from the long-running saga of Morningside Drive South. But the Historic District Commission meets Tuesday (Town Hall, 7 p.m.) to discuss a planned development there. “06880” reader Aurea de Souza writes:

Before Walter and Naiad Einsel bought their home and studio, 26 Morningside Drive South was the home of  Charles B. Sherwood. Yes, that’s the same Sherwood family remembered today through Sherwood Island State Park, the Sherwood Island Connector, even Sherwood Diner!

Charles B. Sherwood was given 7 acres of land by his father Walter in 1853.  That same year, he built his house. It was sold in 1864 to John B. Elwood, who owned it until 1920. The Einsels bought it in 1965, after vacationing in Westport for 4 years.

In 2005 the Einsels received a Preservation Award for their home. In 2007 their home and property were designated a Local Historic District.

The Einsels’ house on South Morningside Drive.

Anne Hamonet and her husband Alberto bought what used to be the barn of the Sherwood property in 2002. They have since restored it, respecting its historic value. Today their home is a Greens Farms sanctuary, cherished by the neighborhood.

The Hamonets raise chickens that run freely through the property. Anne brings fresh cage-free organic eggs to everyone at our neighborhood meetings. They also keep horses on the property. It’s almost like a movie set.

Because of the Hamonets, we all enjoy rooster and chicken noises, horses that can be seen from the street, and the beautifully restored barn.

This is what their bucolic backyard looks like today, right next to the proposed development.

This is an approximation of what it will be when the southwest block of the 16 3-bedroom, 32.5-foot high condos is built, just 15 feet from their fence.

The historic importance of 20-26 Morningside Drive south is huge for Westport.  It is about to be destroyed by a developer who purchased property in a historic district. He was well aware of the limitations, but is taking advantage of the 8-30g “affordable housing” statute which can take precedence over historic districts and flooding issues.

The homes will be built on top of wetland setbacks on already flood-prone Muddy Brook – which this week caused the collapse of Hillandale Road bridge.

There is also a safety issue. Westport requires a 400-foot distance from a school driveway for any driveway cutout. Plans for this development shows their driveway directly across from Greens Farms Elementary School.

The developer has presented drawings of the individual groups of homes, but at the Architecture Review Board hearing on March 26, failed to present any documentation on how it will look as a whole.

A Greens Farms United member who is an architect put all of their documentation together in a rough section of what it will actually look like (These do not account for any land modifications; it is simply an illustration of what has been made public).

The house in yellow is the current home, which the developer plans to transport to a new location much closer to the road.

Westport currently enjoys a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g developments, having met the state requirements. This proposal was submitted before the moratorium took effect.

When $30,000 Property Taxes Hit A Little Harder

That’s the headline on a CNN story posted yesterday to its website.

The piece — about the effect of the new tax law on high property tax states like Connecticut — was illustrated by a stock photo that seems to show Westport.

Whether that’s our town or not, there’s no denying that residents here have been hit hard — along with our counterparts in places like New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

The CNN story concludes with this assessment from a local realtor:

While many towns in Connecticut also have relatively high property taxes, some towns further up the Long Island Sound — like Westport or Fairfield — have lower bills than Westchester and are still a commutable distance from Manhattan.

“In Westchester County — towns like Larchmont, Rye, Mamaroneck — the taxes are crazy high,” says Mary Ellen Gallagher, a real estate agent and partner of Compass Westport Team KMS Partners in Connecticut.

“Younger people can’t afford those taxes and are looking [in Connecticut] where you get more house and pay less taxes, but you’re further from New York.”

She says for many luxury buyers, taxes don’t always play into their decision to buy a new home, but can be a deterrent for those looking to move up to a larger and pricier home.

“I think it is hurting the luxury market,” says Gallagher. “Because people aren’t trading up.”

(Click here for the full CNN story. Hat tip: Seth Van Beever.)

BREAKING NEWS: Westport Gets Moratorium For 8-30g Housing

For years, Westport has grappled with the intent and consequences of Connecticut’s Affordable Housing Law.

Known as 8-30g, the regulation mandates that 10% of a town’s housing stock be “affordable.” It compels local planning and zoning boards to justify any denial of an “affordable housing” application.

The intent of 8-30g is for every community in the state to provide diverse housing stock.

However, for the purpose of calculating 8-30g, only units constructed after 1990, and those that are deed-restricted for 40 years, are considered. Most Westport units serving lower-income groups do not fall into either category.

Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown. However, because it was built before 1990, it does not count toward 8-30g compliance.

Developers began using 8-30g as a weapon. They proposed large developments all around town — Hiawatha Lane, Lincoln Street, Weston Road, Post Road East — with some units designated as 8-30g.

Opponents cited concerns like traffic, fire safety, and environmental encroachment. But because the regulation is written so definitively, fighting an 8-30g proposal is time-consuming, expensive and hard.

And because proposals often included only a few 8-30g units, each development meant that it could be harder — not easier — for Westport to reach the 10% threshold.

One of the most controversial housing proposals with an 8-30g component — 187 units on Hiawatha Lane, off Saugatuck Avenue by I-95 Exit 17 — will be heard tomorrow by the Planning & Zoning Commission (Thursday, 7 p.m., Town Hall). Because it was filed before today, it is unaffected by the moratorium.

However, an end — if only temporary — is at hand.

This afternoon, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced that Westport has received a “Certificate of Affordable Housing Completion” from the state Department of Housing. The result is a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g.

The moratorium was granted “based upon the significant progress Westport has made in supplying affordable housing,” Marpe said.

He praised members of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Planning and Zoning Department staffers, and attorney Nicholas Bamonte for helping create affordable housing opportunities, and seeing the moratorium application through to completion.

Planning and Zoning director Mary Young said that Westport joins Brookfield, Darien, Farmington, New Canaan, Ridgefield and Wilton as towns that have been granted moratoriums. Milford has an application pending.

P&Z chair Paul Lebowitz said that the moratorium “will allow the Commission to continue their efforts to create affordable housing opportunities that are in scale with and can be integrated with the community. The 4-year moratorium will not stifle our efforts to provide affordable housing in Westport.”

Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

In 1953, Ed Vebell was starting to make a name as an artist. He’d spent World War II as an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes. He stayed in Europe a while, covering the Nuremberg trials and drawing 18-year-old Grace Kelly.

Now he, his wife Elsa Cerra and their 3-year-old daughter Vicki lived in New York. He hung out at the Society of Illustrators, eating and schmoozing with well-known artists.

One day, he spotted a bulletin board notice of a house for sale. He knew nothing about the town — Westport, Connecticut — but it had an artist’s studio with a large north light window.

That was huge: No shadows or highlights on the canvas or drawing board.

The artist’s studio.

The seller was Austin Briggs. A renowned illustrator — he drew “Flash Gordon,” worked for Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post, and was later elected to the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame — that was enough to assure Ed that he was making the right move for himself and his family.

He bought the house, for $29,000 — sight unseen.

When Ed arrived for the first time, he looked down the end of Roosevelt Road. Something blue caught his eye. What was it?

“That’s Long Island Sound, sir,” the broker replied.

Okay, he thought. That’s nice.

Ed Vebell wrote his memoirs — and illustrated the cover.

The house served Ed and his growing family well. Working in that wonderful studio — enjoying the large north light window — he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps too — some with military themes. The studio was strewn with uniforms, helmets and boots. There was not even enough space for Wild Bill Hickok’s hat. So Ed stashed it in the bathtub.

Last February — less than 2 weeks after appearing at a Westport Historical Society show honoring his long career — Ed Vebell died peacefully, at home. He was 96.

It’s taken his daughters a year to clear out the house, and auction his collections.

But now the home — 9 Quentin Road — is on the market.

Ed Vebell’s home, 9 Quentin Road,

Audra Vebell says she and her sisters hope to find someone with “an appreciation of the history and special nature of this house.”

It really is special. For nearly a century, not one but two of America’s most famed illustrators lived and worked there.

In fact, just before he sold it to Ed, Austin signed his name in the garage concrete. It’s still there.

So history — and the spirit of 2 of Westport’s most prominent citizens — still remain.

When it comes to Ed Vebell and Austin Briggs, there must be something in the water.

(Click here for the real estate listing.)