September 25, 2022

Proposal for apartments at Milford mall draws mixed reaction; hearing ongoing

MILFORD — The public will have another chance to comment on proposed zoning changes that would allow a 300-unit apartment building to be constructed at the Connecticut Post Mall.

© Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

The entrance to the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed in August 2020.

The Planning and Zoning Board voted at its Sept. 15 meeting to continue the hearing to Oct. 6.

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The proposal drew mixed reviews from business leaders, city officials, and residents at a recent hearing. The first speaker during the public hearing was Gary Johnson of Terrace Road, who said he supported the proposal as a “necessary thing” so that the mall could sustain and grow. Johnson thanked the mall operators for their generosity over the years.

He commented that in 1990 during a celebration for the expansion that brought Filenes and JC Penney to the mall, then owner Westfield “donated $50,000 to Milford Hospital for some much-needed hospital equipment.”

While he did not identify himself as serving in that role, Johnson is president and chief executive officer of United Way of Milford.

“That generosity from Westfield, now to Centennial, has continued in the fact that the mall is very generous in giving to non-profits in this community. United Way is certainly one of the beneficiaries,” said Johnson. “I think this is necessary thing to happen to ensure the mall stays sustainable and grows in the future.”

Dominic Cotton of Corona Drive said he sees the project “as a positive thing” — a walkable community close to the highway. Cotton said the project should include 30 units of affordable housing.

Pamela Staneski of Point Lookout, executive director of the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke in that role in support of the project, saying that the mall has helped Milford businesses over the years and has sponsored scholarships for graduating high school seniors. Staneski said now the city needs to help the mall.

She said the project would provide jobs, and commented that the school system has the capacity to add more students, having dropped from 7,700 to 5,500 students in recent years.

“We should applaud Centennial and the Connecticut Post Mall leadership for thinking outside the box, looking at the future and addressing the challenges that other malls have ignored,” said Staneski.

However, Alderman Frank Smith of Second Avenue, D-3, who is running for state representative in the 118th district, said he while understands the trends and difficulties facing the mall, the board should explore other options before going to residential.

Smith said the proposed change could open up the floodgates for other residential projects on the Post Road that would transform the traditional commercial district.

Kathleen Paulson of Park Avenue said she agreed that the mall needs to change, but said Milford has added a lot of housing recently, which may lead to crowding of schools.

“I don’t think we need any more housing,” said Paulson.

Julie Nash, director of economic and community development for the city, also spoke in opposition to the project. Nash said that while she would normally applaud a mixed-use development, she said this project is not one that lends itself to the long-term health and well-being of Milford and its economy. She said the residential areas must blend together with the commercial areas to work together as one ecosystem and this is not demonstrated in this project.

“The proposal is not comprehensive enough to justify the proposed changes,” said Nash. “The proposal lacks a long-term cohesive plan that encompasses multi-family residential development along with complementary, innovative and vibrant uses that will enhance the viability of the mall.”

Nash said the project should encompass other uses, such as university extensions, workforce development, corporate headquarters, and co-working spaces, as is being done at other malls across the country.

She also expressed the concern about the effect this project would have on surrounding properties. As two of the four examples cited by Nash, she said Google leased the entire Westside Pavilion, a former enclosed shopping mall in Los Angeles, and is using it as a creative office campus. Westfield is repurposing more than 34,000 square feet of its Westfield San Francisco Centre as a co-working space, technology demonstration and event space called Bespoke.

In response, Steven Levin, founder and chief executive officer of Centennial, said he is familiar with the Los Angeles project. Levin said he loves co-working and it would be great to work with Google, but said the Los Angeles and San Francisco projects cannot be compared to the mall in Milford.

“We have to deal with the reality of where we are and what our project is,” said Levin, saying the company lost 30 percent of its income in one year. “We are asking for your support to help this mall survive.”

Levin said that in order to attract businesses like Google, Centennial has to show that it is committed to the mall by investing money in the property. He said he got Boscov’s to the mall by showing the company that it was committed to the mall. He said Google is going places where “dollars are being invested” for their employees to live nearby and to bring restaurants.

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