by Cate Hewitt
GROTON — Town officials unveiled conceptual plans on Thursday for the 77-acre Mystic Education Center site that, if realized, would revitalize the long-fallow property into a village-style development with a variety of commercial, retail and co-working spaces, along with about 750 residential units. The property is the former state-run Mystic Oral School, once known as the Whipple School for the Deaf, at 240 Oral School Road.
“There are a lot of moving pieces and it was everyone’s desire, including the developer, to come forward at the appropriate time and I think that time is now,” said Paige Bronk, the town’s economic and community development manager, to a standing-room-only audience of about 100 people at the Town Hall Annex.
Jeff Respler of Respler Homes LLC, the town’s preferred developer for the project, deemed the school buildings unsuitable for development into apartments and instead proposed transforming the 44-acre campus into a kind of updated New England main street surrounded by newly-constructed, market-rate residential apartments. The remaining 33 acres would provide open space with walking trails and a revamped boat launch on the Mystic River waterfront.
The project is part of the town’s response to a predicted increase in demand for “amenity-rich” housing specific to Electric Boat’s future younger workforce and to “closing the loop” on the 80 percent of Groton residents who commute elsewhere for work, said Bronk.
The project would rehabilitate the Pratt Recreation Center for use by town residents, and provide about 40,000 square feet of public recreation space, including an Olympic-size pool, gymnasium, and “other associated amenities,” according to Respler’s presentation.
Ted DeSantos, an engineer with Fuss & O’Neill, told the audience that parking would be located underneath the residential buildings to decrease the amount of impervious surface added to the site. The project woul also provide “substantial” investments to transportation infrastructure to the area.
Ray Kehrhahn, a real estate economist hired by Respler, said that the project will provide the town with about $3.5 million in yearly property taxes, roughly 320 jobs — and $25 million in payroll — in the commercial and retail spaces, and increase local retail spending by $80 million per year. Redeveloping the site would provide about 880 construction jobs over a three-year period.
Also available during the meeting were Mary and Chuck Coursey of Coursey & Company, a public relations firm hired by Respler to engage the community in the process.
“Our job is to go into the community and talk to the people, especially those who may be most impacted by the project … we’re going to reach out to everyone in all the neighborhoods because that’s where, understandably, people are going to have the most questions and concerns, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to listen to the questions and concerns and go back to the team and figure out how and if we can address those concerns,” said Chuck Coursey.
As the project moves forward, Bronk said the development would require state and local land agreements, a master lease agreement, discussions with the Department of Transportation, a special zoning permit, wetlands approval, and many other steps.
“That’s why we’ve talked about this being a year-long approval process between state and local approvals,” he said. “Basically understand this is going to be a long process and this is the first opportunity we’ve been able to come out and advise the public.”
The site is a brownfield and will require major remediation work and approval by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said Santos.
“All of the work in planning and preparing for design for permits is informed by pricing and pro formas and looking at all of the cost and constructability and phasing of all of the on-site and off-site improvements,” said Santos. “And so in some ways a project of this scale and the benefit it can bring to the town is like a Swiss watch. There are a lot of moving parts between formal and informal process with the town and that’s why folks are saying a year — and it could take all of that.”
Bronk said the project was nowhere near any approval or permitting phase. “We are several months away from gaining any approvals. There have not been any applications made, so this is really an announcement and to some degree it’s a celebration of the work that’s taken place to date,” said Bronk. “The public will always have an opportunity to engage in those future meetings and it will take months to get through.”
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