WEST HARTFORD — The town council late Tuesday voted unanimously to authorize the town to begin negotiations for the purchase of the UConn campus property.
The state requires that the university give the town the first opportunity to buy the land. A separate vote would be needed to actually buy the property.
“This isn’t saying, ‘Go forth and purchase this.’ This is giving you the authorization to have discussions,” council minority leader Denise Hall said. “We didn’t just authorize you with a blank check to go out.”
UConn plans to vacate the West Hartford campus in 2017 and move the Greater Hartford branch to the former Hartford Times building on Prospect Street in downtown Hartford. The UConn property is a 58-acre parcel bordered by Lawler Road, Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue and includes the Harleigh B. Trecker Library and four other buildings, as well as parking for 1,050 vehicles and intramural playing fields.
Also Tuesday, the council approved an application to build an apartment complex at a local convent without an affordable-housing component.
Mayor Scott Slifka has previously stated that he views the authorization as doing his due diligence because it would simply allow the town to look into a purchase price, and does not constitute an automatic approval to purchase the property.
The proposed complex at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent on Park Road would offer more than 300 market-rate rental apartments. At a public hearing on Dec. 10 that continued Tuesday night, residents expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of affordable housing at the complex.
"Imposing an affordable requirement on this project will make it unworkable for us," said John Scobie, executive vice president of New York-based developer Center Development Corp.
Still, the council resolved to study affordable initiatives in the future. A resolution introduced by Slifka authorizes the town manger to collect data and study ways the town can "strategically include sustainable and affordable housing opportunities." A report will be presented to the council on or before March 22.
Center Development Corp. filed the application to convert the convent into an apartment complex called Arcadia Crossing, with a swimming pool, courtyards, a tennis court and walking paths. The Sisters of St. Joseph would retain ownership of 36 apartment units, a kitchen and dining room, common rooms, a courtyard and a chapel.
The apartments that the sisters maintain could be considered the affordable component, Scobie said.
The site presents a number of challenges that add to the cost of development, making additional affordable housing impossible, he said. For example, the sisters requested preserving the historic building and the property's open space, which requires a more expensive parking garage underneath the building, Scobie said.
Carole Mulready, representing the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford, asked that the council require an affordable component for the complex, as the rent would be out of the price range for the target market — young professionals and empty-nesters.
"The town missed an opportunity when Blue Back Square was developed in not letting some of those units be affordable," she said.
The project is expected to cost $100 million and will bring about $1 million in property taxes each year. Rents will start at $1,400 a month and the complex will include studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
However, the town attorney, Joseph O'Brien, said imposing affordable housing would be "very problematic" legally for the council, mainly because the town has not adopted official affordable housing regulations.
"For something where there is absolutely no existing regulations of affordable housing, it would be more likely than not that it would not survive a court challenge, if there was one," he said.
Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said the town does not "turn its back on affordable housing." West Hartford has more affordable housing than all but 20 communities in the state, he said.
The property is located in a residential zone that allows for single-family housing, but developers filed to change that to a residential multifamily, multistory zone with a special development district overlay, which would allow for the construction of apartment units. The special development district overlay zone would cover all of the parcel except for a 2.12-acre cemetery on the property.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery have owned the 185,000-square-foot property at 27 Park Road and 14 Ringgold St. since 1898.
"I think this is the right time, right place and right development for that property," said Angelo Faenza, the former owner of the Prospect Cafe. "I think Park Road needs a shot in the arm."