Park Avenue Jewish Community Center site eyed
(Appeared on the front page of the Fairfield Sun 5/5)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – The Jewish Home for the Elderly (JHE) has introduced a proposal to move its Fairfield-based nursing facility operations to Bridgeport, to the Park Avenue site currently occupied by the Jewish Community Center (JCC). The proposed new Jewish Home would incorporate the Center into the building. The topic of a public hearing during the Bridgeport Planning & Zoning’s April 25 meeting, the proposal was received positively by Mayor Finch and City Council members. The discussion has been continued to next month’s P & Z meeting in order for representatives to bring more information to the commission before they consider the matter.
The Sun spoke with several key involved parties to gain background on the project, initial plan specifics, perspective and feedback.
Aging facility prompts new site explorations
Andrew Banoff, the President & CEO of the JHE, said the Home has been at its 175 Jefferson Street campus in Fairfield since 1973 and it had begun to show its age. “We have a wonderful skilled nursing facility that has served us well for nearly 40 years,” he said. “But the facility is aging and the opportunity to build a new nursing home with a ‘household’ model of care to provide an even better quality of care for the next generation of seniors is why we decided to pursue a new location to rebuild.”
Attorney Ray Rizio, partner in the Fairfield law firm Quatrella & Rizio, which is representing the Jewish Home, said the JCC site, at 4200 Park Avenue, was not the first location the Home explored. “About three years ago, it looked to create a large campus up in Monroe, but representatives in Trumbull, Monroe and Bridgeport could not come together on an agreement with regard to sewage disposal. The Jewish Community site became available. It was a logical move.”
Councilwoman AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia (D), who represents the 134th District where the new JHE would be located, said that the JHE was not the only organization that had expressed recent interest in the site. “I was made aware about a year ago at a meeting of council members at the university, where we were discussing student housing issues, that the JCC was either going to fold or move, and was looking to sell the building and property. The university showed us professionally made plans of a proposal to purchase the JCC for the purpose of housing students, expanding the campus along the Park Avenue corridor.”
Rizio confirmed Vizzo-Paniccia’s understanding of the JCC’s situation. “For the JCC to stay in existence, it needed to sell the property or joint venture with someone,” he said. “They actually had a number of suitors for the property.”
Vizzo-Paniccia said that, a week ago, she found out that the JHE was in firm negotiations with the JCC to purchase the Center’s building and 11.3-acre parcel of land, and that, as a result, SHU decided to withdraw its interest. “On April 26, I met with the university’s new president, Dr. John Petillo, who said once he heard that the JHE and the JCC were in negotiations, he took the offers back and there is no further interest in the property.”
Rizio said the JHE’s proposal had particular appeal to the JCC for a specific reason. “The deal with the Jewish Home would allow the JCC to continue operations at their location, where they have been since 1962.”
Prior to the public hearing, Vizzo-Paniccia called Attorney Rizio to confirm the JHE’s interest. “I wanted to know if there were firm documents showing the plan was going forward,” she said. “He assured me the project was going ahead.”
“The plan is to tear down the existing JCC property and basically rebuild to incorporate the JCC into the new Jewish Home facility, which will also have skilled nursing and some assisted living,” said Rizio, with regard to proposal specifics.
“We hope to be able to offer more private rooms and more residential features such as kitchen, dining and living room space for our residents than we currently offer,” said the JHE’s Banoff.
“It will be a state-of-the-art nursing facility, allowing for small house-type living, with 14 apartments,” added Rizio. “Instead of long halls with rooms off them, it will have more of a residential feeling than institutional.” The new facility would contain 300 beds.
Vizzo-Paniccia also understood that there would be rehabilitation units, an auditorium shared with the JCC and private areas for JCC members.
Banoff said a primary driver is sharing of limited community resources in an efficient new building design. “It will allow us to share spaces such as meeting rooms, a cafeteria, library and other support areas,” he said.
At the public hearing itself, according to Vizzo-Paniccia, Rizio made a presentation about the proposed project, joined by representatives from the JCC and JHE, and discussed zoning issues with the seven P&Z commissioners in attendance.
Notably, the plans call for the new nursing facility to be built toward the Park Avenue side of the property, to meet setback as well as height requirements, and provide parking that would largely be shielded from view under the building.
The proposal also seeks to change the zoning designation for the site from Residence-A to Residence-C, which is the most critical issue at stake. As Vizzo-Paniccia explained, R-A is essentially a residential designation while R-C provides for both residential and institutional usage.
Vizzo-Paniccia is supportive of the development plan, but on guard with respect to the zoning change. “Once a zone is changed, anything can be built,” she said. “The Home’s representatives still have to come back to the commission for approval, but there’s a gray area that doesn’t protect Bridgeport taxpayers, which is why I was at the hearing, to represent their interests. I’m concerned about what might come down the pike.”
She cited a situation two years ago wherein a doctor had plans to put up a medical-use building. Those plans changed and an apartment building went ahead instead, which now houses Sacred Heart students, she said.
“The zone change may create an issue if a project goes in there that’s not beneficial to the neighborhood and taxpayers,” said Vizzo-Paniccia. “The proposed project will also be a strain to taxpayers as non-profits are not required to reimburse police, fire or other first responder services and yet we are still required to respond. Taxpayers foot those bills.”
The JHE’s Banoff seeks to do the right thing by the neighborhood. “We said we’ll stay away from residences as much as possible and stick within the height restrictions of an R-C zone,” he said. “Even with a zone change being approved, we would still need to file and seek approval of the actual site plan once developed. To go forward on any of the upfront work would be premature.”
“They may not have to change the zoning at all because it’s the same type of facility that’s in the neighborhood already,” said Vizzo-Paniccia. “They may only need a variance. In the meantime, I want more commitment from the developers.”
Benefits to Bridgeport
While plans are further determined, the Mayor’s office has voiced its initial support for the project and cited the plusses to the city. “We welcome the Jewish Home for the Elderly’s proposal to move their nursing facility to Bridgeport,” said Mayor Bill Finch. “Their collaboration with the Jewish Community Center would be a win-win proposal for all involved – Bridgeport would gain 750 jobs, a 300-bed nursing facility, and it would allow the JCC to continue to provide its top-flight daycare facility in Fairfield County.”
In addition to the jobs created, the JCC would retain an existing 100 jobs, according to Attorney Rizio.
Revenue generation would be limited due to the facility’s non-profit status, said Vizzo-Paniccia, though there would still be tax capture. “As a non-profit, you can’t really collect real estate taxes, but we would benefit from personal property tax on certain cars registered to the city and equipment,” she said.
“The JHE needs to file an application with the State Dept. of Social Services regarding the number of beds planned and is pursuing the local zoning approval to allow for the new nursing home, the addition of assisted living and the rebuilding of the JCC,” said the JHE’s Banoff. “With approvals, we hope to move forward with construction in the next couple of years.”
The zoning approval is a key aspect said Rizio. “If we don’t get the zone change, we won’t go to that location and the JCC will be free to sell to any other parties,” he said.
In contrast, Vizzo-Paniccia said, “If we don’t have to change the zoning for the project to go ahead, we’re all for that. I hope we can work together to be good neighbors and do what’s best for Bridgeport.”
Clearly, there’s more to be discussed and until the fine points are worked out, building plans will remain conceptual.