By Ronni Newton
A former West Hartford synagogue at 1244 North Main Street, for more than 50 years the home of Congregation Agudas Achim – a congregation first founded by Romanian Sephardic Jews in Hartford in the late 1800s – will be the subject of adaptive reuse and redevelopment by Trout Brook Realty Advisors, Inc. into The Elle. The project will maintain the structure’s stunning stained-glass façade and other portions of the existing building while constructing 49 multifamily units, a mixture of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, 80% of which will be deed-restricted at various levels of affordability, and which will be managed by the West Hartford Housing Authority.
The Town Council’s 8-1 vote to approve the application, which involves creation of a Special Development District and changing the underlying zoning from single-family to multifamily (from R-13 to RM-1) followed a nearly three-hour public hearing where more than a dozen members of the public testified.
Some nearby residents who voiced opposition at the public hearing expressed concerns with traffic and pedestrian safety on the busy North Main Street corridor, while others who lived nearby said they feared the mostly affordable housing development would lead to an increase in crime, add too many children to Aiken and other neighborhood schools, and result in residents from The Elle infringing on the private property of Tumblebrook Estates, the luxury condominium complex adjacent to the property.
Tumblebrook Estates resident David Durbas said he chose to move there 27 years ago because it was quiet, with the adjacent parcel the location of “a quiet, peaceful house of worship.” Allowing the 49 units to be built would negate the reason he moved there, Durbas said. The “quiet private community of Tumblebrook Estates,” would likely be where the residents of The Elle will walk their dogs or go for a stroll, he said.
“This proposal portends numerous calls to the police,” said Durbas. “To believe that this monstrosity will fit into the neighborhood is naïve. … I implore you to consider how this will impact our lives,” he told the Council.
Speaker Ben Adler questioned the applicant’s statements about the peak use of the property as a synagogue and lack of specific data about police involvement with residents at other West Hartford Housing Authority properties throughout town. He said he was concerned about having two- and three-bedroom units available to those at the lowest income levels.
The project will include 24 one-bedroom units, 23 two-bedroom units, and two three-bedroom units.
The mix of affordable units will be six units at 60% AMI (area median income), 20 units at 50% AMI, and 13 units at 30% AMI, with 10 remaining units at market rate of $1,600 for one bedroom and $2,100 for two bedrooms. Rents for the affordable units will be set depending on the family size and income, and in accordance with Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) income and rent restrictions.
Town Council chambers were packed for the hearing, and many of those in attendance applauded speakers who expressed opposition to the project. Seven letters were also submitted as testimony, five clearly in support and two that questioned aspects of the application.
Of the 16 speakers Tuesday night, four expressed support – and several of them were loudly booed by members of the audience who continued to audibly mutter words of displeasure while members of the applicant’s team were responding to questions.
Some of the most compelling statements, however, were made by Town Council members who shared their thoughts prior to voting later in the evening.
“So let’s talk about our schools that we adore so much, our public school employees, our teachers, paraprofessionals that deal with our students with disabilities, our Center – West Hartford Center – the busboy that works there, the servers, healthcare workers – they’re not all doctors, some of them are CNAs … nonprofit workers … those are some of the people who would live in this development, this development that is less than a mile from my house,” said Republican Alberto Cortes, his voice cracking with emotion.
“To sit there and say these people might not be safe people to live around, might be dangerous, might be trespassing … and these are the people we’re talking about,” Cortes said. The people who are going to live at The Elle are the people who work in our community, and while it’s not easy to walk 15 minutes each way to Big Y and return with a bag of groceries, people do it and the area is walkable. He used to do that with his grandmother, Cortes said.
People need to live with dignity, Cortes said. “We always talk about how diverse a community this is … and I always say that I would like to see a more inclusive community, and that’s what this is,” he said. The traffic around there is already terrible, he added, “and this isn’t going to change that.” Adding 49 units isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Cortes said it was hard to listen to some of the comments from area residents. “I came from affordable housing. Government affordable housing.”
The Elle, he said, “it’s the perfect project, probably not in the perfect spot, but it’s still amazing and walkable, so why not let people live in dignity … We owe it to our unsung heroes to provide a place to stay.”
Democrat Tiffani McGinnis said she appreciated those who came out to comment, even if she disagreed with their views, but then she had to pause to collect herself before continuing to speak.
“West Hartford should be a place where all of us are welcome. Our communities are better when they’re diverse in every way,” she said.
“The comments about crime really hit me hard,” McGinnis said, holding back tears. “As a single mom I would have qualified for one of these apartments. And I wonder if the people look at me now and think that I am a criminal. Probably not, and the only difference between the person I am now and the person I was then is 30 years and a change in income level.
“I will be supporting this property for all the women that are looking to start over after leaving a bad situation, for all the families who just want a safe nice place to live with great schools,” said McGinnis. “I am proud to support this property and proud that our town is willing to welcome everyone.”
Republican Mary Fay, the minority leader, was the lone Council member who opposed the project.”You know I’m not a group think person I’m a contrarian, and the people’s input means the world to me. There are too many people who live in this town who feel that none of us up here care whatsoever,” she said, and many came out to the hearing.
“I’m not going to justify all the comments because that’s not what this is about, but I’m very concerned. We change zoning around here like we change our underwear,” Fay said.
“To have their concerns fall on deaf ears, is not right,” said Fay. “We’ve done a ton of development in this town, we’ve done a lot of low income housing in this town. I’m not opposed to that. I am not opposed to that, for the record. … I do not support this project because I don’t like changing zoning crazily.”
Fay said the homeowners are important, were there first, bought homes in a single-family zone, and have a stake in this town. “I would ask any one of you out there, would you like an apartment building right next to your home, your biggest investment that you’ve made in your life?”
Noting statements about plenty of capacity in the schools – to handle what Chuck Coursey, the outreach coordinator for the development team, said would be an estimated nine additional students overall in the 49 units based on the occupancy per bedroom of other West Hartford Housing Authority properties – Fay said, “and about declining enrollment, then why haven”t expenses gone down? Why are we talking about more money to the schools?”
In terms of saving the building, you’re saving the front façade,” she said, not saving the building.
“When are taxpayers going to get tax relief. When are we going to see a reduction … People here need relief,” Fay said, banging her hand on the table as she spoke.
Fay did say that 40 apartments, with 70% of the land as open space, would have been enough.
The Council, in its capacity as the town’s zoning authority, was voting on the project both because of the request to change the zone to multifamily and also because the application for a Special Development District included waivers from the zoning regulations, among them allowing 49 (rather than 40) units on the 1.83-acre site, allowing 68 rather than 74 parking spaces, and allowing 6,750 rather than 9,000 square feet of open space.
Democrat Deb Polun, in voicing support for the application, said she is “very excited to be able to bring more opportunities for children and families to this town.”
Polun, who like Republican Mark Zydanowicz and Democrat Carol Anderson Blanks formerly served on the Board of Education, addressed the question about capacity in schools that children of families living in The Elle would attend. One speaker specifically raised concern about additional students at Aiken Elementary School, which Polun said had 471 students in 2011 and 384 in 2022, the last year for which data has been released. King Philip Middle School had 884 students in 2011 and 814 in 2022.
“Our students would be the better for having students come in who represent diverse backgrounds,” Polun added.
She also said she was pleased that Trout Brook Realty has been working with former synagogue board members and is committed to maintenance of the cemetery that is there.
“Over my six years on this council we have had several intense discussions about housing … and what we’re seeing is that it has done nothing but strengthen our community,” Democrat Liam Sweeney, the deputy mayor, said. The community needs to think of itself as a whole, and not shut off neighborhoods from each other because of income. “As a municipality you have to walk and chew gum … we have to take applications and deal with traffic at the same time,” he said.
“Change is always hard,” said Blanks. “What I’d like to do is look at this as opportunity and access.”
She said people approach her and say they want to live in West Hartford but can’t because the cost is too high. “It’s very easy to talk about something, but much harder to do something,” she said adding that she welcomes this project, and wants to welcome more children into the community.
Zydanowicz said overall there are 1,500 fewer students in the district than when joined the Board of Education more than a decade ago. “To talk about eight or nine kids then to worry about Aiken, KP is just preposterous,” he said, adding that he was disappointed to hear residents say that adding low income housing is going to bring crime to this town. He said he thought traffic would be the biggest objection.
And regarding traffic, Zydanowicz, who lives in the north end of town, said, “What traffic is is schools getting out, CIGNA getting out,” not people leaving their condos. The project, he said, fits nicely, and uses the architecture that was already there.
“This is an incredibly strong application … the care that went into this is inspiring,” Democrat Ben Wenograd said.
“People don’t want to have projects like this in their neighborhood. It doesn’t mean they’re right,” said Wenograd, noting that when he was growing up, this project would likely not have been approved. He said he wishes there would be more students than the number projected, and doesn’t like the symbolism of the fence that Trout Brook Realty agreed to construct to shield The Elle from Tumblebrook Estates.
Wenograd was at the opening of One Park earlier in the day – an adaptive reuse of a the former Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery convent for housing. The nuns, “they were just beaming,” said Wenograd. “I can’t think about a better adaptive reuse of a religious property than providing safe, affordable housing.”
West Hartford, when he was growing up, was not such a welcoming place. “We have moved so far since I was a kid here.”
Mayor Shari Cantor said she was struck by the statement made by Jill Corrado, executive director of the West Hartford Housing Authority and CEO of Trout Brook Realty Advisors – it’s development arm – that there are 10,000 people that applied for affordable housing, and hundreds on a waiting list for each project. When the Town Council considered the application for The Goodwin, many people testified that the 47 units on Newington Road “were going to destroy their life,” Cantor said, but the property has been very successful. “The property values around the Goodwin have gone up and many people have been lucky to live in the Goodwin.”
Building quality affordable housing is not easy. “This takes an enormous amount of effort for the housing authority, for any developer, to put together a quality affordable housing application,” said Cantor. But really what it takes for success is the commitment of the housing authority, and of its board, and that is evident, she said.
The Romanian Sephardic Jews who started the Agudas Achim congregation came to the U.S. because they were persecuted. “I do think they will be proud of us,” Cantor said.
As part of the conditions of approval an application to the state Office of Traffic Safety will be made for installation of a flashing light at the crosswalk that will be constructed across North Main Street to the bus stop on the west side of the roadway.
SUBHEAD: What is The Elle
The property at 1244 North Main Street, formerly Agudas Achim, has been vacant since 2019. A purchase and sale agreement is now in place between Agudas Achim and Trout Brook Realty Advisors for the 1.83-acre property, which according to the town’s online records includes the two-story 28,200 square foot synagogue building that was constructed in 1968.
The property is on a main road, with easy access to Bishops Corner, and there is a bus stop right out front that serves two lines, with buses running directly to Hartford as well as Bloomfield.
Attorney Tim Hollister of Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, LLP, representing Trout Brook Realty Advisors, presented the project at the public hearing. He said that the development would assist the town in reaching its affordable housing goals, and that it was a “friendly 8-30g” application for procedural purposes.
The applicant has worked closely with town staff and has made changes to the application, which he said, first and foremost honors “Congregation Agudas Achim and their decades of service to the West Hartford community.” Participating in the adaptive reuse of a religious building for housing is a nationwide phenomenon, he said.
Hollister said the location is appropriate for multifamily use because there are already sidewalks, it’s on two bus lines, and there is availability of infrastructure. In addition, he said the development is being concentrated on the south portion of the site in order to be a good neighbor to adjacent Tumblebrook estates and Woodmont Road.
Corrado said many of the nearly 400 housing units the West Hartford Housing Authority has built or redeveloped are in mixed-income neighborhoods.
Some people think “affordable housing” is a scary phrase, she said, but “the new financial models are much different.” Building and design standards are high, the units are beautifully constructed and market rate and affordable units are the same. “We develop properties with long deed restrictions for the units,” she said and there are a lot of layers of review.
Parking will be more than adequate, Corrado said, based on utilization data from their other properties. Not everyone has their own car, or even a car at all.
“We’ve heard about safety, crime, and unauthorized residents living in our building,” said Corrado. They have regulations to follow, and deal with any issues that arise. Having an unauthorized resident living there, she said, is grounds for lease termination.
Over the past three months, Chuck Coursey, of Coursey and Co., conducted neighborhood outreach to 91 residents, businesses, and property owners within 500 feet of 1244 North Main Street. Concerns that were raised – some of which were shared during testimony – had all been discussed previously, and some, like the addition of a perimeter fence to limit pedestrian and to avoid headlights shining in windows of neighboring residences, have already been addressed.
In addition to high-end finishes in all 49 units, amenities at The Elle will include:
- Onsite property management and resident management offices
- Bike storage room with easy access
- Community room for events in the portion of the original building with the stained glass façade
- Fitness room
- Mail center with package storage
- Main lobby and lounge area
- Game room and flex space on the second floor
- EV charging stations
- Standby generator
The one-bedroom units will range from 714-928 square feet, the two-bedroom units will be 944-1,090 square feet, and the two three-bedroom units will be 1,285 square feet.
PHOTO: Agudas Achim
CAP: Rendering of The Elle at 1244 North Main Street. Crosskey Architects. Town of West Hartford website
PHOTO: Agudas Achim old building
CAP: The former Agudas Achim at 1244 North Main Street. Photo credit: Ronni Newton