Milford Planning & Zoning votes against apartments at mall

MILFORD — A proposed change in the zoning regulations to allow a 300-unit apartment building at the Connecticut Post Mall was rejected by the Milford Planning and Zoning Board at its Oct. 6 meeting. The board voted 5-3 against the measure.

Prior to the vote, Steven Levin, founder and chief executive officer of Centennial Real Estate of Dallas, Texas, made an impassioned plea to the board, asking its members to approve the zone change, saying the residential component was only the first step in a long-range plan to save the mall. Levin said the mall generates $200 million annually in gross sales and that 2,000 people work there.

The meeting consisted mainly of Levin responding to comments from Julie Nash, director of economic and community development for the city, who criticized the proposal at the Sept. 15 public hearing. Nash had said that the proposal lacked a long-term cohesive plan and 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.

Levin said he once had a store at the Highland Mall in Austin, Texas, a mall that he said was closed for 10 years before the city floated $300 million in bonds. The bonds allowed Austin Community College to locate its campus there, along with 1,300 residential units. He said that the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles was also a failed mall, which Google changed into a 500,000 sq. ft. facility.

The Short Hills Mall in New Jersey is a stable mall with $500 million in annual sales, which added a 30,000 sq. ft. co-working space, he said. Finally, Levin said Westfield Corporation brought an incubator business into its successful Westfield San Francisco Centre.

“We don’t want the Connecticut Post to die to re-envision the mall,” said Levin. “Our vision is to re-imagine this mall, this property, while it continues to be a vibrant, relevant, amenity for the community of Milford. This mall doesn’t have to die.”

Levin said Westfield bought the Meriden mall for about $120 million five years ago and recently sold it for $12.5 million. He said that Centennial is an “unusual owner” because it has a long-term vision and “is passionate about building places where people want to live.”

Levin said the residential is only the first phase and said the second phase would include a $25 million glass office building that would require tearing down a wing of the mall to construct it, with a demolition cost of $4 million. He said that building could be used for an office, a medical building, or an academic campus. Funding would be provided by USAA.

“We don’t have a biotech company today,” said Levin. “What is showing up is a demand for residential.”

Levin said that the Trumbull Planning and Zoning Commission just approved a 260-unit apartment building at the Westfield Trumbull Mall, commenting, “That mall doesn’t have the vision we have.”

In response to questions from the public about potential future apartments on the other two properties in the Shopping Center Design District (SCD), namely, the Walmart and Stop & Shop properties, Centennial Attorney John Knuff said this proposal would not create a precedent because the board has “considerable discretion” with regard to zone changes.

The board did not have a discussion on the application before the vote; only two board members commented on the request. Board member John Mortimer, who voted in favor of the zone change, said he thought the visuals for the future phases with the office building and other amenities “look great.”

Board Chairman Jim Quish said he did like that Centennial came forward with a version of a master plan, but said he was voting against the zone change, commenting, “I personally would like to see an application with a completed master plan and a timeline, with potentially developers for the residential.”

Quish said the risk was that if the board approved the zone change and there was a change in the economy, the city would be stuck with “apartments in a zone that was clearly meant to be a commercial property.”

In response, Knuff said the master plan would come after the regulation change. Without this change, he said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to move forward on the project.

Levin said, “Nobody will come with that vision until the mall is gone.”

The public hearing started at the board’s Sept. 15 meeting. The proposal drew mixed reviews from business leaders, city officials, and residents.

At the Sept. 15 meeting, Levin said Centennial spent $200 million to purchase the mall from Westfield in 2015, only to see the retail climate start to deteriorate much faster than expected, including the loss of JC Penney.

The application filed by Knuff was only for the regulation change, which he said was necessary to bring the regulations into alignment with other uses in the zone. This zone change would have affected the three properties in the SCD district: the mall, the 47.5-acre Milford Crossing property at 1357 Boston Post Road, and the 10-acre Stop & Shop property at 1360 East Town Road.

Editor’s note — This story has been updated to reflect the correct sale price of the Meriden mall.