Dozens of interested residents gathered at the Wilshire Branch Library in the Ridgewood Wilton-Saint Andrews Square neighborhood on Wednesday evening, to hear from developer Fred Maidenberg about his plans to build a five-home small lot subdivision at 250 N Wilton Place, formerly a single family residence in the historic North Wilton District.
Maidenberg, the owner and co-developer with his business partner Roni Efron, along with designers Amit Apel and Michael MacLaren, presented the latest version their project to a generally skeptical group of neighbors, who peppered the developers with numerous questions and concerns about the project’s design. The meeting was moderated by Rory Cunningham of the St. Andrews Square Neighborhood Association (SASNA), who read questions submitted by residents and timed responses on follow-up questions to keep the meeting on schedule (time was limited by the Library’s hours). But Cunningham made sure there was time to address all the questions of the standing-room-only crowd.
The meeting began with owner Maidenberg telling residents that he purchased the property at 250 Wilton Place and tore down the house down because it had fallen into disrepair and could not be salvaged. Once he tore it down, he said, he decided against building an apartment building, even though it might have been more profitable, because but he preferred to provide the option of home ownership to young residents who might not otherwise be able to afford homes in the area. He said he preferred to build something and then leave it in the hands of owners who would care about the neighborhood.
“We believe in home ownership,” said Maidenberg. “We respect that you see things differently from us.” He said he thought building a small lot subdivision with five homes, to house five families, would be his contribution to addressing the housing shortage in the city, a goal that he said consistent with his life values. Responding to a follow-up question by resident Mary Rajswing, Maidenberg’s business partner, Rony Efron, said each unit or home will be priced around $1 million, or maybe slightly less.
Most of the neighbors’ questions were prefaced with statements of objection to the design of the buildings, the destruction the historic home on the site (it was a designated contributor the the local historic district), the impact of the new buildings on traffic in the area during construction, and how the new residents would enter and exit their homes. One resident also asked about how the developers would address the additional demands on the local power grid, citing recent power outages.
In response, designer Amit Apel said they would meet the city’s requirements for improving the power infrastructure as needed for their site, and they would create a construction staging plan to address the construction traffic. Apel also supported an idea suggested by City Council Member David Ryu’s office to install “no left turn” signs, so residents would not be able to turn left when exiting the property from either Beverly or Wilton Place.
Throughout the evening, the developer and his team tried to convince residents that they are sensitive to the area. They said they could have built something larger (a fifteen unit apartment building was cited as as one option), but they chose not to build larger because they believe a five-unit small lot subdivision is the best use of the site.
The developers also said they will follow all the City’s codes, and they have already listened to suggestions from the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s Land Use Committee members by removing balconies and softening the project by adding a wood veneer to the building.
Rhonda Rothstein, a longtime resident who lives at 250 N. Wilton, showed photos of the house before it was torn down and asked why the developers tore down a historic home, and how they got the permits to do so?
Roni Efron answered, “We demolished the building to make a new project; we got the permit from the City.”
Dr. Tim Gogan, another longtime neighborhood resident, asked how the new buildings’ facades will be maintained, since each unit could be changed once it is purchased. The developer didn’t have a specific answer, but said there will be some kind of homeowners association to help govern the properties. Marita Geraghty asked why the developers didn’t honor the prevailing residential setback of 15 feet, noting that it would help the buildings fit better into the neighborhood context. The answer was that the project does conform to the setbacks permitted by the city for R-3 buildings, which is 5 feet.
It was interesting to hear the developer and his team say they would have designed the building to conform to design guidelines, if there were any, since no guidelines are published by the City, they had to do their best without them. At which point, an exasperated resident responded that “the neighborhood is the guideline!”
Residents said they see the project as a gateway to their neighborhood, and strongly objected to the blocky modern design, which the developers contended they are required to use to fit the building on the site.
Resident Susan O’Connell, an architect, asked the developers why there were building something that is essentially a box, when they are surrounded by an historic neighborhood with more characteristic architecture. She asked if they would be willing to make more changes, such creating more vertical townhouses with front porches.
Speaking on behalf of the developer, Amit Apel said the designers followed the City’s guidelines and came up with the best solution they could apply to the site. He noted again that they did their best and will try to put up a nice building. And he added that they removed balconies from an earlier iteration of the design, after the GWNC Land Use Committee and some neighbors expressed concerns abut neighbors’ privacy. The designers also set back the roof deck so it would not hang over the building. But, he added ” we can only do so much; we can’t reduce the height of the buildings.”
At times the conversation became contentious and personal with everyone retreating to their positions — the developers asserted they were doing their best with the project and the residents remained exasperated that the a historic house was torn down and large modern box was taking its place.
The last speaker was longtime resident Ginny Kazor, who moved into the neighborhood 48 years ago at the age of 30, and was responsible for saving the neighborhood from demolition for the construction of a freeway. Kazor, now wheelchair-bound with Parkinson’s Disease, asked asked everyone how long they have lived in the neighborhood…and a show of hands revealed that most residents in the room have lived in the area for more than 20 years.
Then Kazor turned to the developers and said, “It is a neighborhood that we love, and if you have bought anything north of Beverly, we wouldn’t be here, probably. You moved into our neighborhood, something we are so proud of. We have spent an enormous amount of time, and we will not forgive you for defacing it. I’d like to know know how you can face people like us who really care and [then] put something in you are going to walk away from with your money and, I guess, some sense of pride. This befuddles me.”
Following an ovation for Kazor, Cunningham closed the meeting. He thanked the library for providing the community room and urged everyone to attend the next meeting of the GWNC Land Use Committee, on Tuesday, August 28, at 6:30 pm at Marlborough School. The project will be on the agenda, with the developers requesting a vote of support from the the committee.