BERLIN — The Planning and Zoning Commission approved a site plan and special application for a mixed-use development, with five buildings, along a new boulevard connecting to the train station on Farmington Avenue.
"We love the scale of the development, it's very buildable. We've worked hard with the developer and contractor who's going to be building this. He's prepared to build what we see here today and I'm pleased that we've gotten this far," said project architect Thomas Arcari, principal with QA+M Architects. He spoke during the commission’s Sept. 19 meeting, when a public hearing on the application was scheduled.
A collective effort between the town and Newport Realty — a joint venture between developers Mark Lovely, of Southington, and Tony Valenti, of Newington — the project will construct around 8,400 square feet of retail space, 10,800 of office or medical area and 76 market rate apartments on vacant town-owned land at the former sites of Pioneer Precision Products and Kensington Furniture.
The boulevard, which has yet to be named, will stretch from Farmington Avenue across from Brookside Plaza to the north-eastern corner of the train station parking lot.
The next stage to be completed before construction can begin is acquiring permits from the state Department of Transportation for curb cuts, utility work and drainage along Farmington Avenue, which is a state road. The commission wasn’t anticipated to vote on the application immediately after Thursday’s public hearing, which Valenti said shaves a couple weeks off the process since DOT won’t process permits until local approval has been granted.
The final design of the buildings is the result of rounds of discussions between the town and the firm to create a development that matches the surroundings, Valenti said. Multi-story buildings were designed with elements to break up their scale and placed to instill a more dispersed appearance with carefully planned out foliage, laid out by a dedicated landscape architect.
“Any place that we build we want to make sure it kind of carries the characteristics of the neighborhood,” he said. “You don't want to do a brick building surrounded by houses that are vinyl, for example.”
The medical and office building, located around 913 Farmington Avenue on the eastern side of the boulevard, will be a two-story building with space for four tenants, depending on the configuration.
Across the boulevard, next to 883 Farmington Avenue, will be a three-story mixed use building, with 6,800 square feet of retail space on the first floor and two residential floors above with eight units on each level. Arcari said they’re aiming to have a restaurant facing Farmington Avenue with an outdoor patio.
"The goal is to have a restaurant at the corner of the building at the end of the building facing Farmington Ave,” he said. “You can see there is a proposed outdoor patio, so that there can be dining and patrons and activities right along Farmington Ave. We think this is important because it will be an attractor to the development along Farmington Avenue.”
Nestled to the north of the mixed-use building will be a small, 1,600 square foot retail building, which Lovely said would perfectly suit a coffee shop or deli servicing the area and attracting customers to the development.
The largest buildings are two four-story residential buildings, with three floors of apartments, at 20 units each, over a level of built-in parking. They’ll be conjoined by a central clock tower, which will contain a lobby, mailroom and office on the first level and a fitness room, computer room or library and a lounge above.
Arcari said the clock will pay homage to the original train station, which burned down in 2016, and will be a beacon to the development.
Construction will be split into three phases, the first being the renovation and reopening of 861 Farmington Avenue, formerly home to The Drain Doctor and Country Kitchen. The town purchased the building after environmental testing revealed that contaminated groundwater leftover from Pioneer Precision Products appeared to be flowing under the property.
By buying the land, the town could install equipment to remediate the pollution there, lessening the scope of the cleanup needed throughout the rest of the development. The purchase-and-sale agreement signed between the town and Newport stipulates that the firm will purchase the building from the town once the work is complete.
The second phase of the project will be the construction of the medical, mixed use and café-style buildings while a liner is installed under 889 Farmington Ave. — the source of the pollution — to contain organic volatile compounds in the soil.
The town’s construction of the boulevard will also likely begin on the boulevard during this stage, starting at Farmington Avenue. While the roadway’s financing is still somewhat murky as the town fills in a shortfall in the $1.4 million projected cost, the construction will likely be funded through state grants, including the reprogramming of money for renovating the train station before the fire, and money from the sale of 861, 903 and 913 Farmington Avenue to Newport.
Economic Development Coordinator Jim Mahoney said an early decision to move the boulevard east — it originally branched off Farmington Avenue across from the old Walgreens — is an example of the cooperative spirit the town and developer have shared throughout the process.
"The thing I would stress again is it's really been a partnership with Newport and the town. There's a lot of challenges to this project and if we had been working with a different type developer, I think it would be hard to work through all of those challenges. I think we're trying to stay on the same team, we're trying to achieve this result," he said.
Lovely agreed saying, "staff has been great to work with. We've had some bumps in the road, but we just keep going to get through them and we've got to get this thing to fruition.”