WALLINGFORD — The Zoning Board of Appeals this week shot down plans for a new admissions building at Choate Rosemary Hall that would have included underground parking and keeping the property at the intersection of Christian and North Elm Street mostly “green.”
The proposal needed a variance from the town’s 40-foot setback requirement. Choate officials told the board that the main reason for the variance is that the property line skews 12 feet from the road in front of that property, making it impossible to keep to the 40-foot property line requirement. The plans called for the building to be 13 feet from the property line and 43.2 from the edge of the building to the road.
But board members rejected the argument, saying that the prestigious private school had ample alternatives on its expansive campus and that adding another building that is non-compliant with zoning regulations is unacceptable.
The new admission building “has become a critical element in the long range planning and success of Choate,” its attorney Dennis Ceneviva told the board.
“This location allows us to build this building with an underground parking lot,” he said. “It allows us to keep a very large piece of land green, with no asphalt, no retaining walls, nothing, where you would typically see a large parking lot.”
It also would have allowed them to eliminate another parking lot, returning that site to grass, Ceneviva said.
The school was initially supposed to go before the board in July but that was continued to the September meeting. The board did not meet in August.
“Why do you need an underground parking lot when you already have a parking lot?” asked ZBA Vice Chairman Raymond Rys.
The school saw the construction of the new admission building as an opportunity to get rid of the old lot and make it a green spot. The school has outgrown the space currently used as admission offices, which was a former infirmary, Ceneviva said.
“Instead of piecing together new space, we want an attractive building in the center of the campus that is compatible with all the other buildings at that site,” he said. “It’s not that we are ignoring your regulations. We are here because we recognize that we need your assistance. This is the location that fits best after years of looking at what alternatives exist. When they looked at it from a strategic perspective over the last couple of years, this location seemed to make the most sense.”
“It’s obvious the admission building should be easy to find and it should be located in the center of our campus so that when prospective families arrive at the corner of Christian Street and North Elm Street they know where to go,” said Choate CFO Patrick Durbin. The location was chosen because the building would fit in the neighborhood aesthetic of a New England town, he said.
“We are very lucky and proud to be in such a vibrant town as Wallingford. Just as Wallingford touts Choate on its website, Choate touts Wallingford on our own website,” he said. “If we were to build the building by conforming to the setback, this building would be the outlier as nearly every building on North Elm Street between Center Street and High Street sits closer to the road and it would make this building be the one that sticks out as nonconforming to the neighborhood.”
But after hearing opposition from the public, the board members agreed that was not enough of a hardship to qualify the application for a variance.
“Choate Rosemary Hall, without a doubt, has put Wallingford on the map,” said board member Bruce Conroy. “Visitors enjoy a pristine-looking campus who supports local businesses, merchants and restaurants. North Elm Street and Christian Street is the most feared intersection in Wallingford and you cannot have enough eyes to safely navigate through that intersection. There is no real hardship to have a building of this size on the site and there are plenty of other open spaces where it can go. I cannot support this application.”
CORRECTION: This story was corrected to reflect the proper setbacks in the application and the fact that the board continued the application from its July meeting without school officials appearing before them.