Milford City Council favors park over new apartments

MILFORD — For the second time this month, City Council discussed the fate of a piece of city-owned parkland on the Riverwalk at its Monday meeting.

On Oct. 12, council members heard a presentation from developer David Perlmutter about potential plans to construct a four-story apartment building off Washington Street, behind The Salvation Army and next to the basketball court.

The proposal was back up for debate this week.

“This is a follow-up from our workshop a couple of weeks ago,” said Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director. “We wanted to bring this back before City Council and just kind of get some general guidance.”

Mr. Pierce said his main question was: “Does the council want the city to entertain development on this land of any kind or would it rather keep it for open space and recreational purposes?”

Much of the council had already expressed serious trepidations about the project given the lack of mixed-use retail, which had been featured in the 2017 version of the plan, but this week, most of the council opposed the project for a different reason.

“My first thoughts when we talked last time were that apartments alone wouldn’t quite work,” Councilman Todd Culotta said.

But after talking to his constituents, he decided the area should remain a park.

“We only get one chance to utilize open space, and if we give that up, it’s gone forever,” Councilman Culotta said, “so I’d like to see it remain open space.”

Vice Mayor Jason James had a similar take.

“Once you give up public open space, you can’t get it back, and this is an area that’s currently used frequently by the public,” he said. “It does need some enhancements to attract more people, to make it more usable, but it should remain public land for public use.”

In addition to having the existing basketball court remain where it is, Councilman Culotta and other members recommended the addition of a playground or a splash pad.

“That would attract families, foot traffic and a variety of things downtown,” Councilman Culotta said.

Councilman Doug Morrow agreed.

“I’d like to keep it open, especially if we’re going to give it to a developer for nothing,” he said. “I’d rather not do that at all. I’d rather keep it open space. I think that’ll attract just as many people.”

Councilman Morrow added that the land “will be a good spot to have some areas for food trucks when we have these festivals, and it is the center of town for these festivals.”

Councilwoman Katrina Wilson had a slightly different take on the issue.

“I don’t disagree with council at all, and I’m willing to agree if the majority want to keep it open space for recreation,” she said, but “I kind of like both scenarios.”

Councilwoman Wilson said she initially supported an earlier iteration of the project when it was first proposed in 2017.

“I still don’t think it’s a bad idea, but I wanted more of a mixed community down there, where it could be shopping, living and recreation,” she said. “It was something we thought would allow us to exercise our growth and bring a lot of individuals in who like that type of lifestyle.”

Councilwoman Wilson said some of her constituents had expressed a lot of excitement about the project.

“A lot of these people have lived in Milford all their lives, young millennials, and they were very excited about this development going downtown and thought it would definitely be a great attribute for the city,” she said.

However, she “wasn’t that pleased with the development itself, what they presented to us,” she said, and “would definitely never want to see the basketball courts gone and space for walking gone.”

Some members of council felt the city is lacking a cogent vision for the development of the riverfront.

Councilman Mike Boyle suggested that council conduct “an overview of all the properties that are open, private or public, within the Riverwalk district and look at them and provide some guidance for (Mr. Pierce) and others on what our vision is. We don’t have a vision right now. We’re reacting to any builder that comes in.”

Vice Mayor James agreed that more discussion is needed.

“This is the very reason why, when we last spoke on this particular area, that I did suggest … we make this an agenda item along with an overall vision for all of our properties when we have our (upcoming) retreat,” he said.

Mayor Archie Campbell agreed that the council should “put this as one of the high priorities” during its approaching retreat, tentatively planned for November, and future council meetings.