Milford council laments loss of mixed-use element in proposed Riverwalk development

MILFORD — A developer is interested in constructing a large apartment building on Milford’s Riverwalk, but much of City Council is hesitant about the plan.

On Monday, the council voted to table an extended discussion of the project, but numerous members made it clear they were unhappy with the elimination of the mixed-use retail space featured in earlier plans.

As explained by Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director, the city’s 10-year master plan from 2015 reimagined the green space on the south bank of the river between Washington and Franklin streets as the site of a mixed-use development.

In 2017, the city received a proposal from David Perlmutter for a five-story building with ground-level retail and 40 market rate apartments. At that time, many in the city government were excited to work with Mr. Perlmutter given his experience transforming riverfront real estate in Seaford and Salisbury, Maryland.

“We’ve already invested over $15 million in Seaford along the waterfront,” Mr. Perlmutter said during Monday’s council meeting. “We’ve assembled a lot more real estate to basically transform the downtown.”

He hopes to carry out a similar large-scale redevelopment on Milford’s Mispillion River.

“We think we could be a vital player in that in coming to Milford,” Mr. Perlmutter said.

Mayor Archie Campbell said his friend, Seaford’s Mayor David Genshaw, put in a good word for Mr. Perlmutter.

Mayor Campbell read a text from Mayor Genshaw aloud: “I believe Dave Perlmutter is before you tonight. Let me say how pleased we have been with his work in Seaford and the positive impact he has made to our downtown. Milford would benefit from the work they do.”

But Mr. Pierce said the five-story building proposed in 2017 is too tall for the special mixed-use riverfront zoning district, known as C-2A.

“This submission also lacked some more detailed work,” Mr. Pierce said. “Many of these weren’t provided by the developer because we had too many unknowns at the time, mainly the impacts of the flood plain wellhead protection area and these conservation easements that we had to try to navigate.”

Ultimately, these challenges limited the amount of land on which Mr. Perlmutter would be allowed to build, stalling the project.

But this spring, Mr. Perlmutter approached the city again with a new plan. As he and his architect, Keith Fisher, explained to the council Monday, Mr. Perlmutter wants to construct a four-story apartment building with 28 units and no ground-floor retail.

“This would be a gated private community that would enable people to live downtown and walk to the retail downtown,” Mr. Perlmutter said. “We think this would be the start of the transformation along the riverfront there.”

He sees his proposal as a first phase, which could be followed up in the future with a second portion focused on retail.

“It’s easier to do a retail development if you know there’s people there that will come to support the retail,” Mr. Fisher said. “This being Phase One would be a perfect opportunity to get the people and get the retailers more comfortable with leasing and renting.”

He also felt his design fits into the existing fabric of downtown Milford well.

“It would bring an incredible amount of support for the retail and the businesses that you already have downtown that need as much help as they can get given these current times,” Mr. Fisher said.

He said he worries about creating additional competition for the downtown business community amid a pandemic.

“That’s a consideration about not wanting to jump in and make the bright, new, shiny thing, the competition for some of those people,” Mr. Fisher said.

But Mr. Fisher said he and Mr. Perlmutter were still interested in carrying out a plan more like the one presented in 2017.

“We would love to build a 10-foot-taller building and take this ground level and put retail in,” Mr. Fisher said.

“There’s no question that walk-down apartments at grade pose some challenges from a security and privacy perspective,” he said. “Putting retail on your ground floor to separate that, to create that vertical buffer, is a home run.”

But Mayor Campbell said that “Milford probably can’t go any higher than four stories,” and the developers knew that when discussions around the project resumed.

“We didn’t want to come in here with this skyscraper, if you will, for the town and just be presumptive that we could go ahead and do that,” Mr. Fisher said. “I know there’s some connotations people get when they look at a five-story building, but given the land, the topography and the architecture, I think there may be ways we could look to make that work.”

Councilman Todd Culotta said he believes the city should be flexible on the building’s height if it meant the mixed-use retail could go in as initially planned.

“There’s a height limitation; however, that’s something we could discuss to see how we could change the charter or the code to possibly allow for it if that’s what’s necessary to make this financially feasible,” he said.

Councilman Culotta wasn’t the only member married to the original plan’s mixed-use elements.

“Without the mixed-use attached to this, I just feel we’re losing a lot from the Riverwalk,” said Councilman Andrew Fulton. “I would hate to see that type of real estate lose all its retail value by becoming purely residential at that area.”

He added that, at present, the open space on the lot gets used heavily during Milford’s numerous annual festivals.

“Every festival we have encompasses this whole area,” Councilman Fulton said. “This area would almost be a dead zone during most celebrations by just having a large apartment complex right there without having any amenities for people to actually go to.”

Councilman Jason James wondered what would happen with the recreational facilities currently located on the lot.

“Where are we going to move the basketball court to?” he asked. “It’s used by a multicultural, multiethnic group of people. It’s a gathering place.”

Councilman James said that building an apartment complex “there without any other retail opportunities, it’s only available for those that live in the apartments. The use has been taken away from every other citizen of Milford.”

Councilman Mike Boyle said he felt the city needed to reflect on the master plan outlined in 2015 and decide if it wants to continue following it.

“We need to reaffirm or dismiss the C-2A zoning,” he said. “We can’t just throw the plans away because somebody comes in with something different, because the zone was developed with a lot of forethought and a lot of research.”

Councilman Boyle said the city only has one chance to develop a vibrant and attractive Riverwalk.

“If it’s an apartment building, it’s not doing anything to enhance the intent of that Riverwalk, to bring people into town,” he said.

“We can’t develop a good vibrant Downtown Development District if we’re going to basically turn these into residences with no other retail,” he added. “We need a reason to bring people into town, and a big apartment building by itself as an exception to the zoning requirement isn’t going to do it.”

The members of council will continue their conversation about the property at the group’s upcoming retreat and future meetings.