Rift emerges between borough, developers

Parcel C at the corner of Maple and Water streets in Naugatuck. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Developer John Lombard said he was frustrated with the Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation’s decision to deny proposed changes to his Parcel C plans.

“We’re all sitting here scratching our heads saying what are these people doing,” Lombard said last Friday.

Lombard had requested cutting the size of the Saint Mary’s Hospital building at the corner of Cedar and Water streets by half, to 15,000 square feet, while adding a 24,000-square-foot building which would have 8,000 square feet on the ground floor and two stories of apartments.

The borough had approved a plan for a 30,000-square-foot building with Saint Mary’s as the main tenant and another 5,000-square-foot building.

Lombard’s proposal would have increased the total size of the buildings by 4,000 square feet, but the smaller building would have been built first.

The site has been empty since 1980 and is considered an eyesore at the gateway to downtown. Lombard said he and his partner, Rob Oris, worked hard to secure a tenant.

“No developer is going to build on spec,” Lombard said.

Lombard accused the NEDC with holding up the project, spending months deciding on what color the building should be.

“They’re micromanaging architectural work,” Lombard said. “This is pretty much just the whim of commissioners.”

In the four years since Saint Mary’s signed on to the project, Lombard said a lot has changed — Saint Mary’s was bought out by Trinity, the state budget for hospitals was cut by $195 million and a new president is promising to replace Obamacare.

Although Trinity is still willing to go forward with the project, he said the hospital wants the building to itself, with no other tenants above or a restaurant next to it.

In an email, President of Franklin Medical Group and Chief Medical Officer of Saint Mary’s Hospital Steven Schneider said the hospital remains committed to the project.

“Saint Mary’s requirements for this project have been consistent, and are based on our current services in Naugatuck and our anticipated needs for the future. Our affiliation with Trinity Health has not changed those requirements. We had always planned to take about 15,000 square feet,” Schneider said.

Schneider said St. Mary’s is also prepared to meet the state budget difficulties with a “very robust strategic planning process that considers these challenges and allows us to move towards the future with relative confidence.”

Schneider said the hospital already has a successful medical practice based in the borough and that St. Mary’s is going to stick with Naugatuck even if plans are delayed.

“Our commitment to Naugatuck remains deep,” Schneider said. “We were excited about participating in the redevelopment of downtown Naugatuck, and if the opportunity for us to participate in that redevelopment is not available, we will always be part of the Naugatuck community.”

Lombard said he plans to come back to the NEDC with alternate plans for a 30,000-square-foot building in a different configuration. Any new plans would need to be approved by the NEDC and the Zoning Commission.

“If they disapprove that, God knows where we go from there,” Lombard said.

He said borough officials would have to explain to the public why they turned away a tenant and left the land empty.

Lombard said he’s looking at two stories and 20,000 square feet in Saint Mary’s portion of the building with another 10,000 square feet of first floor retail space in a separate wing.

Only half of the roughly two-acre site is available for building because of environmental issues, Lombard said, limiting his options.

Lombard said he’s spoken with dozens of potential tenants and has interest in restaurant or retail space, but not professional or medical space.

If he built to the original plan, Lombard said the space would remain empty, slowing down plans to develop other empty parcels in Naugatuck.

“They want you to invest $3 million and get no return off it. We’re not going anywhere. We’re trying to get this done, but we’re definitely not going to build something that’s heading for disaster financially,” Lombard said.

NEDC Chairwoman Rebecca Zandvliet said she was surprised that Lombard was surprised by the no vote.

“We’ve been very clear what was acceptable,” Zandvliet said. “It sounds like more of a problem that they have rather than us being unreasonable. The main thing is that we want an impressive building there.”

Lombard claimed he approached the NEDC several months ago and told them the new owner of Saint Mary’s may want to make changes, but Zandvliet disputed that.

She said the borough met with Saint Mary’s six to eight weeks ago and there was no indication they’d want to change course.

The decision to change plans days after the closing on the sale of the property “doesn’t feel like it’s in good faith,” Zandvliet said.

“We feel like we’re playing with a bully,” Zandvliet said.

Lombard said he was disappointed that neither he nor Oris were invited to the NEDC’s meeting on April 17 where the proposed changes were voted down.

NEDC President and CEO Ron Pugliese said not inviting Lombard or Oris was not meant to be an insult to the developers. Rather, he said, it gave the board a chance to openly discuss how it wanted to move forward with the proposal.

“I think we just did not feel it was necessary. It was a discussion with the mayor and burgesses in executive session. It was certainly no slight to John and Rob,” Pugliese said.

Both Zandvliet and Pugleise said they would consider a new proposal if it still meets the needs of the borough.

“We’ll consider anything as long as it is 30,000 square feet and full brick,” Pugliese said.

The borough sold the property, which sits at the corner of Maple and Water streets, to the developers for $150,000, which Zandvliet characterized as “nominal” because the development would benefit the town.

“We’ll take a look at whatever he wants to bring forward. If it meets the needs, we don’t have a problem modifying,” Zandvliet said. “We are not just going to roll over because that’s something they decided after the final hour that they want. It’s got to be in Naugatuck’s best interest.”

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess declined to comment, saying that he did not think it was appropriate to the debate the issue in the media.

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.