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Our Changing Streetscapes

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You may not recognize Anthony Amicucci and Jay Ross by sight, but if you’ve driven downtown lately, you know their work.

For the last three years, the two men and other like-minded developers have been remaking once-sleepy Milbank Avenue, its environs and the Fourth Ward across the Post Road into the hottest real estate market in a town known for hot real estate. By building high-end, jewel-box condominiums around Greenwich Avenue, then marketing them aggressively, often to backcountry empty nesters looking to downsize while staying local, they have been able to fetch sale prices between $2 million and $4 million a unit, far in excess of what the market for such small-lot dwellings drew a few years before. “If there weren’t a demand for the product, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Amicucci explains.

Yet, not everyone in town appreciates their work. For every pricey condo that goes up, something must come down. Too often, many argue, it is a piece of classic Greenwich, say a stately Victorian on Milbank Avenue with an expansive lawn, now replaced by an imposing brick wallface with nary a front entrance in sight. The new buildings are bigger, too, often squeezing in every inch of floor area that town zoning allows.

“You had these great old houses with front porches that were very inviting, that harkened back to an era when all the merchants on Greenwich Avenue lived there,” notes Christopher Holbrook, who works on preservation issues with the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich and sees a growing development problem in Greenwich: oversize buildings built right into the street.

Streetscape has become a buzzword for Holbrook and others who lament both the rapidity and scale of new development — not just the downtown projects of Amicucci and Ross but also work all over Greenwich, from the McMansions of the backcountry to the sideways-positioned duplexes of Chickahominy to the postage-stamp manors popping up around Old Greenwich.

Amicucci and Ross concede no aesthetic ground to their critics. What they are doing, they say, is not destroying streetscapes but rather creating better ones. “The old stock of homes built eighty, a hundred years ago, they were probably built for more of a blue-collar type of person,” Ross says. “There was not as much attention paid to architectural detail. I’m not saying there aren’t old houses that are interesting. But up to this point, the houses we have taken down really have had no interest, other than one single-family home on Connecticut Avenue, which we duplicated [as a two-unit condominium] because we loved the design so much.”

Adds Amicucci, speaking of the downtown area: “I don’t see anything that was taken down that wasn’t replaced with something that wasn’t an improvement.”

It’s an unarguable point from a cash perspective, and perhaps other perspectives, too. Paul Pugliese, longtime chairman of the town’s Architectural Review Committee, notes some impressive designs since the passion for new-construction housing began in earnest some four years ago. “The built environment is being built, if nothing else, to a very high quality, regardless of what people think of the size of the homes,” Pugliese says. “They are being built with high-quality materials, very detailed, something you don’t see where people are combining the largest interior space with the least cost.”

In Greenwich, the equation seems rather to combine the largest interior space with the greatest cost. Amicucci and Ross’s newest project is a single-family house, not a condo, on Church Street in the Fourth Ward going up next to the Town & Country apartment building. Modeled on a tony townhouse one might find on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, its 5,500 square feet of living space is decked out with such accoutrements as heated floors and a home theater. Ross calls it “the next generation” in upscale residential downtown living and projects a selling price between $4.5 million and $5 million, maybe more. Amicucci concedes people may think them crazy for such a scheme, but the same was true when he and another team constructed Arbor Rose on East Elm Street, perhaps the most mind-bending condominium project in its day for the price, and quite successful.

Tony Bellantoni has been building houses in Greenwich for twenty-five years, and of late has been taking his work in the Greenwich backcountry to another level, as well. “Fifteen years ago, you would build a regular Colonial, not fancy work like today, especially on the inside,” he notes. “Now you have crown moldings, twelve to fourteen inches wide, whereas before it was like a little strip. Or take tumbled marble: You never used that like you do now. You had shiny marble then.”

Doug Stevens, president of the realty firm Greenwich Fine Properties, notes an evolution in housing stock commensurate with a real estate market where the total dollar amount of all homes sold rose from $116 million in 1976 to $2.14 billion last year. “First, we need to understand and accept that this phenomenon is at least in part a result of the incredible desirability of living in Greenwich,” he says. “There are two fundamental components of real estate appraisal, physical obsolescence and functional obsolescence. The houses of the 1950s and 1960s — ranches, split-levels, those types of homes — in most cases simply don’t make the grade on either value scale. It’s much like natural selection in the real estate world.”

Just as natural selection eventually caught up to the dodo and the trilobite, some of Greenwich’s older houses have disappeared in the wake of this new housing boom. According to Susan Richardson, chairman of the town Historic District Commission, seventy-five houses over sixty years old were torn down in 2005, three times the number five years before.

“People say all the time: ‘You don’t like this house being knocked down? You take it. You move it somewhere,’ ” notes Richardson. “They don’t understand that where a house is built has historic importance. The streetscape has importance more than the individual house.”

Franklin Bloomer Jr., chairman of the Representative Town Meeting’s Land Use Committee, is concerned about the changing streetscape around his own neighborhood in Old Greenwich and other parts of town. “Greenwich is being remade,” he says. “There is no hesitation by builders to tear down whatever stands in the way of a house that maxes out the size they are permitted to put on that piece of land. Some very distinctive houses that make Greenwich the quality type of place it is are being destroyed.”

Bloomer calls the newer houses “a caricature of the New York Times image” of Greenwich — ritzy, upscale, big-money. “It [Greenwich] was not a glitzy place, but it’s becoming that, with what builders call in unguarded moments ‘trophy houses,’ without architectural distinction.”

In western Greenwich, too, residents see cause for alarm. Joseph Pecora, a Chickahominy resident who, as Pecora Brothers, Inc. with his brother Sylvester, is developing several area properties, notes the loss of many older homes there, sometimes for the best, too often not. “People have been tearing down houses, putting boxes up, not necessarily caring, just trying to max out the FAR [floor-area ratio, as prescribed by town zoning] and the market value,” he says. “The property doesn’t necessarily warrant the size or the design.”

Most often, he says, it happens when an old, single-family house in an R-6 zone, which permits two-family dwellings, is torn down and replaced with a larger structure designed to accommodate a duplex. In order to get the most out of the lot, the houses are built sideways, the front turned away from the street and facing along the inside property line. “You see examples in Pemberwick, Byram and Chickahominy,” Pecora says. “And some guys are doing a nice job. But the streetscape is totally destroyed.”

Town Planner Diane Fox identifies the Milbank area and the Fourth Ward as areas where streetscapes are being altered most critically, but agrees there are concerns about similar changes all over town. Last May, subdivision rules were altered, ending a free-cut provision that condominium developers had used to add extra units to their downtown projects, but she says there is little else the town can do.

“People want bigger buildings, and that’s what’s being built,” says Fox. “Some people have said we should have contextual zoning, block-by-block, according to the look of each streetscape, but that’s an uneven handling of zoning. There are issues from a legal standpoint when you talk about contextual zoning. When you allow one block to have one setback, you throw everything up for grabs.”