|By Claire Bessette, The Day, New London,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 20, 2008 - NORWICH -- A proposed 18-story hotel and accompanying parking garage cleared its first hurdle Tuesday with the approval of four zoning variances needed before the developers could seek other permits for the $40 million project that could transform the city's waterfront.
The project calls for an 18-story, 240-room hotel on property adjacent to the Marina at American Wharf and a 400-space parking garage that would span the east branch of the Yantic River, occupying land on both the Hollyhock Island side and the mainland, where Putts Up Dock miniature golf course is now located.
The hotel also would have a 700-seat convention hall, full-service restaurant and an indoor pool.
The Zoning Board of Appeals, after two hours of public hearings, approved all four variance applications unanimously, allowing the hotel project to move forward.
Developer PRA Development and Management Corp. of Philadelphia still needs city planning permits and state and federal environmental permits.
The hearings addressed numerous issues -- some of which, such as traffic and pollution, were not under the jurisdiction of the zoning board -- and several people who spoke against the project represented the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.
Bart Pacekonis of South Windsor, business representative and organizer for the union, presented the board with a petition he said was signed by 13 Norwich residents against the proposed hotel. Several residents of other towns also signed it.
Attorney Theodore Phillips, who represents the developers, told the zoning board that the union leader had called his client prior to the hearing trying to secure work for the union on the project. Phillips said he would not be "bullied" by the attempt.
Several Norwich residents also questioned various aspects of the project, the largest waterfront development in Norwich since the marina was built in the 1980s.
Resident Keith Ripley, although he spoke during opposition time at the hearing, said he was neither in favor nor against the project. But he expressed concern about fire protection and whether there would be enough room on the cramped property for fire trucks. He noted that the recent small roof fire at Foxwoods Resort Casino brought 17 different departments to the scene.
Phillips said that while the four properties involved in the construction appear cramped, the entire marina property would remain open and accessible to emergency vehicles, public gatherings and public access to the waterfront.
The hotel would be surrounded by a public pathway, and the existing Norwich Heritage Walkway that lines the Yantic Riverbank would remain intact.
Gabriel Lara of 61 Lincoln Ave., near Norwich Free Academy, said he was concerned how an 18-story structure would affect the views of the harbor from various vantage points. Zoning board members also questioned the aesthetics and views.
Phillips and Project Engineer Thomas Cummings said the final project has not yet been designed, but the height of the four-story parking garage would be minimized by the low-lying harbor property. Traffic on Route 82-West Main Street heading toward downtown would see the garage at first, but as the road ends with a steep climb to the intersection at Washington Square, the garage would rise only several feet above the roadway.
Phillips said the hills that surround the harbor -- the Jail Hill, Laurel Hill and Mountain Avenue neighborhoods -- all would look down on the hotel and garage.
"You're not going to see this from NFA," he said.
Phillips said the four-story hotel garage would be much lower than the height of the two-story parking garage on Water Street that accompanies the Mercantile Exchange office complex.
And eyes would be drawn to the 18-story hotel adjacent to the garage, he said, dwarfing the garage.
"This will be a beacon for people to come to Norwich," Phillips said. "It will be a crown jewel to people coming up the river by boat."
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Copyright (c) 2008, The Day, New London, Conn.
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