by Terry Rogers
On Monday, Milford City Council heard a presentation by Keith Fisher and David Perlmutter of Milford Development Associates LLC who answered a Request for Proposal (RFP) from the City. Based on the 2015 Master Plan created by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, a proposed mixed-use development along the banks of the Mispillion River across from arenas which would be called RiverPlace, was included in large-scale projects proposed in the Downtown Master Plan. The development was also included in the City’s Downtown Development District Application, identified as a Key Priority Project.
“Around the same time we submitted our Downtown Development Application, we were introduced to David Perlmutter by Senator Tom Carper and then-Governor Jack Markell,” Rob Pierce, City Planner, said. “Because we had the master plan downtown, we put out an RFP to engage developers because we could not just pick one person to deal with. We had to open it up to solicit proposals from anyone. The Planning Commission also prepared zoning amendments for this area for this project to work.”
According to Pierce, the initial proposal was for a five-story mixed-use project with commercial on the first floor and 40 market-rate apartments above. The proposal included many amenities for residents, including rooftop terraces and a fitness center. There were also two additional retail buildings proposed along the Riverwalk.
“We had some height problems under the C-2A zoning code,” Pierce said. “In addition, there was some missing detail work because there were too many unknowns at the time, including what the impacts of the flood plain, well-head protection area and other easements which would determine the footprint of the building. The project stalled due to cost issues and other projects the developer was completing. In 2018, we reviewed the Riverwalk Rebirth plan and saw that this property had potential for recreational use. Those would include a playground, splash pad, public restroom and expanded areas for the Milford Farmer’s Market.”
Pierce explained that Perlmutter reached out to the City in the spring to discuss development of the property. Perlmutter provided an updated proposal that included one, four-story building containing 28 apartment units and a swimming pool for residents. The new proposal is limited to unprotected lands owned by the City and would not impact the existing park system. However, the new proposal contains no commercial use in the building or on the site. This would not meet the requirements of a mixed-use development required under the zoning created by Planning and Zoning. Pierce felt it would be beneficial to bring Perlmutter and Fisher before Council in order to ask any questions they may have regarding the project.
“I was on Planning and Zoning when we talked about this,” Councilman Andy Fulton said. “As I recall, we looked on it favorably because it had the retail component to it. That was one of the things that really excited us on Planning and Zoning, the mixed-use aspect.”
Councilman Mike Boyle felt Council did not need to discuss the project but should focus on whether they intended to use the Riverwalk Rebirth plan or not. He did not feel it appropriate for Council to approve a project before Planning and Zoning had a chance to review it.
“I think we need to decide we follow this plan,” Councilman Boyle said. “As I recall, this was supposed to be a mixed-use facility and it looked much better than this. Are we just going to throw the plan out the window and give up some prime real estate? We will put this monolith here and we are stuck with it.”
When Fisher addressed Council, he stated that the feedback they had already received was very valuable, pointing out that the developer loves to create mixed-use developments.
“That is in their wheelhouse,” Fisher said. “This is a significant reduction in what is available as far as real estate. We could possibly look at a Phase 2 which would include mixed-use. You are correct, it is prime real estate. The developer wants to do a high-end, luxury, gated community. It would bring a tremendous amount of support downtown that needs as much help as it can get.”
Perlmutter explained that when he realized they were dealing with a smaller piece of land, they developed the residential unit only which was similar to something they did in Seaford. He felt this would work perfectly as a Phase I with other phases following.
“As we worked that avenue, we could move into Phase 2 for retail,” Perlmutter said. “This would be a gated, private community that would enable people to walk downtown. We are not here just for this little piece of land. We want to do what we have done in Seaford. We have invested $15 million along the riverfront in Seaford and we feel we could be a vital player in doing the same for Milford.”
Councilman Todd Culotta echoed the sentiments of Councilmen Boyle and Fulton, stating that this was not what was conceived in the Riverwalk Rebirth plan. He pointed out that retail would only take up the first floor and if adding floors was necessary, Council could discuss that but a residential building did not seem like the right thing for this property.
“It is already difficult for the retailers you have downtown,” Fisher said. “We don’t want to create the brand new shiny thing that would be competition. We would love to add a 10-foot higher building an d make the first floor retail. Adding retail on the first floor creates a security buffer.”
Councilman Fulton pointed out that not having commercial in the project would create a deadzone during celebrations. He stated that the petting zoo for downtown celebrations was in that area, that there were vendors placed there as well as many functions at the library.
“It is as if you are reading my mind, Councilman Fulton,” Councilman Jason James said. “Once we do this, we take away an area that is used by all the citizens of Milford. By not including retail, this space would only be for the benefit of the residents of the complex, Where would the basketball courts go? The basketball court is used by multicultural groups and it is a gathering place.” Pierce explained that the basketball courts could be moved to Franklin Street, about a block and a half away, near the Parks and Recreation Building. It could also remain where it is based on the current footprint of the building.
Councilman Dan Marabello questioned whether the façade provided in the current plan was conducive with the downtown area as the Riverwalk Rebirth plan showed buildings that were brick. Pierce stated that the drawings presented were conceptual and that Council would not be approving the final plan tonight, only allowing staff to continue discussions with the developer.
“These are the type of speculators we need to attract to Milford,” Councilman Culotta said. “The feedback from what I see is that we want some type of mixed use and we can look at being flexible for them to make an investment.”
Mayor Archie Campbell read a message he received from the Mayor of Seaford who was very pleased at the work done by Perlmutter’s company. He also pointed out that the buildings in the drawings appeared to be five stories which would not be permitted under current zoning. Councilman Culotta suggested changing the zoning if that was necessary to make it feasible.
“We really don’t want to go down that track,” Councilman Boyle said. “We can’t just throw the plans away because someone comes in with something different. If you dismiss the C2A in this area, what you are doing is hampering our long-term ability to build an attractive and vibrant Riverwalk. A big apartment building is not going to bring people downtown. I suggest we table this until after our Council retreat that is scheduled in the next few months.”
Councilman James agreed, stating that the retreat is meant to discuss Council’s vision for the City.
“At the retreat, we will talk about green space, what we want our parks to look like, how we want downtown to be,” Councilman James said. “This I s definitely something we need to discuss before we make any decisions.”
Council voted unanimously to table the discussion about the project until after their retreat which may be scheduled in January.