LETTER | St. Luke’s Parking Garage

It’s no exaggeration to say that St. Luke’s School’s proposal to build a private above ground 200 car parking garage in a residential zone threatens all of New Canaan.

Why? Because in order for St. Luke’s to push this through, the school needs to change an important subsection of residential zoning for the entire town. 

For the record, I’ve never had any complaints about St. Luke’s. I’ll admit, from where I sit on Laurel Road, I barely knew they were there. 

But it upsets me that such an ill-conceived text amendment to New Canaan’s zoning would be contrived for the benefit of teenagers from Greenwich and Westport. 

Like most places, New Canaan doesn’t allow high-capacity parking garages in neighborhoods: “Parking structures, whether detached or attached, shall not be permitted, except in a Business or Retail Zone.” (Section 6.2.F.6)

So, in order to grant St. Luke’s this very special special permit to build an 80,000 square foot parking structure, P&Z must also pass a broad text amendment to make us the first town in Fairfield county to allow high-capacity parking garages in residential zones. P&Z must also exempt parking garages from coverages as there is a playing surface on the roof. That means any building with a roof can be exempted from coverage. 

Every tennis court, field or lawn is now a potential parking garage. I suppose P&Z will also discover that with the right doors, any one story can fit a car….so I guess New Canaan will no longer have coverage limits? 

When New Canaan tax-payers went to POCD meetings asking for “Open Space,” no reasonable person can believe they wanted fields to be replaced by parking garages. 

I hope you write a letter or email to P&Z begging them not to alter such a sensible regulation. In the words of one neighbor: “Go to bat for the home team.” 

Here’s St. Luke’s threat: “If you don’t change the law and become the first town in Fairfield to allow parking garages in residential zones and if you don’t become the first town to allow a 200 car parking garage with no sewer connection 1,000 feet from a drinking water reservoir…then we’ll be forced to add normal paved parking and that will be ugly.” 

Well, sorry St. Luke’s. Those paved spots won’t be ugly because New Canaan doesn’t let you build ugly parking spots. 

For starters, surface level parking lot won’t have 24 hour motion activated lighting. It can be properly shaded. It can be made even greener with the addition of a “bioswale,” an attractive kind of landscaping which catches harmful tire chemicals like those our experts presented before the town. To be clear, the tire chemicals come from cars, so don’t let St. Luke’s talk your ear off about virgin rubber. 

It’s important to note that St. Luke’s is illegally parking 30 or so cars on their tennis courts. 

Their board chair from Southport also argues we should rewrite residential zoning laws if it brings them into compliance. Let’s put that entitlement aside for a moment and talk about the additional 140 cars.

The school points to a theory that parking will prevent more trips to campus. In reality teenagers who drive themselves will decide how many trips they want to make—running out for lunch or after school before sports practice—racing back on curvy roads with poor sight lines. 

 But 140 additional cars plus the 30 illegally parked cars is only 170 cars? Yes…this 200 car parking garage can no longer fit 200 cars because St. Luke’s can’t measure the length of a parking spot. It’s one of several embarrassing revisions with many more to come.

That’s known as “workshopping” and they’ve workshopped these plans all over Town Hall. At one point, they wanted it below ground, but the Fire Marshall shut that down, so now it’s above ground and open, dumping light, noise and exhaust into a pristine woods. It’s also cantilevered over the woods, so none of the normal safeguards for preventing visual impact or light pollution will work here. Next stop, the wetlands office. 

While it’s commendable to help residents navigate a complex process, it’s bad public policy to participate in lengthy back and forth with sloppy applications. 

As we have seen with St. Luke’s misuse of a First Water District peer review that they initially failed, with each draft and revision of plans, the town accrues more risk. Engineering information gets more complicated. Remember, there’s no “up to code” on an experimental structure. With workshopping, mistakes get missed, new engineering additions are not thoroughly vetted, and seemingly minor plan changes can have large public impact. While the applicant enjoys the transfer of development costs to local taxpayers, those taxpayers don’t get to make oral comments on the revisions. Worse, when this extensive back forth is referenced in public hearings, it undermines the transparency New Canaan voters say they want.

So, if you’re applying for an illegally zoned football-field sized parking garage with a cantilever drilled to a ledge over a wetlands setback draining to Grupes reservoir, and you’re asking P&Z to change the law, you should hand in perfect plans. 

These plans are imperfect.

For example, St. Luke’s offers zero engineering data to describe how they will drill this behemoth to the ledge or if the load will do to neighboring foundations. The school’s answer to almost every question is that it will be mapped out after permitting. We struggle to understand why a private school mandated with educating children is attempting to invent a Frankenstein experimental structure driven by space limitations instead of common sense. Novel structures have a hard time making the jump from a glossy rendering to our three-dimensional reality. It’s relevant that this Southport-board-chair-real-estate-developer also moonlights as a fiction writer. 

No humor can make light of St. Luke’s stunningly irresponsible application. 

Zoning regulations against parking garages in residential neighborhoods exist in part to protect well-water. 

A parking garage cantilevered over a wetlands setback is to our knowledge unprecedented. Not in Fairfield county or anywhere else. To paraphrase the Yale wetlands expert I spoke with: “They want to build this in New Canaan?”

Yes, St. Luke’s school wants to make New Canaan famous for an idea so stupid, no one has even tried it. 

When a wetlands commissioner asked if a sand filter was a typical water treatment for a parking garage, St. Luke’s admitted that parking garages are “traditionally” attached to sewer systems. I would add that planes “traditionally” land on runways. 

It should concern you that the lawyer for the school objected to the entry of the newly released 2024 water quality manual into the record. When building this experimental design, the school says New Canaan must stick to the bare minimum of the 2013 water quality manual. Unfortunately for New Canaan and St. Luke’s, this suggestion that we ignore water quality is on YouTube. 

How did we get here? 

St. Luke’s unchecked violations and development have been rubber-stamped by previous P&Z boards, so the current board inherits a mess of special permit violations, grandfathered clauses, and overdevelopment. 

This problem isn’t their fault, but they shouldn’t let inertia disrupt rational thinking. 

This application is a wild overreach for a minor problem. St. Luke’s needs to fix their football field and do better with 3pm traffic to get the permit. Great, let’s do both those things. There are 10,000 better ways to improve that traffic flow on to campus and we 100% support their desire to put in a fancy new PFAS-free field. 

But if this text amendment passes, we’re all in trouble. 

Love of nature, darkness and seclusion are among the reasons people come to New Canaan. If you’re asking why I bought a house next to a school, the answer is that our three acre plot is adjacent to wetlands and an unlit football field. Again, at present, I barely notice St. Luke’s. 

Here’s the only real question: Why should the Town be willing to go on this adventure? What’s in it for New Canaan? 

New Canaan wants more parking downtown. We want preservation of open space. We want to preserve the pristine woods that inspired our mid-century architects. We want sustainable development that doesn’t wash our homes in light and sound pollution. I don’t recall anyone begging for parking garages in residential zones in our 2024 POCD. Most of all, New Canaan voters don’t want outside actors changing our local laws. 

Sarah Pierce

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