Dozens show support for downtown zoning changes

A rendering of the development project looking east on Corbin Drive

A rendering of the development project looking east on Corbin Drive

Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing regarding Baywater Properties downtown redevelopment project on Tuesday night, inviting the public to comment on proposed zone changes.

A large crowd turned out to discuss the project, with dozens donning baseball caps provided by Baywater Properties to show their support for the redevelopment. Others questioned the proposed scale of the project, and how a redeveloped downtown would impact the character of the town as a whole.

The redevelopment site stretches from the Bank of America building on Post Road to Darien’s Post Office on Corbin Drive. Baywater is seeking changes to allow for buildings of up to six stories, underground parking, and slightly smaller parking spaces. As it stands, zoning regulations allow buildings of three stories at most, with a maximum height of 45 feet.

While nearly all of Tuesday night’s speakers acknowledged that the area was ripe for redevelopment, the main question was how far, or rather how high, the town was willing to go to create change downtown. Comments were restricted solely to the proposed zoning changes, as the site plan requires certain zoning allowances before it can be properly considered.

The site’s tallest building would be six stories high, with an height of 85 feet, as amended by Baywater. Other buildings at the site would range between three stories (55 feet) and five stories (75 feet). As an added part of the zoning changes, building height in the downtown area would be calculated without including flagpoles, cupolas and other rooftop fixtures. This differs from the rest of Darien, where those structures would be factored into the height.

Baywater Principal David Genovese described the project’s goals, which include providing new housing stock for retired adults and empty nesters, creating more appealing retail space and alleviating downtown parking and traffic issues. The zoning changes also require Baywater to provide public plaza space, and would lead to the establishment of a town green on Post Road. He said the project seeks to emphasize the pedestrian and discourage extra traffic in the area.

“We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the zoning regulations in place today are based on ones from 70 years ago,” Genovese said on Tuesday. “Our founding fathers did not have the same objectives that we had today.”

The Planning & Zoning Commission has identified both downtown Darien and Noroton Heights as priority areas for redevelopment, and are currently reviewing zoning changes for both areas. Commissioners asked Baywater to provide more information on the proposed building heights, as well as renderings of the projects from different angles. Comments and critiques of the zoning changes were left to the public on Tuesday.

Erica Jensen, owner of Helen Ainson, spoke in support of the project, telling the commission that she believed the new retail space would do a better job of capturing shoppers from neighboring communities like New Canaan and Stamford. Located on Post Road, Helen Ainson is a part of the proposed redevelopment site and Jensen said that the scarcity of parking downtown had driven customers away at times. Baywater has promised to retain the existing shops in the area, and will help relocate the businesses during the construction process.

Chamber of Commerce Director Susan Cator also voiced her support for redevelopment. She said that younger families that were new to Darien were interested in a walkable downtown, and that the project fulfills the needs of downtown. Cator said that the project’s design was “cohesive,” and would help enhance Darien’s shopping experience.

“We need unique shops, we need a reason for consumers to look and for them to experience,” Cator said.

Those who were not in support of the zoning changes expressed concerns with the project’s size and density. With the maximum building height potentially nearly doubling as a result of the changes, some questioned the impact on nearby residential roads and neighborhoods. Others questioned why the project would be afforded such unique and major zoning changes when compared to a standard homeowner.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the downtown area should be developed, I think it’s a question of the scope and degree,” resident Walter Casey said. He added that he felt the town already has sufficient retail space.

A few neighbors close to the project said they were excited for the project and the change to the downtown aesthetics. Resident John Ruddy, who lives across from where the six story building is being proposed, said that with I-95 already providing a backdrop, he couldn’t see any downside to the new building.

Longtime resident and former New Canaanite Clifford DeForest asked that the commission work with Baywater as the risk in the redeveloping downtown lies primarily with the developer.

“It’s gonna make money for the community, it’s going to bring people here, and we’re not losing a thing. And they’re rolling the dice.” DeForest said. “You’ve gotta give them some consideration on this, because I think Darien will go forward”

Earlier in the meeting Genovese said he considers the associated risk everyday, and has grown a few grey hairs since the process began. Still, he remains optimistic about Baywater’s plan.

Public hearing for the downtown zoning changes will continue at the July 12 Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, but emails can also be sent to the Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg at [email protected] For more information on Baywater’s downtown redevelopment project, visit http://yourdowntowndarien.com

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  • Nute Gunray

    It would be really cool if DT could independently report on how much vacant retail space there is currently in town – how much demand there is for more retail space – and where that demand is coming from. And by that I mean not running back to Mr. Genovese to get the figures…

    I realize this is only incrementally more retail space but the potential for under-utilization exists…

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