Local developer Baywater Properties has revealed a new design for the Corbin Project, a proposed redevelopment for downtown Darien spanning 11 acres of property from the Bank of America on Post Road to the Darien Post Office on Corbin Drive. The project, which has adopted the moniker “Your Downtown Darien,” would transform the existing properties into a mixed-use development including apartments, office space, retail shops and restaurants.
Despite earning approval from Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission earlier this year for buildings of up to five stories and 70 feet in the site area, Baywater has chosen to redesign the project with smaller buildings and a less aggressive parking and traffic design. Under the new proposal nearly all of the buildings will match those existing downtown at three-stories tall with just one four-story building setback from the Post Road.
In addition to smaller buildings the new proposal has a smaller overall impact on the area. Instead of the village green on Post Road that featured prominently in the original proposal, the Corbin Project now features a small market lane and green space that will be tucked between the Post Road and Old Kings Highway. The space can also be enclosed to allow for public gatherings and events without through traffic on the back street. The new proposal calls for a mix of street level and above ground parking as well as a single level underground parking deck, rather than the two-level underground deck originally proposed.
Speaking to the Times last week Baywater Principal David Genovese, a longtime Darien resident, described the project as his legacy. Along with partner Penny Glassmeyer he has worked since 2007 to purchase the properties that comprise the Corbin Project. Baywater is already responsible for some of the more modern developments downtown including the Grove Street Plaza and the building at 1020 Post Road.
Adopting the name “Your Downtown Darien,” the project has a stated goal of improving the quality of life for all Darien residents and a focus on preserving local business. Genovese said the decision to overhaul the Corbin Project was not motivated by zoning constraints; it was inspired by new developments in the realms of retail and transportation as well as the project’s long term impact on Darien.
“It’s easy to get caught in your head, because you’ve got a plan, you’ve got a vision, you’ve got a buy-in,” Genovese said. “It’s not easy to layout a project like I did over 18 months with my entire town and total transparency. Spending all the money to design that; then deciding to throw that in the garbage can because the world is changing quickly. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”
Baywater’s original design incorporated a single five-story building with three-story buildings lining the post road and four-story buildings along Corbin Drive. To satisfy the increased density of the project Baywater also proposed a two-level underground parking deck with more than 700 spaces. In addition to new streets for increased pedestrian traffic and access to the deck, the proposal featured a large village green space facing the Post Road.
Following the approval of the project’s overlay zone, Baywater’s design team began developing a site plan. As they began running logistics on the cost of the underground parking it was found that the deck might cost 50 to 70 percent more than originally expected due to the added cost of amenities like high quality lighting and multiple elevators for easy access. Considering mounting costs and a $525 million mall, The Sono collection, now expected to open in Norwalk in 2019, Genovese was led to reflect on the viability of the Corbin Project’s original proposal. Knowing that local businesses are already working hard to keep their doors open, Genovese said trying to push the cost of redevelopment onto his tenants was not an option.
“We know that a lot of retailers are closing, you can see a lot of vacancies on Greenwich Avenue, on Westport’s Main Street,” Genovese said. “We work with our tenants to keep the storefronts full, but you can see there hasn’t really been a new retail store… because the internet is hurting retail right now and people are really struggling to figure out what to do.”
Seeing both retail and transportation as rapidly changing markets, Genovese questioned the project’s original commitment to an underground parking deck that may not be needed in the future. As ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft gain popularity and driverless cars approach the verge of deployment, the shelf life of a multi-level parking deck could be limited.
Baywater was faced with the choice of increasing the density to accommodate the cost of underground parking or waiting several years for more market clarity. However, because the project’s density was directly tied to the overall cost of the project, pursuing a more affordable parking plan allowed for less above ground density as well. Left unable to find a satisfying solution with the existing development team, Genovese decided to hire local architect Bruce Beinfield to provide a new design for the Corbin Project.
“It’s a better plan,” Genovese said of Beinfield’s design, stating it simply before continuing.
“This project was at risk of feeling as if it felt out of the sky, but this feels more consistent with what’s around, so I think it’s better,” he said.
Beinfield’s design also brings added flexibility to the project. Because the large excavation needed for a two-level garage is no longer necessary, the project can be completed in phases. Rather than working to relocate local shops, they could be migrated between the completed portions of the development over time, keeping them close to their customers. Additionally, multiple levels of above ground parking housed at building E in the proposal diagram could be removed and refitted to create more retail or office space should the demand for parking decrease in the coming years.
Though the drastically changed plan fits under the guidelines of the Corbin subarea, the new Corbin Project team is working to amend the zone to add the other side of Corbin Drive including the Gulf gas station and Mathnasium buildings. While Baywater does not own those sites they have agreed to help the owners work to redevelop their properties to match the other proposed buildings.
The Planning & Zoning Commission will hear the amendment application from Baywater’s new Corbin Project team and discuss the updated proposal at their meeting tonight.