Top 10 stories of 2017: Number 2— Redevelopment fever at Noroton Heights

A sketch of the Federal Realty’s planned development, The Commons at Noroton Heights from July

The largest local development story of 2017 will not break ground until later this year, but Darien should get ready for a major transformation at Noroton Heights. The town’s Planning & Zoning Commission approved two redevelopment project in the district, one for a new Noroton Shopping Center proposed by the owner’s of Palmer’s Market, and the other for a new development called The Commons, proposed by Federal Reality. Both projects will incorporate mixed-use development, bringing more than 170 new apartments to the neighborhood while expanding the existing retail and restaurant space in the area.
Noroton Heights has long been a target for redevelopment, with town officials identifying the neighborhood as a focus in the 2016 update of the Town Plan of Conservation and Development. The smaller apartments provided by the mixed-use developments also provide new housing stock for Darien residents without children. Officials had expressed concerns that aging Darien residents were often choosing to move to nearby towns due to a lack of diverse housing.
Through public hearings for the Noroton Heights projects there was a shared sentiment that the existing shopping district had grown outdated with few walkable routes around the district and difficult traffic conditions during peak hours. Developers have cooperated with the commission to help restructure the area in a way to prepare for the influx of new residents and protect the existing neighbors.
“It was extremely important to us to create something that would be well received by those living in the Noroton Heights neighborhood, and would be looked upon as a net positive for Darien,” James Palmer said during previous public hearings.
Palmer said the Noroton Heights Shopping Center application was the culmination of five years of work and the development team approached the project with the idea of modernizing the shopping center. The application’s 3.96 acre site area stretches roughly from Palmer’s Market to Glenn Liquors. Noroton Heights’ existing buildings reflect their 1950s origins and Palmer described the site as anti-pedestrian. With street facing parking and several large parking lots Palmer said the shopping center was designed for cars rather than walking shoppers.
One of the project’s goals is to give the Noroton Heights area a new sense of place by redeveloping the area in the style of a village. This includes new public plaza spaces and a complete restructuring of the shopping center’s traffic flow. Representatives for the shopping center have said the new village would have a pedestrian focus and seeks to capitalize on the proximity of the Noroton Heights train station.
In order to redevelop the site, the building housing Jimmy’s Southside Tavern, Greenlight Driving School, Barrett Bookstore and more would be demolished. Two mixed-use buildings with first floor retail and upper floor apartments would be developed in its place. A total of 57 new one and two bedroom apartments have been proposed for the project, along with 24,481 square feet of retail space and 8,646 square feet of restaurant space.
The shopping center’s redevelopment would coincide with the construction of The Commons at Noroton Heights, a mixed-use development that will bring 122 new apartments and a retail makeover to the portion of Noroton Heights containing Stop & Shop & Walgreens. The Commons will introduce two three-story buildings with retail and restaurant space occupying the lower level and residential space on the second and third floors, as well as two single story retail structures. An underground parking deck would also be added to provide additional spaces for residents.
The Commons would continue the emphasis shared community spaces, with a new park planned along Noroton Avenue and several areas for outside seating and public gatherings. The entrance at Heights Road would also include a public plaza and promenade leading to the heart of the development. The Commons will host about 30,000 more feet of retail and restaurant space than the existing shopping area.
Because Noroton Heights is located in a flood zone the commission asked the developers to go above and beyond the standard expectations to improve water drainage. Federal Realty has committed to installing multiple underground culverts to store water during major storms, and expects flooding incidents to go down by about 45 percent. Traffic studies conducted as a part of the project will also lead adjustments of the lanes and traffic light timings in order to facilitate the increase in traffic. Town peer reviewers cosigned Federal’s plans for parking, flood mitigation and traffic.
The area remains a priority for the town’s infrastructure improvements with an ongoing access study being conducted by a consultant and the active replacement of the Noroton Heights train station platform. Department of Public Works Director Ed Gentile has said the town is still reviewing options to install a culvert and improve drainage in the area as well.