COVID delayed Darien’s Noroton Heights project, but it just got an OK for more housing, less retail

DARIEN — The town’s vision of a fully-remodeled Noroton Heights Shopping Center has gotten approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The only remaining piece that needs the commission’s OK is whether a daycare center will be part of the final plan.

Headed by the Palmer family, which owns Palmer’s Market, the project at 346 Heights Road involves remodeling the entire shopping center and transforming it into a mixed-use development site complete with restaurants, retail and residential units.

Though work on the site began in December 2019, progress has been stalled because of pandemic delays, officials have said.

During their Tuesday meeting, the Planning and Zoning commission considered the project’s application in its entirety before approving the resolution that gives developers the nod to go ahead.

“This is something that started five years ago,” commission chair Stephen Olvany said. “This is the third crack at it. We want to get this thing locked down.”

The resolution notes that there are 65 residential units proposed for the development — an increase from an original target of 59 — along with what Planning and Zoning staff member Fred Doneit called a “fairly notable” reduction in restaurant and retail uses.

In accordance with current housing laws, the developer will be required to provide at least 10 affordable units, with the option to provide an 11th affordable unit.

“It used to be significantly retail,” Olvany said. He noted that the project now includes 16,000 square feet of retail, down from the 33,000 square feet of retail use first proposed in the original 2017 application.

The project also includes a public plaza spanning more than 10,000 square feet.

On Tuesday, some commission members debated parking space allocations for the new project. Currently, developers have proposed attaching an above-ground parking structure to one of the two new buildings that would be built in order to accommodate 395 commercial and 117 residential parking spaces.

The project also includes a bike rack that would be located in a designated room in one of the two new buildings on-site.

Commissioners also asked that green screening that currently surrounds the existing site be maintained or improved.

“It looks horrible,” commission member Cara Gately said. “It needs to be improved. The amount of calls and emails that I receive about this...(the screening) has to be secured and around the entire place.”

More than 11,000 square feet in the development could be allotted to a new childcare center. The construction of a new branch of the Goddard School, an early childhood learning center, is also up before the commission as a separate application requiring a special permit. If approved, the childcare center would serve 152 students across 13 classrooms.

The commission will likely vote on The Goddard School at its next meeting, which will be held in-person at Town Hall on April 5.