“Unique and cool” and “local and regional” are the criteria that developer David Genovese said he’s looking for when choosing businesses to go into the Corbin District, a mixed-use redevelopment to be built in downtown Darien.

Years of planning went into the project, which got the green light in November 2018.

When complete, the development, a 7.17-acre site spanning from Corbin Drive to the Bank of America building on Post Road, will include 32 stores, seven food businesses, and 80,000 square feet of office space.

The Darien Times recently met with Genovese, who is leading the project with his partner Penny Glassmeyer, to learn about his efforts to get new businesses for the district, the reasoning behind those efforts, and what those businesses are.

Businesses that will be going into the new development include Baubles, Helen Ainson, Morley, Shoes N More, Sunny Nails, Spiro the Cobbler, the Toy Box, and Everything is Rosey, as well as Coco and Lala, Barrett Bookstore, Cold Play Cryotherapy and EGG New York.

Getting feedback

To find out what businesses are unique and cool, Genovese asked for and received a lot of feedback from local residents.

In addition, he said he reached down to the younger generations and “drilled them” for information.

“I started meeting a lot of younger people in focus groups and asked them about what they wanted,” said Genovese, a father of four who grew up in town. He is president of Baywater Properties in Darien, a commercial real estate company serving Fairfield County, Westchester County and New York.

He also asked people their opinions on a website he created called yourdowntowndarien. On this site, he has occasionally asked questions such as “What restaurant do you want to see?”

“I get 500 ideas and I go chase these people down,” he said.

It’s happened about 100 times where he said he never thought of an idea but others have and have brought it to him. He would visit the business to “check it out,” Genovese said.

He added that people would often tell him they love a particular restaurant in New York City, and ask him if he can get the business to come to Darien.

One idea that came from the community is to create a co-working space for the nonprofits of Darien. The plan would be to give them each an office, but they will have a shared boardroom.

Work in progress

In deciding what will be a good fit for the area, Genovese and his team studied mixed use developments around the United States.

He currently keeps a working spreadsheet of all the tenants with whom he is negotiating.

“At the end of the day, this list is a reflection of all the people in Darien that have given us ideas,” he said. “It is a work in progress, constantly changing.”

Genovese said he learned that a lot of young people moved to Darien “because it isn’t so commercial.”

“We are trying to find this balance between the local, cool retailers and restaurants, and a New York cool,” he said.

He said he always keeps in mind that Darien’s downtown is not his developers’ downtown, but instead, it’s the residents’ downtown — and that’s the market he’s targeting.

“It’s their downtown, they identify with it and they care passionately about what happens here,” he said.

“Unique”

Each of the businesses Genovese is bringing into the Corbin District is unique and has a story to tell, he said.

One of them, Shoes N More, was 16 years in the making.

“From the very beginning when we started the Darien revitalization initiative, we heard from so many people that Darien needs a shoe store, so I have been calling [owner] Liz Elliot since 16 years ago,” Genovese said.

“He first approached me in 2003, and I had already opened in New Canaan,” said Liz Elliot, owner of Shoes N More.

However, Elliot said that she was growing her business in New Canaan so the timing wasn’t good.

“We stayed friendly through the years,” she said, and when she was ready, she told Genovese.

Aside from the new 1,600-square-foot Darien location, which opened Oct. 4, Shoes N More is also in New Canaan, Westport, and in Rye, Bronxville and Mount Kisco, N.Y.

Aside from shoes, Shoes N More sells handbags, jewelry, hats, jackets, sweaters, tops, and loungewear.

Elliot said that she sells items not found in department stores. She makes many of the shoes she sells, as well as travels to Europe to get them.

“We don’t do branded things. We source things that are unique for the contemporary clientele,” said Elliot, a Greenwich resident.

“You are not going to find our product online. It is only in our stores. You need to come in,” she added.

Competition

Genovese said he has been hearing more and more about the death of retail and the impact of the Internet on retail.

“We know it’s easier to go online but if you want a vibrant downtown, you have to support these people and shop locally,” he said.

He added that his emphasis is on local retail, and not a chain or national retail “because that’s what we thought from the beginning that people in Darien want,” he said.

Additionally, when the opening of The SoNo Collection mall in Norwalk was announced, Genovese said he was fearful he was competing against them.

“I wanted to elevate my game so I hired the fantastic team of marketing experts, Kim Walin and Anne Hardy, to help me present our story about what we see and what we are trying to do,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that our story was out while the SoNo mall was being leased because I didn’t want someone to commit to the mall because they didn’t know about us, and then say ‘Oh, I opened in Norwalk. I can’t come to Darien.’”

While there are tenants that the mall wanted that he wanted, “I think that we have won pretty much every time,” he said. “We are going to lease with a few people that the mall wanted to get.”

The plan

At a recent Representative Town Meeting, Genovese presented his plans for the Corbin District

“We started talking about this project in 2005. We acquired the first properties in 2007,” Genovese said. “It took us about 12 years to acquire all of the properties and it took us about three years to work through the various land use boards within the town.”

The project will be constructed in three phases, with phase one tentatively expected to begin in February 2020. Some businesses in the development will be temporarily moving and reopening at another location after it’s built.

“We’ve had people commit to us and go into these [temporary] spaces now, to secure a position [in the Corbin District],” he said.

The project is expected to be completed by 2022.

“We have shaken hands with several exciting new fitness and retail concepts and are going to lease with them,” Genovese said. “We are also in discussions with several restaurant groups from the region and from New York City. We will be making announcements as to these businesses’ commitment to Darien over the coming weeks.”

For more information, visit thecorbindistrict.com.

Watch the full RTM meeting on Darien TV79.

sfox@darientimes.com