Darien considers converting office space into new child care center

File photo of Darien Town Hall

File photo of Darien Town Hall

Tom Wolfe for New Canaan News / Tom Wolfe for New Canaan News

DARIEN — Officials are considering turning an old office building on Tokeneke Road into a child care center, something some Planning and Zoning Commission members said would help meet a need in town.

A formal application isn’t before the commission just yet, though the members informally discussed the possibility with the likely applicant, Higher Ground Education, at a recent meeting.

“We’re pretty excited to come to Connecticut,” said Jocelyn Scotty, Higher Ground’s vice president of operations. “This is the first time that we’ll be coming into this state but we have lots of experience in other states and opening schools there.”

Higher Ground Education is a network of 89 Montessori schools domestically and internationally that offer services at different age levels, spanning up to high school. It owns and operates all of its schools. The Darien site would serve children from birth to age 6, Scotty said.

“Higher Ground Education’s mission is to modernize and mainstream the international Montessori movement,” according to the group’s website. “We want to make a Montessori education accessible to children and families, no matter where they are.”

Montessori is a type of learning focused on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.

The proposal would be for the school to move into 76 Tokeneke Road, however one obstacle is that this use isn’t allowed under the current zoning for that area.

“This is a little office building that has been used as an office building since it was built back around 2000 or so,” said Robert Maslan, an attorney representing Higher Ground Education.

He said they are considering a few different approaches that could address the zoning issue. The first would be to change the zoning for this lot from deisgnated commercial to designated office, which is the same zoning as the lots across the street and across the turnpike.

Some commission members said they would want the whole corner to be changed if that’s done, rather than shoehorning this one property, which would mean the deli there would also change. The problem is that delis wouldn’t be allowed under the office zoning designation.

The other option is to keep it as is and change the approved uses under the designated commercial zoning to allow child care centers.

Maslan cautioned this could open up the possibility of having a school in the center of Goodwives Shopping Center and questioned if that was what the town wanted.

“We’ll think about that further and discuss it with staff,” Maslan said.

The proposal for the school includes two classrooms, restrooms and an office on the first floor with a staircase and elevator in the center. The upper floor would have another two classrooms with their own restrooms. The basement would have a staff room and small staff kitchen.

Maslan said the children would be dropped off and picked up so that parking should work based on the current projections.

“Right now we’re thinking 11 staff and 73 students, requiring 19 spaces,” Maslan said.

There are 22 proposed parking spaces and a turnaround area.

He said since it’s a child care center, it would have to be licensed by the state and be in compliance with all of those requirements, including student-to-teacher ratios and the interior layout.

Jennifer Leahy, the vice chairperson for the commission, said she was a full-time working, single mother for a long time and having this option would “have been amazing.”

“This is a very needed service in Darien,” she said.

Leahy said a lack of child care options is one of the biggest complaints she hears while selling real estate in Darien and surrounding towns.

“I hope that we can make this work and you can figure out parking and traffic,” she said.

Commission members are giving their informal thoughts to town staff about the proposal, who will in turn offer some guidance to Maslan before a formal application is submitted.