‘It’s been quite a year’: Darien first selectman reflects on town projects, life since COVID-19

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson gave the Chamber of Commerce an update on all things Darien recently via Zoom.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson gave the Chamber of Commerce an update on all things Darien recently via Zoom.

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DARIEN —The longtime Noroton Heights redevelopment project that has been on hold is expected to see a light at the end of the tunnel soon, according to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.

Stevenson gave an update on that and other redevelopment projects, along with the status of many other town Darien-related topics at a recent State of the Town discussion coordinated by the Darien Chamber of Commerce. She said the project should resume work within the next six months.

The project will consist of remodeling the entirety of the Noroton Heights Shopping Center, as well as the Noroton Heights Train Station. The project would add residential units to the upper stories. There are three stories in the development — the first floor is all restaurants and retail and the other floors are all apartments.

Neighbors have expressed frustration with the stalled project, which broke ground in December 2019, and some have filed complaints with the town’s Blight Board.

In the summer, Jim Palmer, whose family owns Palmer’s Market, confirmed the project is “on a pause for the time being.”

At that time, Steve Olvany, chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, said the work has stopped due to COVID-19.

Olvany added that in some cases, construction lenders can withhold funds of construction money if there is a pandemic or COVID situation. In late January, Jeremy Ginsberg, the town’s Planning & Zoing Department director, said he had spoken to Palmer who said they were hoping to start late this spring.

Meanwhile, a neighboring development, the Federal Realty project, is making progress. Stevenson said the new Walgreen’s should be open in the spring. As part of that project, Federal Realty placed a large rainwater retention tank under the project to mitigate flooding on Heights Road. Other accompanying improvements associated with the project include sidewalks on the streets surrounding it, including West Avenue, Noroton Avenue and Height Road, as well as new signals and some crosswalks.

Also as part of the upgrades to the area, the Noroton Heights Train Station, directly across the street, is expected to have improvements and a pedestrian walkway to make it easy for train passengers to access the new developments.

The Corbin District is also proceeding on schedule, Stevenson said, as well as the redevelopment of the old Darien Playhouse on the Post Road. The Corbin District will be a mixed-use redevelopment spanning from Corbin Drive to the Bank of America building on Post Road. Stevenson said these redevelopments, plus an urge for city dwellers to relocate after the pandemic, have been a silver lining to the last year’s struggles. She said Darien has become an attractive location for residential and commercial real estate buyers.

The Darien Train Station is also scheduled for some new platforms proposed by the state Department of Transportation and the town is partnering to add more commuter shelters.

“Right now, ridership is down 90 percent across Metro-North. I do think commuting will come back, but not entirely. I think people are enjoying working from home,” she said.

Stevenson said all of the combined projects in town should be completed by 2023, which “seems like a long time away, but will be here before you know it.”

Stevenson was also asked about the proposed 7-Eleven at the current Duchess property. She said she has received only negative feedback from the town on it, and said Planning & Zoning still has some time before they make a decision.

However, she cautioned that “Planning & Zoning cannot deny a project simply because people don’t want it here.”

The commission needs to make its decision based on legal reasons, such as issues of safety, which she said have been raised. However, she said if the project is denied, it is still likely it may end up in court.

Stevenson also addressed the impact of COVID-19 — members of her own family struggled with the virus — and thanked the business owners for encouraging safey measures including masks and social distancing.

“I know this has been super hard for you,” she said.

Stevenson said that the town of Darien has ultimately “fared very well through this pandemic.” She mentioned efforts to help small businesses included the town’s property tax deferral program for the second time.

“It’s been quite a year. Hopefully a once in a lifetime that we are facing a global pandemic,” she said.

As of last weekend, Stevenson said out of the 22,000 Darien residents, the town has had a little over 970 cases from 650 households. She said the data shows the cases are mostly due to household and small gathering spreading versus in schools or local businesses. The town has also had 27 hospitalizations and eight deaths of residents with COVID-19.

Stevenson specified these deaths were patients with COVID-19 as it isn’t clear whether the patients died of the virus, just that they tested positive for it.

Stevenson said it was a people are really struggling with isolation and a lack of socialization with their peers,” she said.

Another positive she said she has seen is Darien residents are re-discovering the outdoors, whether the beaches, or parks, or just out walking. Stevenson said that inspired the Board of Selectmen to include enhancements to outdoor spaces in its current budget process.

The COVID-19 process has also strengthened community collaborations with nonprofits as well her relationship with fellow town leaders across the region and state.To that end, Stevenson said the town is looking at increased effective communications from Town Hall and encouraged all to sign up for her weekly Code Red messages.

Stevenson also addressed highlights from the upcoming legislative session that she felt might impact Darien.

A proposed legislation for a state-wide property tax by Senate President Martin Looney and another proposing an increase on the capital gains tax would both impact Darien negatively.

“It’s estimated that there could be an additional $5 million tax burden on Darien if that goes through. It is something to be mindful of. We need to look all in on our tax burden on residents,” she said.

Stevenson also addressed proposals by Desegregate CT, which would allow the state to take control of some local zoning decisions. Some of the proposals would be multifamly housing within a certain area of commercial corridors like the Post Road or transit areas, like the town’s two train stations, would be built “as of right.”

As of right, she said, means no public hearing process is required, as has been the previous practice.

She the housing would be two- to four-family sizes, and the policies would also eliminate minimum parking requirements which would result in more street parking.

Stevenson said she’s been on a task force regarding these proposals and has had the ability to work directly with and give feedback to Sara Bronin, the head of Desegregate CT.

“I’ve offered ideas to help modify this proposal to make it more digestible for small towns like Darien,” she said.

Stevenson said the risk is the ultimate urbanization of Darien, which she said is not why people move to the town and not why small businesses open. She said she can think of areas in town where these projects might work, and others they wouldn’t.

“I’m trying to strike the right balance to make this appropriate for Darien,” Stevenson said.