Parking was the hot issue of the Planing & Zoning Commission’s public hearing last week on a proposal to redevelop the Darien Playhouse property into retail and apartments.

The property, at 1077 Boston Post Road, is called Darien Place and is managed by Jon Vaccaro, who has done previous development in town.

See more here: After a century: New development at property will close Darien Playhouse

The public hearing closed and deliberations took place on Tuesday, where it was decided that Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg will write up a draft resolution for approval of a shared parking lot, and then come back to the commission on a future night.

Background

The property shares parking with 1127 Boston Post Road, which is the Darien Sport Shop, as well as 1110 Boston Post Road, which is Webster Bank.

At a recent Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, details of the proposal to reconfigure the shared parking lot adjacent to the rear of the building, including adding seven new parking spaces, were discussed at length.

The details involve converting the first floor into three retail storefronts and converting the second floor to four new one-bedroom apartments.

Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Steve Olvany and Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg were the only members physically present at the three-hour meeting. All others participated remotely.

Property owners within 100 feet of the property were notified about the plans through regular mail.

According to attorney Amy Zabetakis of the Rucci Law Group in Darien, the renovation will be at the back half of the building, along with some site improvements.

“We are going to be creating about 4,350 square feet of retail space on the first floor,” she said.

The current theater is 5,787 square feet.

The Darien Place purchased this property in December of 2019.

“Before that, that movie theater had been struggling. The movie theater officially made the decision to close its doors and does not plan to reopen as of March,” she added.

Proposed changes include adding storefronts and expanding the sidewalk — “making it more pedestrian friendly,” said a project architect during the meeting.

There would also be new windows on the second floor of the apartments, and the roof would be improved as well as the landscaping, according to Zabetakis.

“The idea is to try to make a more vibrant retail community that allows walkability all through the area, and will create more foot traffic downtown,” she said.

Written letters of support for the project have been submitted by downtown developer Dan Dolcetti, former Planning & Zoning Commissioner Reese Hutchinson, and Darien Sport Shop owner Gina Zangrillo.

Parking

Parking lot crowding was discussed at length at last week’s meeting.

There are approximately 183 parking spaces that currently exist in the playhouse lot. With the proposed development, there would be an increase of four spaces.

An architect said when predicting parking, he relies upon data that’s available on a national level.

However, others said parking shouldn’t be based upon national averages since Darien “is kind of unique.”

To predict parking, some said that a lot more weight should be based on the experiences of the businesses that use the lot currently.

There was a discussion that, due to COVID-19, the actual need for parking is going to be lower than it was before.

“The usage they will have ongoing is less than they need currently,” an architect said.

The movie theater had approximately 100 parkers, according to Zabetakis.

“It’s a shared parking agreement that has existed since 1954. This change from a movie theater to these retail establishments and a few residential apartments is what’s causing the over-parking situation in this lot,” she said. “We are taking an almost 6,000-square-foot theater and turning it into about 4,000-square-feet of retail.”

Analyzing demand

Corbin District Project Developer David Genovese said he’s in strong favor of the proposed development being approved.

“They are great improvements and are consistent with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, and will improve the 360 degree character of some of the buildings in downtown,” he said.

In regard to the parking issue, however, he said that he thought some of the prior speakers are “fundamentally missing the point in proper analysis of the situation.”

He said parking demands have evolved over the years in town — and have substantially grown.

When you overburden a private lot, customers of these businesses get pushed out into neighboring property lots and there are not sufficient parking spaces in the municipal lots to handle the overflow parking.

“By 2015, the municipal parking lots in downtown Darien had become pretty full.

“Over time, there has been a very, very significant change in the parking demand generated by the tenants,” Genovese said.

He said there was a shared parking agreement that was predicated upon the idea that the movie theater demand is happening only at night, whereas retail businesses are only open during the day. So, there is “complimentary demand,” he said.

In regard to Zabetakis’ point that demand is being reduced from the change from a movie theater to three retail spaces and a couple of apartments, Genovese said, “what her comments failed to make is that movie theater demand is only happening at night.”

He further said that some of the businesses which closed in the development had done very little business, while the newer businesses in the complex have much more business, and therefore much more parking demand.

He used Posh Spa, Center Restaurant, and Cafe Nero as examples of very busy stores.

When “looking at the whole picture,” he said “it’s clear that the demand for parking from these uses — is way in excess of what’s provided on the site,” Genovese said. “That excess demand is going into our properties, the municipal lots, that are basically full, and it’s causing a mess.”

Genovese continued: “Given that, you shouldn’t be making decisions based on marginal parking analysis, in my opinion. It leads you to a dangerous place, and it’s not fair.”

He suggested looking into creating an opportunity to create more employee parking.

Watch the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Darien TV/79.

sfox@darientimes.com