After enduring a harsh critique of his preliminary plans for two new multi-family housing developments by Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), Wilton architect and developer Douglas Cutler entered another round of review with the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) last evening, July 12.
The P&Z meeting echoed many of the same themes heard during the ARB’s July 1 meeting, but this time, the emphasis was on Wilton’s zoning regulations.
The two projects hardly conform to any of Wilton’s regulations for building height, density and setbacks, but since both proposals would invoke the Connecticut affordable housing statute 8-30g, the developer is not bound to conform to all of those requirements.
Still, the developer voluntarily engaged in the pre-application review, asking for “candid feedback” on the concepts before submitting a formal application.
Detailed pre-application documents, including a narrative overview and site plans, can be found on the town website.
About the Developments
The two developments can be briefly described as follows:
- 24 Danbury Rd.: a mixed-use building near the intersection of Kent Rd., with 89 residential units (15 studio, 47 one-bedroom and 27 two-bedroom residences) on five floors above 3,700 square feet of grade-level retail space (potentially including a café); also planned is grade-level parking for 100 cars
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- 221 Danbury Rd.: a residential building just south of Our Lady of Fatima church/school complex, with 150 units (15 studio, 75 one-bedroom and 60 two-bedroom residences) on five floors over grade-level and underground parking for 214 cars
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Both buildings would have 30% of the units designated as “affordable” housing. In each development, 15% of the apartments would be for tenants earning up to 80% of the area median income, and another 15% of the apartments would draw the line at 60% of the area median income.
Cutler readily conceded that the two projects would not comply with Wilton’s existing zoning regulations.
“8-30g affords me rights that I otherwise may not have under the old regulations,” Cutler said.
Instead, Cutler touted other advantages of the two buildings, namely their “green” features, including rooftop solar panels, rooftop garden/patio areas, electric vehicle charging stations, and other energy-efficient features.
He strongly believes the buildings will appeal to a younger market, are on-trend with changing live/work lifestyles, and will help achieve the town’s goal of increased housing diversity.
But even beyond that, Cutler views the two projects as solving what he called “a crisis” that now exists in Wilton for owners of retail and office space. He shared a slide (below) showing several Danbury Rd. properties that are eyesores, and where he believes current regulations may be a stranglehold on the owners’ ability to improve the sites.
Commission chair Rick Tomasetti did not entirely disagree with Cutler’s premise. In fact, he called it “the real headline” he wanted to emerge from the meeting, i.e., that many of Wilton’s buildings along Danbury Rd. are far from ideal. He lamented that master planning would only go so far if business owners fail to optimize their own properties.
In contrast, Cutler says his plans will significantly improve the two sites. “I’m making a sincere improvement with this. I think there’s a sincere benefit on many levels,” he said.
Where Tomasetti disagreed with Cutler was whether the two buildings envisioned by Cutler represent a good solution to Wilton’s development needs on Danbury Rd.
Tomasetti was prepared with several points for Cutler to consider in a potential future application for both sites, including:
- “Market metrics”: Tomasetti urged Cutler to offer some evidence that what is being proposed will meet the test in the marketplace, e.g., what is driving the size and scale of the buildings, and the mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom units
- “Life safety,” with questions about emergency vehicle access, ingress/regress, and other safety issues
- Dedicated loading spaces
- Amenities: Noting that the two buildings seemed sparse on amenities, Tomasetti questioned whether the buildings would really appeal to prospective tenants (and for 24 Danbury Rd., why retail space was chosen in lieu of indoor amenities)
As with the ARB, the P&Z commissioners found fault with many aspects of the concepts Cutler presented, but the discussion tended to stay above the fray, focusing on more strategic questions rather than nit-picking plan details.
Tomasetti’s overarching concern boiled down to the degree to which 8-30g was driving the proposed plans.
“I’m highly concerned that this 8-30g statute is being used kind of as a weapon, to force some kind of super density onto the community. And you’re not really regarding the neighboring properties or citizens of Wilton,” Tomasetti told Cutler.
He challenged the developer to consider scaling back rather than “super-maxing” the plans.
“I think you should really look at something that’s a more realistic version, even if it is 8-30g,” Tomasetti said. “I think you’re just super-maxing this thing. When you look at the number of units per acre here, I’d love to see some comparative example of other 8-30gs in similar communities that show this number of units on smaller properties like this, because I think [these] are pretty super-sized.”
At the same time, Tomasetti was vocal about the commission’s openness to consider zoning concessions in the interest of achieving good development.
“We’re looking to enhance the diversity of the housing stock in Wilton. We’ve had a really good dialogue in our community about where, and the types of housing we need on the Danbury Rd. corridor and in our commercial zones. And I’m concerned that you might have missed that chapter of Wilton’s planning… where everybody was kind of saying, ‘You can’t do anything.’ We have been willing to listen to what the owners and developers have been telling us. We’re understanding that our regulations are in need of reform, and we’ve been desirous of the same. I would urge you to have a closer look at that and come back with something that is more in keeping with what we’ve been discussing here in our community,” he told Cutler.
Cutler seemed encouraged by Tomasetti’s comments, echoed by commissioner Christopher Pagliaro, who said the criticisms of the plans were not “anti-development.”
What the commissioners felt was lacking in Cutler’s proposals was vision, as Tomasetti explained.
“We’re looking for vision. We’re looking to have more visionary architecture that is forward-thinking, and projects that are forward-thinking, and not just reactive to 8-30g.”
Tomasetti continued: “I would urge you to be more visionary and really think outside the box. I’m concerned that you just have used the 8-30g as the rationale for gaining greater density.”
“I know you can do better,” Tomasetti said.