Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) met on July 1 to conduct a pre-application review for two multi-family housing developments on Danbury Rd.
For nearly one hour and 45 minutes, the ARB delivered a scathing review of the two proposals for what it saw as ill-conceived planning and sub-par architectural design. The recorded Zoom meeting can be seen in its entirety on the town website.
Though zoning does not fall under the ARB’s purview, the board was also critical of the developer’s complete disregard for Wilton’s zoning standards and regulations, most egregiously in terms of building height, density and setbacks.
However, the developments would not be subject to those types of zoning regulations, as both proposals would invoke the Connecticut affordable housing statute 8-30g.
Still, the developer voluntarily engaged in the pre-application review — an opportunity to share preliminary plans and get non-binding feedback from town officials before submitting a formal proposal — while touting the plans for advancing the town’s goal of increased housing diversity, achieving “green” benefits and generally being on trend with changing live/work lifestyles.
Detailed pre-application documents, including a narrative overview and site plans, can be found on the town website.
About the Developments
As conceptually presented by Wilton architect Douglas Cutler on behalf of his company, Better Environments, LLC, (which owns the properties), the plans for the two developments are as follows:
- 24 Danbury Rd.: a mixed-use building 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
- 221 Danbury Rd.: a residential building 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
Both buildings are envisioned to have several “green” features, including rooftop solar panels, rooftop garden/patio areas, electric vehicle charging stations, and other energy-efficient features, taking advantage of the incentives provided by the federal 179D energy tax credit program (which requires buildings to have a minimum of five stories).
Cutler says forward-looking features like a drone landing pad on the roof will reduce dependence on cars by facilitating the delivery of goods to tenants.
In each of the developments, 15% of the apartments would be deed-restricted as “affordable” for tenants earning up to 80% of the area median income, and another 15% of the apartments would draw the line at a maximum of 60% of the area median income.
24 Danbury Rd.
The property at 24 Danbury Rd. is located near the intersection of Danbury Rd. and Kent Rd., just south of the Little Pub restaurant. The 12,500-sq.ft. commercial building currently on the site would be torn down and replaced with a nearly 47,000-sq.ft. complex.
The adjoining property at the rear, 26A Danbury Rd., where there is currently a small home, would add to the lot’s size, and would be used mainly for a parking area.
In the course of questioning by ARB member John Doyle, the developer noted that the Little Pub was omitted from a key rendering (below). The Little Pub is actually located in what appears as a vacant paved area in the lower-left corner:
The Little Pub can be seen in an aerial rendering the developer provided (below), but the ARB was left to imagine what the visual impact would be from street level, with the Little Pub to the front/left of the proposed building and the Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County office to the right.
Both ARB chair Rob Sanders and vice chair Sam Gardner challenged Cutler to justify the sheer size and density of the structure. While emphasizing they did not object to modern architecture or flat roof construction or even the residential use in a business district, they both felt the architecture was out of step with town’s interests, despite what appears in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
“The rationale for how you got to this building seems to cherry-pick a variety of initiatives that are talked about in the POCD, like diversity and affordability and environmental, but… those things don’t necessarily lead to this [design],” Gardner told Cutler.
Sanders added there were any number of design directions Cutler could have chosen, and added, “If the mission is to provide diversity of housing opportunities, it does not demand this building type or configuration.”
Cutler responded that without the density proposed, the economics of the project are simply “not feasible.”
He further suggested that the building’s “green” benefits outweighed what he considered outmoded zoning regulations.
Sanders called that a “convoluted” and “tortured argument” given the density and coverage of the development. “If you look at the composed area of asphalt versus the replacement area of your green roof… you’re fooling yourself by saying, putting some plants on the roof of this building mitigates the site development that’s proposed.”
The ARB was only just getting started with its criticisms.
Referring to the residential stories above the ground floor retail space, Sanders said, “[It] doesn’t strike me as an integrated architecture. It looks like there was a one-story, white box with storefront, and then somebody built a new building on it that came from a completely different place. There is no relationship between the materials on the base and the materials above it.”
Sanders viewed it as “slices of materials that just seem to change arbitrarily from floor to floor to floor [and] don’t serve anything that gives the building a unity, or an attractiveness.”
He added, “It’s just a pile.”
Cutler defended the modern architecture as appealing to a younger age target. The ARB members insisted that their objection was not to modern architecture, merely bad architecture.
“Junk modern is junk,” said Sanders. “If we’re going to take Wilton in the direction of these buildings that have a more contemporary format, terrific. But they had better be good buildings. There’s plenty of junk modern.”
He cited the proposal by the Connecticut Humane Society for a new facility at 863 Danbury Road as an example of modern architecture which the ARB fully embraced.
While ARB member Laura Perese repeatedly applauded the plans for their green initiatives, she agreed with her fellow board members on the architecture proposed by Cutler.
“It definitely looks like an island floating on a tarmac … I think the landscape could really be amplified a lot more,” Perese said.
Among the litany of other issues raised by the ARB were questions about the alignment of the building’s main entrance with the Kent Rd. intersection, along with concerns about the circulation of traffic in and out of the property. To reach the rear parking lot, cars (and for that matter, emergency vehicles and moving trucks) must pass underneath the building.
221 Danbury Rd.
Nearly all of the criticisms the ARB aimed at 24 Danbury Road also applied to 221 Danbury Rd.
The property is located just south of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy, across from the Wilton Historical Society. Currently, there is an 11,600 square foot commercial building on the one-acre site.
Even more so than 24 Danbury Rd., the 221 Danbury Rd. proposal elicited the ARB’s concerns about the context of the design.
ARB members pointed out that the Wilton Historical Society (across the street) and the Our Lady of Fatima church/school complex (just to the north), along with the new development in progress at 200 Danbury Rd (seen below), and yet another approved project at 300 Danbury Rd., should be part of the contextual considerations for 221 Danbury Rd.
In terms of the ARB’s mandate to consider “the harmony of design character with the community and surrounding areas, as well as relationship of buildings to the site and adjoining context, and landscape treatment,” Perese said, “I don’t think that any of these particular items have been considered at all in this.”
Gardner agreed, highlighting “the intensity of the front facade” which he described as “a really tough facade facing the street directly across from the campus of the Historical Society.”
While he insisted not all new architecture needs to hearken back to colonial times, Gardner said it shouldn’t detract from Wilton’s historical assets either, and instead should preserve and promote them, according to his reading of the POCD. “It seems like this [proposal] is really shaking a fist at all that.”
Similarly, Sanders described the building’s mass as “aggressive.”
“The whole thing is unresponsive to context. And while you can have larger massing, you can also be responsive to context,” he said.
The board made several suggestions to the developer for ways that might make the building less imposing to passers-by and “open it up” to the surroundings.
One suggestion was to consider an inverted “L” shape, which could create an inviting view and entry to the north-facing facade, in a way that would “embrace” surrounding properties. Board members were critical of the proposed plan’s lobby entry opening onto Danbury Rd. (“Nobody’s hopping out of a cab there,” said one), as well as the design of the central atrium, which they did not believe would function as proposed. The board suggested removing that space would allow alternative building designs that might not present as monolithic.
Perese summarized her thoughts on the two projects in a way she hoped would encourage the applicant to step up the quality of the plans.
“I think, especially looking at [the ARB’s] mandate here of ensuring the design of the buildings is in harmony with the character of the community and is a high quality, thereby promoting desirable development in Wilton, [this is an] opportunity to really raise the quality level of what we’re seeing, and to be able to celebrate the green and celebrate the 8-30g element and all of these things that we all collectively really want for our community. But just because we all really want them for the community doesn’t mean that we need to just slap something together and throw it up for the sake of it. We just really hope that we can help you in raising the quality of that for Wilton.”